When 24-year-old Flying Officer Avani Chaturvedi took to the skies on February 19, she was excited and a tad nervous. But she never imagined she was on her way to creating history.
Avani became the first Indian woman fighter pilot to fly solo as she steered a MiG-21 Bison for 30 minutes in her first training solo sortie at the Jamnagar airbase. A dream she had cherished since childhood had come true.
The Indian government opened the fighter stream for women in 2015, following which Avani, along with two other women - Mohana Singh and Bhawana Kanth - were inducted into the IAF's fighter squadron in 2016. They then underwent training to fly fighter jets.
Hailing from Madhya Pradesh, Avani did her Bachelors in Technology, cleared the IAF exam, and received training at the Hyderabad Air Force Academy. A small-town girl, she was all set to conquer the skies.
She tells Anupama Ramakrishnan how she flew against the wind to script a success story.
"As a child, like many other children, I would look up at the birds in the sky and wish that I could fly too sometime. I always had this dream of flying and it is that dream which took me to the defence forces. My father was a civil engineer and my mother a homemaker. I was lucky to have a strong support system around me, my family, my IAF colleagues, trainers and everyone else.
I would say the IAF has always been the best platform for me. So how do I feel to be the first female fighter pilot of India? It was a really good feeling -- the feeling of freedom, of liberty. Being a pilot is actually a journey through life. You can't predict how easy or difficult it is. Every takeoff and landing is different, so it is a constant learning process. I would say whatever I have achieved is also a team achievement.
Being a combat pilot is as difficult or as easy for a female as it is for a male. The aircraft doesn't treat you differently. The thing is, it is a long way before you reach the position to fly the MiG 3 Bison. It is like the escalator, you go slowly. You do your training and then you are finally there. Being a fighter pilot is also a team job.
On the day of the flight, I was not aware that I was going to be the first Indian woman to do this. Yes, I was both nervous and excited. My first sortie was a 30-minute solo.
I do have other interests apart from flying, I love reading fiction and non-fiction. And when I am not flying, I go for a run. Being a pilot, I need to be fit and maintain good health.
For all those who aspire to do what I did, I would say, 'You should dream but also work hard. You will face problems, but you will also overcome them'. As humans, we are never made to fly, we learn to fly.''