Now I’m free
Yeah, I’m free
Tom Petty in ‘Free Fallin‘
How many of us have skydived onto an aircraft carrier at sea?
For a lady who has shattered many glass ceilings, Rashmi is delightfully humble and profoundly grounded. In the profession of flying, or jumping off perfectly serviceable airplanes, terms like ‘humble’ and ‘grounded’ are rare. Yet there are women in India, as indeed in the world, who retain that old world charm even after scaling some dizzying heights. Rashmi is one of them.
As a typical fauji brat (‘Born, Raised & Transferred’ in the armed forces) Rashmi grew up with air warriors, flying machines, leaky MES quarters, steel trunks and postings. She had “no specific dream” and admits “I was stupid enough to believe that I would eventually do something different”.
And boy, did she ever!
Her early memories of accompanying her father through the journey of a serviceman aroused in her the passion for adventure. Yearly vacations to grandparents’ village in rural Bihar involved every mode of travel – rail, road, boat, even a bullock cart – except air, which at that time only the affluent could afford. That never stopped her from scanning the blue sky for opportunities.
The profession of arms was a natural magnet for Rashmi. But there were no openings for women back then. The standard template of studying, taking numerous entrance tests – in her words, “wasting dad’s money” – led her to a Masters in Physics. By this time (1992), the armed forces had opened its doors to women. Her parents resisted her repeated pleas to enrol for flying. Too risky, they felt. Besides, “you are too short; they’ll reject you in the medicals”, dad feared.
Rashmi stood her ground. “If not a pilot, I want to do the next best thing – control pilots”, she dug in. They agreed grudgingly, unable to make the young upstart stand down. Rashmi gave it her best shot, got selected for Short Service Commission (SSC), and enrolled as an officer cadet at Naval Academy, Goa for the 5-months orientation program – one of the first for women.
With misty eyes, dad and Rashmi parted at the gates of Navac, her first time away from home. My coursemate from Ocean’s Best, then a Divisional Officer at Navac, was involved in her training. Knowing them, I can assure you, they don’t make it easy even for the boys!
Soon upon training and commissioning as a young Air Traffic Control Officer (ATCO), Rashmi soon got a ‘hard hold’ over the ‘magnificent men in their flying machines’. She served at many air stations, including a stint at the navy’s elite fighter base at Goa. The dense civil-military, multi-type air traffic environment of INS Hansa is testing ground for ATCOs. She redeemed herself with elan and precision. She got many ‘unguided missiles’ safely home, day after day! She proudly recalls ‘controlling’ IAF’s ‘Surya Kiran’ formation aerobatics team when they visited Kochi.
Then R&R happened. No, not what you know as ‘rest & recreation’. He was a tall, serious deep sea diver, an instructor at the navy’s elite Diving School at Kochi; she a young ATCO at the Kochi naval air station. Both dealt with different mediums but shared a common passion – the love for adventure and a desire to do “something different”. Rajiv met Rashmi, fell in love, and R&R happened early in the new millennium. She fondly calls him as “my anchor, my advisor, my saviour, my mentor – then and now”.
Normal folks go on a honeymoon. R&R marched off to the Republic Day parade rehearsals. He led the marching contingent while she was ‘standby number 1’. Maybe the navy was still not ready to hand over their RD contingent to a newly-married couple!
Serendipitously, there were other things they could do together. Both of them completed basic para and accelerated free fall (AFF) skydiving course with the IAF. A new phase of life dotted with jumps, living out of suitcases, and travelling across the country for displays followed. She was the only female in an elite, male-dominated bastion. R&R earned some unique laurels jumping as a couple. The Indian Navy must be thanked for fusing together this unique combination of work-life balance!
Having done a few para jumps myself and flown a few thousand hours, I can tell you it is beyond scary to leave a perfectly serviceable plane. But Rashmi says cheerfully “seeing my husband jump off the plane before me was motivation enough”. Many would have ruled this ‘ahead of the times’ in a society that seeks comfort zones and believes a woman’s primary duty is home and hearth. But not R&R. They postponed their ‘gen next’ to explore many adventures together.
