Women take to the skies

Women take to the skies

Women take to the skies

It is a common practice in all three wings of the armed forces the world over. Even in the civilian world, several countries recognise it as a sport. But in a cricket-crazy country like India, skydiving has very few takers. 

Several small groups have tried out the seemingly saner sports of paragliding and tandem jumping. But skydiving has so far not caught on. In such a scenario, four regular women have got together not only to popularise the sport but to fall from the skies for a cause. 

“All other sports seem mundane and boring after the adrenaline rush you get from skydiving. That feeling of unknown excitement in the gut when you jump from 14,000 feet, the cold blast of air hitting the face, the deafening whir of helicopter or airplane from where you jump off into what appears as an open space with no boundaries....the blue sky is so near, sometimes a bird flies past seemingly to say hello, and very rarely a cloud appears to be heading for you from a distance. Nothing can compensate for that feeling,” says Archana Sardana, 35, vividly describing every one of the 200 jumps she has made. Next May, this adventure junkie is getting ready for another feat. She is hoping to skydive with the Mt Everest as the backdrop — from a height of 29,000 feet. Her landing height would be 12,500 feet above sea level in the Himalayas.

Sardana is not the only one who is completely hooked onto skydiving. Along with her are three others – Mili Sharma, Bharati Thanwani and Rupinder Parhar. Together, they started the Indian Women Skydiving Association and this young group draws its inspiration from an older woman, Delhi-based Rachel Thomas, the only woman to be awarded a Padma Shri for skydiving.
“When I took up skydiving way back in 1979, it was completely unheard of,” remarks Thomas, 54, who has more than 670 jumps to her credit. However, she adds, “These jumps are not that many when you compare them with women skydivers around the globe.”

Skydiving is a sophisticated form of parachuting. In normal parachuting one jumps from around 350 metres (1,000-1,200 feet) whereas in skydiving the minimum height for the jump starts at 1,500 metres (around 5000 feet). Then, depending on one’s skill in holding on to the parachute and manoeuvring it properly, the sky is the limit as far as the jump is concerned. Both Sardana and Thomas are free-fall skydivers whereas Sharma, Thanwani and Parhar - who have just begun skydiving, have done static-line diving only. 

“I am hoping I will soon be able to do free fall diving. The three of us are planning to start training as soon as possible,” informs Sharma, who works as a Russian translator and an assistant manager at a private company in Delhi. She is a fitness freak and has participated in almost all the marathons organised in India.  
For static-line diving, static lines are used in order to make sure the parachute is deployed immediately after jumping, regardless of whether the diver releases it or not. However, the diver must adopt and maintain a suitable body position throughout deployment to minimise the chances of a parachute malfunction. A free-fall skydiver, on the other hand, jumps and opens his/ her parachute at a specific height. The latter requires a lot of training, practice and experience.  
And, unfortunately, there are no training centres for civilians in India. “As of now there is no permanent place. Wg. Cmdr. Thappar runs courses occasionally. But there are a few others who are desperately trying to start up a club. If this materialises, people can enjoy sky diving on a regular basis,” says Rachel Thomas.
Rachel who was married to Captain Thomas, an Armed Forces officer, took skydiving lessons at the Indian Skydiving Federation in Agra, and later went on to do an advanced course from the Raeforts Institute in North Carolina, USA. Sardana, married to Commander Rajeev Sardana of the Indian Navy, trained at Perris Valley in Calfornia. Sharma, Parhar – who was formerly married to a submarine officer and Thanwani, who is a sister of a submarine officer, trained with an ex-air force officer, Santosh Nagaraj, at Pantnagar, Uttarakhand. 

“You have to be rich enough to afford this sport and be moderately fit – the fitness required for an ordinary badminton player will do. Eleven months in a year I do nothing and for one month I go for professional mountaineering courses,” says Sardana.   It is certainly an expensive pastime. A new parachute costs Rs 3,00,000  and can be bought in the US. The jump suit, helmet and goggles cost above Rs 25,000 altogether. Each jump comes to about Rs 12,000 to Rs 16,000 – this is besides the costs involved in travelling up to the jump site and boarding.  
But skydiving is one sport where age does not matter. In fact, there is a competition abroad called POPS, which is for people who are over 40 years. “I know of guys who are over 80 but still jump for fun. I have seen a woman who was six months’ pregnant, skydive. In some countries, grandchildren give grandparents Tandem Jumps as birthday presents. But I had to stop skydiving as I broke my leg after landing safely in a stadium in Kerala in January 2003,” reveals Thomas.
India has still to warm up to this sport. “The biggest problem is that the Armed Forces skydiving teams does not allow civilians to get a single jump even if only to keep their licences updated. One has to travel abroad to do that. The sport will never become popular in India because Indian men are too scared and will never get involved in anything other than cricket,” remarks Sardana.

Besides wanting to popularise the game, women like Sardana also wish to create mass awareness and motivate Indians to gift ‘sight’ to the 15 million blind people in the country, which sadly include two million children. “In May when I jump, I will be carrying the flag bearing ‘Blind Free India’,” says Sardana.  
“Since skydiving is a sport that attracts large crowds we decided that while we do demos we will get people to sign up as donors to the nearest eye bank so that we can try and help eradicate blindness in the country,” explains Thomas.  
These women sure know how to sight a good cause and fall for it.

Women’s Feature Service