Meet Gunjan Saxena, the Kargil Girl who flew the Cheetah, saved lives and made history
On Kargil Day, Indian Air Force’s first female pilot to enter the war zone revisits the skies fraught with danger
In 1999, a surprise GK quiz at school introduced me to the fourth Powerpuff Girl. “Who is the first Indian female officer to enter a war zone?” I drew a blank, but when the teacher announced the answer, I stamped the words Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena in my memory forever.
The eight-year-old me was only developing the habit of reading newspapers end to end. Headlines from Kargil were splashed across several pages. News channels breathlessly reported from the valley. Though my brain was too locked up in Dexter’s Laboratory to process the ground reality, Saxena’s feat was one piece of information I wasn’t going to let go of.
Twenty-one years later, our paths crossed yet again. Saxena made her way to my newsfeed; she was getting a biopic, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. And by some stroke of luck, I met the Kargil Girl herself, just three days before Kargil Day (July 26).
Before our Zoom call, my brain constantly conjured up images of her in a cockpit with bullets being fired all around her. Did I imagine her dancing across the valley to ‘Jiya re’ like Anushka Sharma in Jab Tak Hai Jaan? We cannot rule out these ludicrous thoughts.
And then I met her. In a floral kurta, with her hair tied in a bun, 48-year-old retired Saxena spoke with the brand of warmth you see only in your favourite bua – not the one who nags you, “Beta shaadi kar lo”. The other one who asks you to never settle for mediocrity.
Gunjan Saxena: the true story
She lives with her husband (who also works in the Indian Air Force) and her daughter in Varanasi. Often at night, the former air warrior dreams of flying choppers across the rocky terrains of Udhampur and Srinagar – where she started flying Cheetah helicopters in 1994.
This army brat’s dream took flight 40 years ago in Pathankot. “My father was in the army. We moved bases often. In Pathankot, my school was inside the air force station. As I watched flights take off and land, I knew I wanted to be a pilot one day. And not fly paper planes, but the actual ones,” says Saxena, whose supportive family raised only one concern: “What’s your plan B? What if you can’t be a pilot?”
The fears were legitimate. Back in the ’80s, being a pilot wasn’t a popular career choice for girls. And the Sima Aunties in her life didn’t like it either.
But the Indian Government came to her rescue in 1992 when it approved the induction of women in flying branches of the Indian Air Force. Three batches later, Saxena joined the academy with five other girls, and faced a new battle every day. Much like Hrithik Roshan in Lakshya. Training threw her into barbed wires of various kinds, and tested her calibre, patience and endurance. They prepared her to go for the kill.
But for the second generation defence officer, it wasn’t a foreign territory. She knew the challenges and the opportunities of her chosen path.
Equality at the base
Saxena insists “apart from our physical appearance, you can’t differentiate between male and female trainees. We trained together — same schedule and location. Our male trainees helped us feel comfortable, and honestly, it was also a challenge for them to be comfortable having women around them.”
The ex-aviator sums up equality during her time in the Air Force in one line — “If you had the will and the skill, both genders got the same opportunities.”
And three years later, an opportunity knocked on her door.
In 1999, Saxena was posted at Udhampur’s 132 Forward Area Control (FAC) Flight. She was practising new flying techniques every day: ways to land at unusual helipads, training to ace casualty evacuations and spending hours up in the air. Until one day, her commanding officer ordered her to go to Srinagar. “Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena, are you ready to go to Kargil?” She was as ready as she’d ever be.
“We had a faint idea of the conflict raging in Kargil, but never expected to be summoned. It was out of the blue.”
The then-25 year old called up her parents and informed them that she’d be out of touch for a while. And that she was ordered to go to Srinagar for surveillance and medical as well as casualty evacuation. “We weren’t allowed to divulge any details. And my parents didn’t ask. They understood.”
Birth of Gunjan Saxena, the Kargil girl
It was her time to fly high. The sky was fraught with danger, and each sunrise came with an unspoken fear of “will I live to see another sunrise?”. But she was there to save lives, and remained undeterred by these thoughts. “I was 30% nervous, but 70% excited,” says Saxena.
With an INSAS assault rifle and a revolver by her side, she took charge of the small yet sturdy Cheetah helicopter. The following three weeks, she flew across dangerous terrain where the enemy legion was firing at anything and everything at sight. She saw her fellows in uniform succumb to bullets.
She made sorties to air-drop supplies to troops in the Dras and Batalik sectors. During these missions, she also flew the helicopter to rescue wounded jawans, and those who had lost their lives at the battlefront.
The sight of bloodshed took a toll on her and put her into a shell momentarily. Being unable to talk to family and friends was also difficult, but there was something that overpowered all these emotions. “To serve the country and honour the uniform is of paramount importance. We are never forced into defence. It’s our choice to live this way of life. Everything else takes backseat. Besides, I must say women are emotionally stronger than men any day,” says Saxena.
Three weeks later, as she announced, “wheels down”, after a regular sortie, she didn’t know it was going to be the last time she flew there. The war was over. The commanding officer summoned the team. He shook their hands and said, “Good job and well done.” It was that understated.
Saxena remembers the day and laughs as she recalls, “There was no Tiranga flying. It wasn’t as dramatic as Bollywood wants you to believe. The celebrations are introspective and understated. I flew back to my base at Udhampur with a feeling of satisfaction. It was beyond compare.”
Today, there are over 1,600 women officers in the Indian Air Force, and thousand more dreamers in queue. Saxena’s flight has given wings to millions. She believes in having a one-track vision and never losing focus or sight of the goal.
“Flying has taught me that you cannot lose focus even for a second. That’s the way to live life. Find your dream, make it your goal and always give your 200%. Never let distractions get the better of you,” says Saxena, who did encounter distracting relatives who bugged her to get married and settle down.
She dodged them like she dodged bullets up in the air. “I never said I don’t want a family, but my priority at that point was making a career and serving my country. Today, I am married with a child. Relatives and I, both are happy. It’s a win for all.”
As we reached the end of our conversation, Saxena confesses it’s been years since she was last in a cockpit, and that she misses the thrill, but she wasn’t prepared for what the preview of the movie did to her.
Last month, she watched the film with her husband and stunned him as she sat there sobbing silently. “I don’t show my emotions, so he couldn’t believe it. Watching your story from a distance is a different kind of thrill. I really hope my journey inspires more and more girls to follow their dreams,” says Saxena.