Meet the daredevil from Chikmagalur who is IAF’s first woman fighter pilot from south India

As Meghana Shanbough graduates from the Air Force Academy today, she will be IAF’s sixth woman fighter pilot.
Meet the daredevil from Chikmagalur who is IAF’s first woman fighter pilot from south India
Meet the daredevil from Chikmagalur who is IAF’s first woman fighter pilot from south India

Flying Officer Meghana Shanbough MR is the new poster girl of Indian Air Force (IAF). As she graduates from the Air Force Academy (AFA) in Dundigal on Saturday at the impressive Combined Graduation Parade, Meghana has become the sixth female fighter pilot to join the ranks of IAF, and the first from south India.

Being different was normal for Meghana, and it was while she was studying in Class 4 that she told her father that she wants fly out of the comforts of home. She was a student of Maharishi Vidya Mandir Public School, Chikmagalur then.

“I told my dad that I wanted to study in a boarding school. My mother was initially hesitant, but my dad did not chip away my wings and was very supportive,” says the 23-year-old daredevil pilot who hails from Marle village in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district.

Backed by her parents, Meghana’s bold journey began after she joined Little Rock Indian School in Udupi, where she studied from Class 5 to 12 as a boarding student.

Her experiments with life continued even after she joined Sri Jayachamarajendra College of Engineering (SJCE), Mysuru. Accustomed to doing things differently in life, Meghana formed the Sahas-SJCE Adventure Club, which she says transformed her.

“During semester breaks we would often organise trekking, rafting, mountaineering and such other expeditions which toughened me further. I also got training in paragliding. This gave me a glimpse into life in IAF, as our trainers were retired officers. Their discipline and way of life was very awe-inspiring to me. And, I knew I was at striking distance from my dream destination,” says Meghana.

Inspired to be different

At 20, during her second year of engineering, she did her first solo on a paraglider. She jumped off a cliff on Querim Beach in Goa – an experience which locked her focus completely on to winged wonders later.

“After completing my engineering (in Information Science) in 2015, I was sure I wouldn’t want to take up a day job. I wanted to pursue something out of the ordinary,” says Meghana.

It was at this juncture that there was the big breaking news of IAF deciding to let women into the cockpit of fighter planes. “In June 2016, I was truly inspired to read the stories of IAF’s first women fighter pilots (Flying Officers Mohana Singh, Bhawana Kanth and Avani Chaturvedi) graduating from AFA. I decided that I had to go for it, doing whatever it takes,” she says. Meghana says her father and paragliding instructor Nagendra are her role models.

Meghana cleared AFCAT (Air Force Common Admission Test) and the subsequent SSB (Services Selection Board) at the very first attempt and joined AFA as a Flight Cadet in January 2017.

At AFA, it was in June 2017 that she had her first flight as part of the FAM (familiarisation) sortie on a Pilatus, in the company of her instructor. Till date, she has to her credit over 50 sorties on Pilatus (Stage-I) and over 90 sorties on Kiran (Stage-II). Her first solo was in August 2017 on a Pilatus.

“It was a big day for me — being inside the cockpit, ready for a solo for the first time. To use you own call sign, having your own identity and being in control of your aircraft was really a great moment. I cannot forget those 20 minutes of being airborne,” she recalls.

The stint at AFA boosted her confidence and Meghana says she is ready for more challenges now. Having grown through the grind at AFA, she feels more empowered now.

“I would want every young boy and girl wanting to become a fighter pilot to have really big dreams. Your dreams should be out of your league. Your dreams may be unconquerable at the moment. But you must chase them so hard that they are left with no option but to be yours forever in reality,” says Meghana, who, incidentally, is a trained singer in Carnatic music.

After a month’s break, Meghana heads to Air Force Station Bidar for the next level of training on Hawk aircraft.

A hero for the family

Air Marshal S R K Nair, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Headquarters Training Command, IAF, who was at the AFA Graduation Parade for the last time, is a satisfied man.

“We keenly watch the standards set and leadership qualities displayed by the boys and girls every year. We tell them to excel in their respective areas and they will get what they deserve. We look at their determination,” says Air Marshal Nair, who is retiring next month, after 42 years of service.

He says the IAF always looks for higher standards and has done nothing different to accommodate women fighter pilots.

“Breaking the glass ceiling was important and we did it. We also took informal feedback from women pilots. And they did not want anything different from the men. We are very inclusive in all our activities,” says Air Marshal Nair.

Meghana’s father M K Ramesh, an advocate, had sent her to Delhi for IAS coaching after engineering.

“Either IAF or IAS – that was my dream. Meghana was very adventurous from the time she was in Class I. The way her mind worked was very different from others. I also wanted my daughter to do something extraordinary,” says Ramesh.

“She is a role model to many. We are all glad and emotional as Meghana graduates from AFA. I was a friend to her rather than a father,” he adds.

He says that ‘Shanbough’ (their surname) was the title given to erstwhile village officers who were authorised to collect revenue to be handed over to the government. “Our forefathers were hereditary village officers,” he says.

Meghana’s mother CV Shobha is a judge with the District Consumer Forum in Udupi.

Nirnay Shanbough, Meghana’s brother says his sister has always been a role model to him in every aspect of life.

“It's such a proud feeling to see my sister reach great heights. I'm very proud of her accomplishments. And my sister will be among the very few women in the fighter squad of IAF. It gives me goosebumps,” says Nirnay, who is heading to Symbiosis, Pune, to purse a degree in law, after Class 12.

The entire family arrived at AFA to witness the historic event of Meghana’s graduation as a Flying Officer. Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa reviewed the parade and conferred the ‘President’s Commission’ on behalf of the President of India to the graduating trainees of various branches. He also presented ‘Wings and Brevets’ to the newly commissioned officers of the flying branch.

And, Chikmagalur’s big dreamer and daredevil girl, Flying Officer Meghana Shanbough, was one of the proud recipients.

(The writer is a senior aerospace, defence journalist and tweets @writetake.)

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