Bagdogra: Women pilots of the Indian Air Force (IAF) have been in the thick of action the past week, carrying out relief and rescue operations in earthquake-hit Sikkim from this air base in North Bengal.
Three of the 30-odd pilots from the 142 Helicopter Unit are putting in long hours to conduct sorties from "sunrise to sunset" to reach supplies and carry out evacuation from the remotest corners of North Sikkm, the epicentre of Sunday`s 6.8-magnitude earthquake.
The air base is the centre of all IAF relief operations for the neighbouring state.
Flying the Cheetah and Chetak choppers of the IAF, the women pilots have matched their skills with their men colleagues and have "captained" their respective choppers during the relief operations in some of the most inhospitable terrains after the tremor. Many inhabited areas are still cut off from the rest of the country due to landslides, and have been kept on life-support through air bridges.
Flight-Lieutenant Arunima Vidhate, a 26-year-old pilot who has clocked in over 350 hours of flying the Cheetahs and Chetaks, said her first sortie middle of last week was for carrying out a recce of the quake-hit areas to provide valuable inputs to the rescuers to reach the remote corners.
She also guided relief workers to reach the landslide spots to clear the roads for rescuers to move in.
Vidhate, who has been in the air force for four years now, is a captain of her flying machine.
So is 25-year-old Poornima Ranade, who too has clocked in 250 hours on the Cheetahs and Chetaks.
"We carry out sorties from sunrise to sunset. I have done some sorties to provide food supplies to tiny villages in remote corners of north Sikkim," says Ranade.
"The joy you see in the eyes of the people and relief on their face when we reach them with supplies and medicines, it brings joy to me to. They are happy to see us, after remaining cut off and hopeless for hours," chips in Vidhate.
"In fact, just hearing the sound of our rotors, the people on the ground gain in faith that there are people to take care of them in their worst times," she adds.
Ask her if the stranded people are surprised to see women piloting choppers coming to their rescue, Vidhate quickly responds: "Not anymore. People are now used to seeing women pilot airplanes and choppers. In fact, I have seniors who have done this for a decade now."