A ride through the clouds

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Olympic bronze medalist Saina Nehwal was in for some adventure as she took to the skies in an IAF aircraft

TS Sudhir 
Hyderabad

Her otherwise doting dad had put his foot down when badminton ace Saina Nehwal expressed a desire to buy an Audi A8 after winning five titles in 2010. Reason—her father feared that the flashy car would tempt her to speed and he wasn’t for taking chances.

On Friday, however, without batting an eyelid, Dr Harvir Singh let his 22-year-old daughter take off to the skies in a Kiran Mark II trainer aircraft of the Indian Air Force. “I am, in fact, jealous that she got to do it and I couldn’t,” he chuckled. “It is such a big honour for Saina.”

Nehwal was at the Air Force Academy in Dundigul, on the outskirts of Hyderabad, to take part in the closing ceremony of the inter-squandron sports championship. But the offer to get into a pilot’s uniform was the icing on the cake. The child in her came to the fore when she admitted, before getting into the aircraft, that at that moment she was more excited than she was when she won the bronze medal at the London Olympics a month ago.

Accompanying her was Group Captain Nagesh Kapoor, who is chief instructor for flying at the Academy. His brief was to ensure that Nehwal held steady. “I was a little scared first because I have never done anything like this before. It was like playing a video game,” admitted Nehwal, while talking at length about how it was to whiz past the clouds. The shuttler flew in a designated airspace with no traffic for about 20 minutes.

“We went inside a cloud and I was very scared, thinking it would get turbulent. But it turned out to be the best moment. I will do this more often because it is very thrilling,” said Nehwal. Almost on cue, the IAF officer promised her that she could fly a fighter aircraft the next time when she wins a gold medal at the Olympics.

“Initially she made me nervous when she said she is likely to feel giddy,” said Group Captain Kapoor. “But once we took off, she was fantastic. We were in no doubt about her fitness levels, knowing her profile, but we had given her tips about combating airsickness.”

With Friday’s ride in the skies, Nehwal, who otherwise has her feet firmly planted on the ground, joins shooter Abhinav Bindra who took a ride in an F-16 at the Bangalore Air show in 2009. Others like Sachin Tendulkar and M S Dhoni have been offered to fly in the jet by the IAF but have not done so yet.

This is not the first time an honour out of the ordinary has come Nehwal’s way. In 2010, Nehwal walked the ramp at the Hyderabad Fashion Week dressed in bridal wear, a task she had describe then as both tough and exciting. The same year, the shuttler was offered the post of the DSP in Haryana police, an offer she turned down, refusing to trade her badminton racquet for a baton. Today is perhaps proof that Nehwal is destined for higher things.

TS Sudhir is the author of Saina Nehwal: An Inspirational Biography, which was released in July 2012.

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