Their tryst with history came in 2006. All the mighty ships of Indian Navy had arrived off Vizag for President’s Fleet Review (PFR), with aircraft carrier INS Viraat as the ‘main body’. An audacious plan never attempted before was hatched – a mid-sea formation skydive onto the carrier. Rashmi, by then, was one of the most accurate jumpers and a deserving candidate for the maiden attempt. There was no time for recce, trial jump, no alternate drop zone (DZ), nor any past experience. Rashmi recalls how the carrier “looked smaller” than she had imagined when they were flown onboard for briefing.
“There’s no backing out of this, babe”, hubby Rajiv whispered into her ears.
On 10th Feb 2006, a Seaking helicopter took off from Viraat with nine jumpers – all hardened marine commandos (Marcos) or clearance divers except for the diminutive Rashmi. Tension was palpable on all faces. A young lady sat strapped-up with best of the best. They jumped from 8000 feet. True to her unblemished record, Rashmi made a perfect touchdown on the designated spot on Viraat’s flight deck. One jumper was injured. The team huddled together after the jump and joked “we did it, but no more!”. In the process they created history that parachuted the team right into the Limca Book of Records.
Rashmi’s biggest moment came two days later during the PFR ‘Op Demo’ on Ramakrishna Beach, Visakhapatnam. Rashmi and Rajiv had over 1000 AFF jumps between them. She was selected for a ‘surprise item’ – skydive on to the 50-sq ft VVIP dais with the Coffee Table Book (CTB) to be handed over to then President APJ Abdul Kalam on D-Day.
Against a backdrop of VVIPs, dignitaries, invitees, citizens and media, with winds that suddenly turned adverse, Rashmi swooped-in stealthily behind the ‘cover-fire’ of male skydivers and stole the show with a picture-perfect kisser touchdown in front of ‘People’s President’ APJ Abdul Kalam!
“It was jam packed. We had no alternate DZ; winds were gusting, sea in the front and people everywhere, coming to land on the Presidential dais. Phew! I felt so blessed”, Rashmi recalls with a twinkle in her eyes.
Impressed with the feat, President Kalam stood up from his seat and started speaking to her. Overwhelmed, her heart pounding, legs going all swishy, Rashmi maintained proper ‘savdhaan’ posture with her trademark charming smile even as she forgot all about the souvenir in her hands. Then Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash “came to my rescue”, she says, and presented the CTB while the crowd went into a rapture.
Rashmi has over 500 freefall jumps to her credit and a skydiving instructor’s licence (2005) that propelled her to the Limca Book of Records. But all those jumps and adventure cannot turn the clock back on a woman’s life. Priorities had to shift to accommodate spouse’s career and their plans to “expand the family”. She completed her SSC tenure and turned homemaker. During the transition, she pursued a commercial pilots licence from Miami, Florida after investing all her savings. Unfortunately, the industry went into a recession and jobs ran scarce. Plan B was invoked. The mother in her put career and skydiving on the back burner.
“Finally I decided that I wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. I wanted to be home whenever my children were home. It may sound conservative, but that’s my choice. I had Kabir at 38 and Mira at 45. Both my deliveries were normal deliveries!”, she signs off with a chuckle.
This International Women’s Day, here’s raising a toast to the magnificent women – the wind beneath our sails. Not all are skydivers, but they certainly are our main and reserve parachutes in life. They hold families together while running a tight ship, juggling multiple roles like Rashmi – fighter, adventurer, officer, loving wife, doting mom.
Never tell them it cannot be done. Because they might just pull your ripcord and tell you to “go jump”.
Lt Cdr Rashmi Singh is married to Rajiv, a serving naval officer. They have two wonderful children. Rajiv is presently commanding a naval area on the west coast. An edited version of this story was first published by The Quint on 6th Mar 2020.
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos courtesy Rashmi Singh.