In an olive green pilot’s G-suit and a helmet on her head, Nirmala Sitharaman on Wednesday soared high on a Sukhoi-30 MKI jet, the first Indian woman defence minister to go on a sortie on the all-weather, long-range fighter.
The supersonic jet took off from the Air Force station at Jodhpur, where one of the Sukhoi squadrons is based, at 1 pm, rose to a height of 8,000 metres and broke the sound barrier.
After a 45-minute flight on the India Air Force’s frontline jet over the Western sector of Rajasthan bordering Pakistan, Sitharaman was back at the Air Force station.
“It was a memorable experience ... and a smooth ride,” the 58-year-old minister told reporters later.
Sitharaman had earlier landed at the air station on a bright and sunny day in an IAF aircraft, ready for the sortie by the Jodhpur-based Sukhoi squadron.
After being greeted and welcomed by senior IAF officers and a brief meeting with the air warriors, she donned the fighter pilot’s G-suit -- which can withstand high acceleration and sharp manoeuvres, preventing loss of consciousness -- and was then briefed about the plane’s operations and functioning.
The minister entered the cockpit and sat on the seat behind the pilot, Group Captain Sumit Garg.
She was then familiarised with the supersonic jet, which forms an integral part of the nation’s air power.
Looking calm, the country’s first woman defence minister waved from inside the cockpit and showed thumbs up sign as the aircraft moved for the much awaited take off.
Within seconds, the fighter jet was flying high with the country’s first full-time woman defence minister on it.
After the 45-minute sortie towards the south-west region, the jet returned to the base, and she thanked the pilot for a “wonderful” experience.
“It was a memorable experience,” she later said, adding that the “smooth ride” underlined the pilot’s expertise.
“I had a very memorable and great experience in the SU-30 MKI which is a made in India fighter. It was a smooth ride and the Group Captain made me feel absolutely at ease but showed his excellence in the flying,” the minister told reporters after returning from the sortie.
The plane crossed the speed of Mach 1 and rose to an altitude of 8000 metres, she pointed out.
“So, in a way, (it went) higher than Mount Everest and crossed the speed of sound. It just shows the excellence in our fighter pilots’ training,” she said.
Mount Everest is at a height of 8,848 metres.
The defence minister said the level of preparation and alertness exhibited by the pilots was an “eye opener”.
“I am very proud and thankful that I have gone through this experience because it tells me the rigour in practice and the level of readiness and how quickly they have to respond to situations,” Sitharaman said.
During her visit to the Jodhpur air base, she reviewed operational and combat preparations and she was also briefed on the employment of air power in the defence of the country.
The minister has been visiting various establishments of the armed forces to gauge their operational capabilities and preparedness.
She is the second defence minister and second Indian woman leader to fly in a Sukhoi-30 MKI after then president Pratibha Patil did so in 2009. When he was the president, A P J Abdul Kalam had also flown in the fighter jet, an Air Force official said.
In 2003, then defence minister George Fernandes had also taken a sortie aboard an SU-30 jet, the official said.
The Sukhoi-30 MKI is capable of carrying nuclear arms and can penetrate deep into enemy territory.
The BrahMos supersonic Air Launched Cruise Missile was successfully test fired from the formidable fighter jet against a sea-based target in the Bay of Bengal in November last year.
The IAF has also successfully fired the ‘Astra’ Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air missile from the jet.
The SU-30 MKI is a twinjet multirole air superiority fighter developed by Russia’s Sukhoi and built under licence by India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for the Indian Air Force.
Photographs: PTI Photos