HORIZON
 

She dares to dive
Rachel Thomas: On cloud nineAs India's only woman civilian skydiver, Rachel Thomas has enthralled people around the world with her daredevil jumps, loops and circle formations in the sky. A report by Surabhi Khosla


F
or Rachel Thomas, success came plummeting down to earth from the heavens above. India's only civilian woman skydiver, Rachel wanted to fly like a bird and swoop down like a vulture ever since she was four.

NO MISS-ING THIS ACTION
Meet India's first all-woman security group who are out to make cities safe for women
The going can be tough for young women working late hours. That's what Anisha (name changed) found out as she headed home at 11 pm from Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport where she works as a senior executive with a Gulf airline.

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She dares to dive

As India's only woman civilian skydiver, Rachel Thomas has enthralled people around the world with her daredevil jumps, loops and circle formations in the sky. A report by Surabhi Khosla

Rachel ThomasFor Rachel Thomas, success came plummeting down to earth from the heavens above.

India's only civilian woman skydiver, Rachel wanted to fly like a bird and swoop down like a vulture ever since she was four.

Married to an armed forces officer, Rachel took skydiving lessons at the Indian Skydiving Federation,Agra and later went on to do an advanced course from the Raeforts Institute in North Carolina, USA. In 1979, she jumped out of an aircraft to become India's first civilian women skydiver.

Nervous starter

" Once I was outfitted I headed toward the door and was told to step into the jump bar, hold on to the wing strut (the metallic bar which holds the wings to the aircraft's body). I had to wait for the signal when the pilot would cut back on the throttle and minimise turbulence. I was scared out of my wits. I was so nervous that my hands were sweating. I slipped and accidentally opened my parachute."

The third time Rachel attempted to skydive, she again hung on to the strut and refused to let go. "My instructor, a French lady, had to lean out and push me. If the parachute had opened automatically and hit the aircraft, there could have been a dreadful accident and everyone could have died."

The distressing incident didn't end there. The instructor grounded Rachel and it was only after a lot of pleading that her teacher decided to give her another chance. This time around, Rachel mentally worked on her fear factor and dived like a pro.

Today, 24 years into skydiving, Rachel has completed a record number of jumps -670 to be precise. But there was a time when Rachel was so obsessed that she didn't care about her family. "The passion and the thrill of skydiving were immeasurable. At one point of time, I even stopped thinking that I was leaving behind two children to participate in a potentially dangerous adventure sport," says Rachel.

Rachel has enthralled people in 15 countries around the world including USA, Australia, Seoul and Turkey. In August 2004, she became the cynosure of all eyes at the King Hussain Memorial Friendship jump at Amman, Jordan.

North Pole dive

The most memorable jump was at the North Pole at minus 55 degree Celsius. Rachel was wearing six layers of clothes and going to plunge 8000 feet. " It was my most adrenalin-pumping attempt ever. I wanted to revel in the beauty of what I was seeing and the bliss and the sheer high of what I was doing that I even removed the sunglasses that were used for protecting my eyes from the sun's reflected glare on the snow," she reminiscences.

A senior publicity officer at Northern Railways, Rachel knows the downside of the sport as well. Like many skydiving enthusiasts she too has had one near-fatal experience. The brush with death came in Turkey in 1987.

Rachel was preparing for a competition to be held in Indonesia. She had injured her shin the previous evening but was still going to attempt a practice jump from 3000 feet. When she opened her chute, she crouched to protect her shin but accidentally hit the button that opened the reserve chute.

"In such a situation, the rulebook says that the reserve goes between legs but I didn't want to injure my shin further. In that split second I decided to cut away my main parachute. That was a wrong decision. Because of the jerk, the reserve chute was pulled towards my main parachute and both got entangled. That's when I said my prayers." Luckily for her, she landed in a field and suffered only minor injuries. Had she landed on concrete she might have been paralysed forever.

The incidents emboldened her, as she says: "Death can occur any time, why be scared of it. So I took these two incidents as a challenge and became even more determined."

The sport has become safer. Modern parachutes are square, not round. Because of this design and the 'toggles' that allow a diver to control direction, manoeuvering is not difficult, she says.

Today Rachel is the proud possessor of all the four licences-A,B,C,D. Licence A is awarded after 10 free falls. Licence B after a diver masters the manoeuvering techniques. A formation in the air qualifies a diver for licence C and Licence D is given to those who are ready to become instructors in skydiving.

