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The Rediff Special/Anand Bhisey

November 23, 2003

India's high flying ladies
On Saturday women showed that even sky is not the limit for them.

For on display were the skills of several daring ladies who had the courage to accept one of the toughest challenges in aviation -- a gruelling 900 nautical mile air race without sophisticated navigation aids.

The gruelling race was Air Race India 2003, which was held over the last three days across the country to mark the centenary of aviation.

A total of 43 aircraft of different makes, styles and colours took off from three points in the country -- Goa in west zone, Kolkata in east zone and Bangalore in south zone -- to converge simultaneously at Nagpur on Saturday.

Originally, there were to be four legs to the race, but the one from Chandigarh to Nagpur had to be cancelled at the last moment because of inclement weather.

So aviation lovers had to make do with 43 aircraft. A total of 51 teams had registered for participation.

Though the aircraft zooming in confidently to make the final touchdown attracted a lot of attention, the limelight was squarely focussed on the women.

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These were 15 girl cadets from various air squadrons of the National Cadet Corps. These girls along with 15 boy cadets participated in the race as co-pilots -- each one navigating for the pilot during one stage of the race.

So there were ten cadets on each leg from Goa, Kolkata and Bangalore -- five girls and five boys.

The feat is incredible because most girls are barely out of their teens, some as young as 19.

For Bangalore's Prashanthi Menon it was an experience to remember for a lifetime. From the 8 Karnataka Air Squadron of the NCC, Prashanti was the co-pilot of Captain Anup Kumar Nair. A commerce graduate, she plans to join the Indian Air Force.

Smita Patil of Belgaum, who was co-pilot to Wing Commander T S Chauhan, was bubbling with joy on completing the race. Like Prashanti, she too belongs to the 8 Karnataka Air Squadron.Smita Patil with Wing Commander T S Chauhan

Prashanthi and Smita were among the ten NCC cadets with at least 100 hours of flying experience.

Air Commodore M S Jauhar, Deputy Director General of NCC, said the cadets were put through a stringent selection process for entry. The NCC, he said, had entered three aircraft -- all Zen Air micro lights, in each leg.

But the icing in the cake for the women participating in the race was Audrey Maben. Flying solo from Bangalore to Nagpur in an X-Air-F aircraft manufactured by the Bangalore-base Raj Hamsa, Maben said, "The experience has made me a better pilot."

The dark, lanky and obviously happy Maben said, "It was entirely my show -- planning, execution and decisions in mid-air were all mine."

Audrey had about 125 hours of flying experience before the race, including five hours of solo, which she did for her flying licence. The race has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the lady who teaches power gliding at Bangalore Aerosports.

Audrey had a scare on the first stage (Arakkonam to Cudappa) of the south leg itself when she ran out of fuel due to trouble in the main fuel tank of her aircraft. But the spunky lady managed to reach her destination.

She also encountered some bad weather on one of the stages, but kept her cool and came through with flying colours.

"The last three days have been very interesting. It was a great opportunity to learn," the proud Maben said.

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