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Where eagles dare

If you have a head for heights and a passion for dogfights, join the Indian Air Force and become a fighter pilot, says Vimal Chander Joshi.

education Updated: Nov 25, 2009 10:30 IST
Vimal Chander Joshi

During the Indo-Pak war in 1971, fighter pilot Karamveer Vashishth (now retired Indian Air Force Wing Commander) did not have much time to think of anything but manoeuvring his France-built Mystere MK IV A aircraft over one of the most vulnerable cross-national borders in the world — at times a mere 50 feet over terra firma. Daredevilry and laser focus saw him through.

“There has to be an extremely accurate co-ordination of eyes, ears, mind and hand,” says Vashishth, describing what it takes to be a fighter pilot. “You have to have an incisive gaze and be able to gauge danger from a long distance. There is no room for error. If that happens, you won’t be given a second chance.”

Life for men who fly in a war is fraught with excitement and thrills — the adrenaline rush cannot be written or talked about, just felt.

“Even if you fly a single-seater aircraft, you must co-ordinate with your colleagues with cutting-edge perfection,” says Air Marshal (retd) ML Sethi, who joined the IAF in 1950 to “serve the country and learn to be a good team member in the forces”.

This career is all about constant learning. A pilot needs in-depth knowledge of all types of aircraft he flies and deals with subjects like aerodynamics, principles of flight, avionics, airframe, aero-engine and combat tactics.

You will definitely live an interesting life — one that is comfortable, too, especially when you are not flying. You get a posting at one base for around two years, and at each place, you are given a semi-furnished house (very senior ranking officers get fully-furnished houses). After an ‘air-borne’ day, one unwinds in the pool or plays squash, cricket or tennis at an Air Force club.

“Life is full of fun,” says Air Commodore (retd) Mohit Nayyar, who now works for a commercial airline. “You get ample time to socialise with the Air Force family. It’s far better than the civilian life I am leading now.”

Academically, too, you can gain. Joining the forces as a graduate or undergraduate, you can continue studying. Up to two years’ study leave is allowed. Besides university education, you should study defence and international journals and books.

The knowledge amassed while in service is handy for a second career — most officers retire at 54 unless they reach the top rungs. One of the best and paying options is to become a commercial airline pilot, or, like Air Marshal (retd) SR Deshpande, become a writer in a specialised field. “Thanks to their management abilities and disciplined approach, defence officers stand a good chance of being absorbed in the private sector,” says Deshpande. “Retired officers can now join as middle- and top-level managers in corporate firms. They can also teach or become consultants.”

An IAF pilot is trained in air-to-air combat while flying a fighter plane. His/her job entails accomplishing a mission, which includes attacking the enemy’s base or rescuing soldiers/civilians.

He will also be required to perform some peace-keeping missions on and off. Some air force pilots fly a crew to carry out bombing missions and/or deliver supplies. But the majority of trained pilots are put in combat roles

Clock Work
7.30 am: Mission briefing
8.30 am: Breakfast
9 am: Check meteorological forecasts and current weather with the ATC (air
traffic control) and signals
9.30 am: Check the aircraft and carry out administrative and operational requirements
of the mission
11 am: Leave for ‘mission’ — in this case, a mock combat organised as part of an
IAF ‘exercise’
11.30 am: Follow up with colleagues on radio for status check

Noon-2 pm: Carry out flying exercises
3 pm: Post-landing checks and formalities
5 pm: Fly back
6 pm: Spend time with ‘buddies’ in the mess

The Payoff
The pay is between Rs 37,244 a month (for a Flying Officer) and Rs 75,081 (for an Air Commodore). There are five rungs in between, and there is a big jump in pay, about Rs 18,000, from Squadron Leader to Wing Commander. These are the gross monthly emoluments, including allowances. Over and above this, pilots earn flying pay of Rs 9,000-Rs 14,000 pm, depending on rank. They are also entitled to accommodation, insurance cover, medical facilities and loans to buy house, car and computer

. Technical acumen as engineering aspects must be learnt before flying an aircraft
. Ability to handle challenges and make split-second decisions under pressure
. Leadership qualities, as an officer handles a team that needs to remain motivated at
all times

How do i get there?
There are four entry points to become an IAF pilot — three in permanent commission and one in temporary commission. These are:

NDA (National Defence Academy): Meant for 10+2 candidates who have studied physics and maths at 10+2 level

CDSE (Combined Defence Services Exam): For graduates who studied physics and maths at 10+2 level

NCC entry: Open only to first-class graduates who studied physics and maths at 10+2 level and who possess senior division air wing NCC ‘C’ certificate

Short-service commission entry:
Open to first-class graduates who studied physics and maths at 10+2 level

Note: Women can join the IAF through short-service commission only. The maximum age for applying is 23 in all the above categories, except NDA, where the maximum age is 19

Institutes & urls
Though cadets undergo three years’ training at the National Defence Academy, flying is taught at the five academies mentioned below:

. Air Force Academy, Dundigal, Andhra Pradesh
. AFA, Bidar, Karnataka
. AFA, Hakimpet, Secunderabad
. Basic Flying Training School, Allahabad
. Transport Training Wing, Yelahanka, Bangalore

Pros & Cons
. You are one of the safeguards of the nation
. You live an exciting life and get to handle beautiful flying machines
. A great lifestyle, thanks to clubs and numerous sports facilities at IAF bases
. Even after joining the IAF as an officer, you will not get a chance to fly until you
qualify in some key examinations

You get the best of both worlds

A former air marshal ML Sethi talks about life in the elite force

What’s the best thing about being an IAF pilot?
It’s an extremely challenging and responsible job. You have to learn to be on your own. In some squadrons, one has to master night flying, with all take-offs happening after sunset and landings before sunrise. An officer has to undergo several tests and eliminations before s/he is put in a flying role. Others have to settle in the allied areas.

Is life too monotonous in the Air Force for a social person?
That’s not true. You get ample time for relaxation and recreation. One has the mess where young officers play squash, tennis or go swimming. One attends parties and does almost everything that one would do in civilian life.

Are there good educational opportunities in the IAF?
There are many avenues of study. I joined as an undergraduate, but when I retired, I was a double postgraduate — in defence and strategic affairs; and political science.

What have the most striking changes in the IAF been since your time?
Earlier, only kids from the upper strata of society became Air Force pilots. Now because of new selection criteria, boys and girls from all strata take up flying as a profession. The force has become a lot more professional, too.

What are some of the vital qualities required of an Air Force pilot?
You must display a high order of team spirit and the ability to co-ordinate. At the same time, you should also learn to be independent as there might be a hundred situations when you cannot bank on anyone.

Interviewed by Vimal Chander Joshi