" Skydiving is a sophisticated form of parachuting. In normal parachuting one jumps from around 350 meters (1000-1200 feet) whereas in skydiving the minimum height of the jump begins from 1500 meters (around 5000 feet)," says Rachel who over the past two decades has dived from aircraft ranging from C1-30 and AN-32 to MI-18, Bearers and Otters.

Rachel has received numerous awards including the Air Chief's commendation, in 1992, Railway Minister's Award, in 1993 and the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Award, 1995. She is the first Indian to receive the National Adventure Award in 1994 that is on a par with the Arjuna Award.

No recognition

She still feels that skydiving is a neglected adventure sport. " Even mountaineers get a Padma Shri but skydiving does not get the required recognition. There is a lot of hard work, skill and mind control which goes into this sport," says Rachel. She wants to plan one last exhilarating expedition to celebrate 25 years in the sport before she hangs up her chute for good.

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NO MISS-ING THIS ACTION

Meet India's first all-woman security group who are out to make cities safe for women

These girls provide security to high-risk clients
These girls provide security to high-risk clients

The going can be tough for young women working late hours. That's what Anisha (name changed) found out as she headed home at 11 pm from Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport where she works as a senior executive with a Gulf airline.

As her car hit the road to her residence at Delhi's Sainik Farms-a distance of around 15 km she sensed trouble. Following her Maruti Zen at handshaking distance was a motorbike with two scruffy looking young men. Luckily, at the next traffic light she saw a male colleague and requested him to drive his car close to hers.

Phew. That was a lucky break, she thought. But trouble came on a motorbike next night again. Menacingly, the skid row type of boys would say nothing but just stare at her and once she hit the main road, they'd melt away in the traffic. Within a week, Anisha was a mental wreck and dreaded going to her airport duty five times a week.

Then she met a friend who put her in touch with an agency that changed her life. The next night she had another lady with her in jeans and tops. And sure enough the motorbike appeared once again. This time it was a double whammy for the guys-not one but two women to ogle at.

Anisha stopped the car, looked the hooligans in the face and smiled. Not believing their luck, they too pulled over and began grinning lewdly. In their excitement they didn't see Anisha's 'friend' slip out of the car. Within a flash, she kicked their bike and pinned them to the ground. Then she whipped out her walkie-talkie. Soon enough a police gypsy arrived and apprehended the eve teasers.

Super woman? India's own Charlie's Angel? No. Meet Shreya, a karate black-belter and one of the handful of professional lady bodyguards who can be hired by harassed women in need of protection.

"It's hazardous work but I quite enjoy it," says Shreya and adds, " It's nothing like what you see in serials and films. Here we have to face real-life goons who could be armed. But we are prepared all the time."

Vision Security Group, which won the prestigious Security Agency of the Year 2004 Award presented by International Institute of Security and Safety Management (IISSM) employs around 20 intrepid young ladies like Shreya who are all black belts in one martial art or another. They are all unarmed but are trained in the most effective techniques of combat.

Says Sunil Duggal, the owner of the agency, "Vision Security, a Delhi-based group, is one of the largest security services organisations in the National Capital Region. It is the first all-woman protection group. Its brief is to make cities safe for women."

These tough-looking eves with a no-nonsense air around them are trained in hand-to-hand unarmed combat, weapons disarming, grappling and ground fighting. They are also adept at edged weapons training, police control techniques and pressure points in the body.

"I was always the sporty type in school and was never afraid of anyone. When I opted for a career of a personal security officer, my friends were surprised. My parents tried to dissuade me," says the 20-something Taruna Sharma, a black belt in judo. She prevailed upon her family and is now one of tough young ladies who says her work gives her " a tremendous high. Now I also have family support."

Jyoti, a colleague adds, " In addition to family support there needs to be a strong belief in oneself and confidence in one's combat abilities. It is a good career for confident and assertive girls. In our social set-up, one is not used to the fair sex doing such work and find it impossible to believe that they can actually defend other people."

It is for the first time that young ladies have been trained to protect women. "This crack women's team was formed when we had to provide a cover for women who were not comfortable with male security. Every member of the team is equipped to handle all kinds of situations," says Duggal.

Apart from the rich and famous, other women hiring their services include senior executives and those staying alone. They accompany their clients wherever they go, even shopping and kitty parties. They are even trained to shadow keeping tabs potential troublemakers and get them apprehended.

But the service doesn't come cheap. It can cost upto Rs. 20,000 for an eight-hour shift for a period of 26 days a month.

In such an unusual profession can there real life models these girls look upto? Yes, says Jyoti. " We all have one idol we look up to and she is Kiran Bedi. We all want to become like her." Well, they've certainly made the right beginning. SK

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