Skydiving is known as an extreme sport and we enjoy it to the max. I remember one journalist who was literally dying to ask me: Are you normal? To him and all others who wanted me to comment on why women are getting into this bizarre phenomenon of adventurous extreme sport , I want to say “Take Wings my friends and fly and you will discover the magic called life.”
The lady who is No. 1 in competitive skydiving is almost 50 years old and there’s nobody to take away her number one spot in competitive skydiving. In skydiving, like is relevant in every other field, one has to take that first step, that first plunge into thin air, the first step to do something. That’s when you find yourself sooner than later that you are really being reckoned in an elite group of path breakers like how I am standing out here in front of you. I have had a very short journey. I started skydiving in 2009. But October 8th 2011 was a big day for us because on the 79th anniversary of Indian Air Force we were launched as the first ever official women skydiving team of the Indian Air Force.
The best part is that though the Indian Army and Indian Navy started before us, still the Indian Air Force had the dominance in the aero sports. The mere mention of the word skydiving has enormous reactions. Fear in some, a desire in some others, some people are awestruck while some just act wacky; some do it for that high adrenaline drive while some do it for a metaphysical connection with life.
Skydiving is an adventure sport; it is nothing beyond the realm of impossible. Once you have the courage, once you have it in you, there’s nothing that differentiates you or me other than the fact that I have been incredibly lucky as I was at the right place at the right time. My first training camp was in fact a selection camp. So unlike some of the ladies who did not have this kind of opportunity, five of us out of six were incredibly lucky for where we were. If you do something different you get classified inevitably into two categories, either you are insane or you are genius.
But disappointingly we six are very normal and we fall into that grey area. For e.g. I have my team leader, Wing Commander Asha Jyotirmya, she has been into skydiving for past 10 years, she has been jumping from the year 2000, has almost 500 jumps to her credit, happily married and she has initiated her husband into this awesome sport. She was the training instructor and he was the basic jumper. She is blessed with two boisterous sons. She is now leading us into various skydiving events. In her time she was one rare phenomenon, one rare lady officer, wherein skydiving and all these areas were generally seen as areas where angels feared to tread. Five of us have been feisty, plucky but we have been incredibly lucky at the same time.
What has changed from 2000 to 2011 is that there is a galore of opportunities now; the support system that we have now on both personal and organisational level is different. Six of us come from middle class families with middle class values. But there’s no one who says that you are a woman and you are not suppose to be doing this. Parents no longer say that you have got to get married and husbands do not restrict you from taking part in activities. Organisations are promoting our participations in events. 2011 has been a big year for us as three mountaineers from the Indian Air Force scaled the Mount Everest. We have this organisation which is doing so much for us, there is just one prerequisite it is asking of you, you just need to say that you would like to do it. So, that’s wherein you would find me differentiating between the corporate fields, where there is a glass ceiling. I feel my field has no glass ceiling. It is up to you to perform, if you are a performer then the air and the mountain really does not recognise your gender difference. There in it become your flying skills and your performance out there in the mountains.
So that is the major difference in the field that I come from. Just introducing my team, we are a band of 6 ladies. Wing Commander Asha is our team leader. Myself, I am the team camera person, while 4 of us go about formation skydiving, I am there perched above them, flying above them, recording it all so that I don’t miss out any of the antics. Flight lieutenant Priyanka Shirangi is married to an army officer. Flight lieutenant Nisha is a technical officer, Flight lieutenant Roopal is a logistics officer and Flight lieutenant Priyanka Hooda is also a logistics officer. Wing Commander Asha in her yesteryears was a national level athlete and Flight lieutenant Priyanka Hoda is a national level swimmer.
I am presently posted at Air Force Academy which is the Alma Mater of all the Air Force Officers. I am working as an instructor; I train both men and women and I am working alongside my male counterparts, training them. So, in my field what is more important than gender is performance. It is performance that matters. At my level of seniority with just eight years of experience, I am working alongside group captains who have put 20 years of experience. Field of work is different but what I am saying is that if you are a performer you will be acknowledged in every sphere. Be it my profession as an education officer or in the adventure sport like skydiving.
Why is there so much of awe about skydiving? You may feel that sky divers are just so full of themselves but that’s just how the story of skydiving goes. My first skydiving camp was at the beautiful Karnik Islands. My mind was absolutely blank, I had this zombie look on my face and so did all of us who were doing it for the first time. My hands were almost numb and the only sound that I could hear is not the sound of chopper blade rotating but the sound of my heart hammering furiously. And the moment your instructor shrieks into your ear ‘Go’, you just take that one step into thin air, you leave the security of the ground and your instincts and your ground training then take over.
It was over 5-7 seconds before I realised that while I was grappling for my parachute toggles, I still had my eyes closed and when I opened my eyes I saw, waves crashing on absolute virgin white bed of sand and corals colouring the sea in different hues of green and blue. It was magical. After my first Jump I knew I am going to be sky bound for life.
Two hundred jumps later, I can still feel my first jump and the second best jump wherein I had my first 45 second stable fall at terminal velocity. Terminal velocity is mind breaking speed and you are hurtling down towards earth at phenomenal speed. I was in control of my body and I saw the horizon blushing different shades of red, pink and orange as the sun set in all its natural splendour. But for the pleasure of those 7 minutes in air, 45 second of free fall and 5 minutes of flying with parachute, you have got to go through rigorous gruelling ground training, we call it concentration camps. Every trainer has this angelic look but never gets deceived by your trainer’s angelic look if you get interested in skydiving.
They will put you through the most gruelling round of ground training which is required to help you fly and have some of the most amazing incidents. From a basic para jumping training course you will progress to basic free fall training and subsequently you get trained for something called “wind tunnel” training which the simulated training environment before you go and fly in the air at terminal velocity and eventually you actually do the formation skydiving. We are rookie formation sky divers, where there’s a four way skydiving formation. We participated at the first International meet in Swiss Alps where we interacted with the other lady participants across the world.
Starting from the first jump till now every jump has been inspirational and reaffirms my commitment to this sport. It is an additional job, it is not like my main stream job, I am an education officer, that is my bread and butter, but none the less I would sacrifice all my leave and pleasure for those 7 minutes in air. We really had fun during our skydiving sessions. There was one session where the instructor actually beat us up in the air. So we are a rookie four way formation skydiving team. Our aim is to go beyond, because world over the skydiving fields are enormous. We have a world record of 400 plus formation skydiving. And the field that I am in, we are trained for competitive sports, competitive four way formation.
What is this competitive formation?
In a span of 35 seconds you have to do mind boggling formation and their repetitions. The record in 35 seconds is 50 formations that is less than a second for each formation. So that is the level of expertise that is happening now. We have belly flying and we have had flying where you are defying gravity head down. So there are so many feats that we have got to do, we have many miles to go and many milestones to clip.
I will leave you all with the words of Leonardo da Vinci: “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
The above is an excerpt from AIMA’s Women Leadership Conference that was held in January this year.