Meet The Cheetah-Hearted Indian Air Force Pilot Who Flew Her Cheetahs From LOC to Bollywood

Gunjan Saxena who is not only the first woman warrior to serve in the Indian Air Force (IAF), but is also a revered officer for her role during the Kargil war fought with Pakistan in 1999. 

The daughter of an Army Officer who lives in Lucknow, the cheetah-hearted IAF pilot hails from a family of Army officers. Gunjan’s brother, Anushaman Saxena was also a serving Army officer.

Twenty-five-year old Gujnan was deployed in Udhampur, Jammu and Kashmir with 132 Forward Area Control (FAC) Flight in 1999 when she was moved to Srinagar. During the time, the intrusions in Kargil had just started.

With no idea about the magnitude of the operation, Gunjan moved to Srinagar. At a male-dominated base, Saxena was the only female officer serving at the time and remained unfazed by the discrimination.

In a book called, Kargil: Untold stories of the war by Rachna Bisht Rawat, Saxena was one of the ten pilots positioned at Srinagar Air Field during May. After the conflict escalated Saxena was asked if she had any problems operating in the dangerous area. She said that she didn’t and was designated to fly the Cheetah helicopters that she was already flying for a while before this mission.

“In the initial phase, the small but sturdy Cheetah helicopters that have an established record in high-altitude flying are sent on surveillance sorties,” wrote Rawat. ” Gunjan is amongst the pilots who fly into the valley covering the Kargil–Tololing–Batalik area, surveying it from the air and reporting any activity they spot,” she added.

The author also explained the capabilities of Cheetahs that Saxena flew. She said that the chopper is capable to “carry out reconnaissance of enemy territory, bringing information about the suspected enemy location for the artillery gunners and fighter pilots, besides dropping food, medicines and other supplies for troops battling the enemy in high-altitude terrain, and landing at great personal risk to pick up injured and dead comrades.” “They are a lifeline for the infantry soldiers who are risking their lives for their country,” she said.

When the casualties started to get reported, Saxena served as the medical evacuation staff rescuing injured soldiers in her chopper. During one of her feats, her chopper was almost missed by an enemy missile and crashed. Despite that, she continued with her duty and landed on the helipad to rescue the soldiers. She was awarded the Shaurya Vir Award.

“I think it is the ultimate feeling that you can ever have as a helicopter pilot. That was one of our main roles there – casualty evacuation. I would say it’s a very satisfying feeling when you save a life because that is what you’re there for,” said Saxena.

After a full-scale war broke out, IAF withdraws its small helicopters, launching full-scale offensive support for the fighting troops and she was deployed back in Udhampur. Her IAF tenure also ended a few years after the Kargil war as there was no permanent commission for women at that time.

After two decades of Gunjan Saxena’s feat and courage, she displayed during war, a movie based on her life will be released on August 10 on Netflix with Jahanvi Kapoor in the lead role.