Established in 1932, the Indian Air Force has seen and participated in several major wars on the mainland and overseas and proved its mettle every time. From the likes of Hardit Singh Malik and Indra Lal Roy who participated in the First World War and helped the Commonwealth forces make significant breakthroughs, to Wing Commander Abhinandan, whose feats in the 2019 Indo-Pak skirmish needs no introduction, the Indian Air Force has seen several generations of men and women who have not only been angels on the shoulders of their comrades on the air, ground, and sea but also have helped turn tides of battles and wars.
The Flying Branch of the IAF is primarily divided into 3 broad streams- The Fighter Branch, The Transport Branch, and The Helicopter Branch. The men and women who decide to join the flying branch and are lucky enough to make it are bestowed with the honour of wearing the pilot wings of the IAF.
The fighter branch is the most coveted and most difficult to get into amongst the three streams. It is said that it is meant only for the daredevils and it is a branch that almost every trainee officer hopes to get into one day. This is, however, not to undermine the significance and valor of other branches by any means. So, what is a day in the life of a fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force like?
A typical day starts with an early rise and some physical activity to start the day on a healthy note- staying physically and mentally fit is essential for all fighter pilots. This is generally then followed by a light meal because when you’re pulling as much as a 9G force in the cockpit, you wouldn’t want your breakfast floating around.
The next step is moving on to the Squadron (airbase) early in the morning and attending the morning briefing (mission plans). Post the briefings, a fighter pilot has to prepare for flying along with the required G-suits and oxygen masks. In the hot and tropical Indian summers, these suits make life miserable.
Once airborne, pilots fly on instruments mostly. There is no window, and the pilots’ visibility depends on the canopy designs. The aircraft is taken through the given mission objectives, most of which involve routine flying in sectors.
An average fighter aircraft can fly about an hour without in-flight refueling. Some of the latest advanced aircrafts have the concept of buddy-to-buddy refueling as well - that is, one fighter aircraft is used to refuel another aircraft. There is a common misconception that today’s pilots have the privilege of flying automated aircraft and hence, have little to do in the cockpit. Even with all the automation in the world, it is ultimately the pilot’s instinct, his/her presence in the cockpit, and the flying mettle of the pilot that decides the fate of any aircraft; especially fighter aircrafts. Flying involves skills, physics, and mathematics. It’s a tough office to be in.
The glory of the afterburners and the takeoff is not easily achieved, however. There are repeated final checks of every part of the aircraft, which are done in advance so as to keep the flying machines flight-ready in case of a scramble. Once the final go-ahead is received from the concerned Air Traffic Control, the pilots take to the skies with the wingmen for the sortie.
While in the air, the pilots consistently push themselves to the edge by performing combat maneuvers and re-enact several situations they might face in an active combat situation like an engine flameout or an unresponsive radio. The job requires a lot of thinking on one’s feet and quick reflexes.
In the second half of the day, young pilots return to the Officer’s Mess for their lunch while the married officers go back to their accommodation. After a hearty meal, more than enough to make up for the light breakfast, followed by some rest, the officers return to the squadrons again to take care of any administrative work they might be in charge of. This is followed by some sports. Games like Squash and Badminton are among favorites.
Weekends are reserved for parties and get-togethers where all officers of the Squadron are expected to attend with their families. A sense of camaraderie is developed not only among the pilots themselves but also among their families that support each other in happy and sad times alike. With the uncertain life of a fighter pilot, every relationship formed supports and provides peace of mind.
To become a Pilot is tough but to remain one is tougher. A Pilot has to go through a bi-annual medical examination. Even an injured toenail can make you ‘grounded’ and hence Medical Services are part of the Military establishment. Fighter Pilots are among the fittest people alive. To be able to sustain such tremendous exertions and still walk out fine in itself is a feat. Further, Pilots are rated categorically. The ace pilot gets “A” Master Green. A skill assessment is done annually to award the category. This category of skill is important for career progression and being able to continue flying. A bad rating can jeopardize promotions and might result in a grounding. Therefore, it is important to push oneself to the maximum and compete against your own self to be a better pilot every time you take to the sky. In one’s career, a pilot will fly many different aircrafts and undertake a variety of missions both day and night. In terms of career progression, it is the branch of Flying Officers who rise to high ranks in the Indian Air Force and go on to become the Vice Marshal and the Air Chief Marshal of the Indian Air Force.
In all probability, pilots and their families generally stay very close to the airbase, inside a campus known as the Air Force Station. This campus remains self-sufficient, and comprises living accommodation (for airmen, officers, and non-combatants), Messes (for bachelor accommodation, food, and official parties), Medical Centres, Schools, Shopping Complexes, and several other in-house facilities. In some cases, both the husband and wife are either pilots or administrative officers and hence, lead very aligned lives overall. The Air Force stations ensure that the officers never lack any amenity or facility that they might have had access to in the world outside.
Being a fighter pilot is inherently risky. It demands a lot, from physical fitness to sacrificing the time spent with family. But every night, when a fighter pilot goes to sleep, he knows that he is ready to take on the enemy, should he meet him the next day itself. The passion to fly mixed with patriotism is a combination that proves deadly for the enemy in any circumstance. To become and remain a Fighter pilot requires drive, grit, and determination that is hard to find. The Indian Air Force’s fighter pilots are a class apart and it is their resilience in the skies that makes India’s airspace so secure and her people safe from all odds. We salute the spirit of every single Fighter Pilot in the Indian Air Force.