Travelling The Uncharted Terrain: Squadron Leader Anuj Verma
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference." ~ Robert Frost.
As engineering students from a top-notch college, we are shown a sky full of stellar and sweet careers opportunities. However, certain prestigious careers are far less explored and are famous for being challenging. Squadron Leader Anuj Verma, an alumnus of the 2010 batch from the Department of Civil Engineering, chose an Unconventional Career Path as a Helicopter Pilot in the Indian Air Force. Team Monday Morning got the golden opportunity to have an interactive and candid session with Sqn Ldr Anuj Verma.
Life before NITR
Monday Morning (MM): How was your childhood, schooling and life before joining NIT Rourkela?
Sqn Ldr Anuj Verma (AV): My father was a Chemistry teacher, and he later went on to become a Principal. In my childhood, I got the opportunity to study in various schools, and they were of different backgrounds such as BHEL, Army and Air Force background. At one point, we were in Dehradun, which was close to the Indian Military Academy (IMA), so I used to watch the cadets running around, which inspired me a lot. I did my schooling from various KVs, so I got the opportunity to participate in multiple science fairs, and I was also part of the Rashtrapati’s Scout. All these coming together sowed that seed of passion regarding the Armed Forces in me at a very young age.
MM: How did NIT Rourkela happen?
AV: When I was in 12th grade, I got the opportunity to interact with Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. I always dreamt of being an astronaut, so I asked him how one could become an astronaut. He then told me there are two ways to go about it. First, one could become a Scientist from ISRO, be an astronaut or join the Armed Forces, be a Test Pilot, and become an astronaut. This particular event played a significant role in my life. So I decided to go on the second path and to do that. I needed to have an analytical mind, so I chose engineering before joining the Armed Forces.
Life at NITR
MM: How did your four years of engineering go at the NIT Rourkela?
AV: It was a beautiful and mind-blowing journey. NIT Rourkela helped me to grow a lot. When you live with your parents, you don't develop as much as a fully independent identity. During my days at NIT Rourkela, I got the Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana (KVPY), through which I got into various internships at IIT Bombay.
The best thing about NIT Rourkela is that it builds and develops a person in whichever field one wants to grow. I developed beautiful friendship bonds here. The institute helped me complete the projects I wanted to do, which helped me.
MM: How significant has NIT Rourkela been in shaping your life and career?
AV: The role of NIT Rourkela was significant, and it was vital in my career building. It made me grow into the person I am right now. I realised my potentials, strengths and weaknesses at NIT Rourkela itself. I cherish all the moments spent in those four years.
Joining the Forces
MM: What drove you towards pursuing a career in the Indian Air Force, which requires a tremendous amount of commitment and passion, putting aside the lucrative placements on campus?
AV: After my interaction with Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, I was highly motivated. I realised that first, I aim to become an engineer, so I chose Engineering. But later, I felt that I needed to know what the life of a pilot looks like, as that was what I was aiming to become. I tried to contact my friends and relatives who were in the Air Force back then. I got to know about a person from my locality. He was a pilot posted in Pune, and I went to him and asked how he felt and his general routine; getting to know about his experience felt great. There were a bunch of guys who were playing cricket. They were so energetic and cheerful, so different from our usual perception of pilots. We usually think that they must be serious, but it wasn't so, it was just a Sunday afternoon, and they were playing cricket.
Friendship is essential in life. When I entered his room, his overalls were hanging in one of the almirahs, and there were so many badges on it, I felt motivated.
Secondly, I joined paragliding just because I wanted to experience what it means to be a pilot and how they feel.
MM: If you wanted to join the forces, why did you specifically choose engineering as a gateway?
AV: Since I wanted to develop my technical mind, it becomes a one-way route after joining the forces, and you think what the forces require (want) you to think. I wanted to broaden my horizons; to know things beyond the Air Force. Hence, I went for engineering.
MM: What was your mindset like during your college years towards your career?
AV: I was a backbencher during my college days, and I am grateful to my Professors in Civil Engineering for bearing with me. I was one of those who used to study one day before exams and clear them. I was in a mindset to finish the course anyhow and later join the Air Force. Most of my time at the college went into the Udaan club and building Human-Powered Aircraft (click here to know more about the origin of Udaan).
MM: You joined the Indian Air Force through the prestigious Combined Defence Services (CDS) after graduation. So, when did you start your preparation for the CDS? What were the resources that you referred to for your preparation?
[Combined Defence Services Examination is conducted by UPSC twice a year for Permanent and Short Service Commission in the Indian Armed Forces. Candidates can select their preferences for Indian Military Academy (IMA), Indian Air Force Academy (AFA), Indian Naval Academy (INA) and Officers Training Academy (OTA).] (CDS)
AV: I started the preparation in my final year, and the preparation had two-part, the first one for the written examination and the second one for the SSB interview. The written examination is a relatively more straightforward part, for which I purchased the CDS Book, studied it for a month and cleared the written examination. The central element is the SSB interview, a life-changing experience and a five-day interview. It’s a personality test, and you need to be excellent at sports, games, team activities and have a mindset for joining the Air Force.
I would like to narrate an incident about Manender Yadav (now Major Manender Yadav); we were together in Civil Engineering. He was passionate about the Indian Army, and I was passionate about the Indian Air Force. So, we always used to tell this dialogue from the Border movie, “Tum hi tum ho toh kya tum ho, hum hi hum hain to kya hum hai”. We both knew that we needed to develop ourselves for the SSBs, so we decided to hike to Jharsuguda. On the first day, our cycle got punctured, and we came back but decided to complete the trip another day, and we did it. The main advantage of this trip was that I narrated this experience in my SSB interview. He narrated the same experience about me in his interview, and we both got selected.
This is a long term process, and you need to grow as a team member because, in the Armed Forces, you are always the leader and the follower.
Regarding the SSBs, it is better to know what will happen; it is better to talk to people to get a fair idea about what is in the interview because it's a life-changing experience. It's advisable to have at least one mock interview.
MM: What were the hurdles you faced during your preparation? How did you overcome those?
AV: The main hurdle was in preparing for the medicals. When I checked the medical criteria, it had a particular leg length, and I was not fulfilling the requirements. So, at the beginning of my fourth year, I was pretty disappointed and started researching how to increase my leg length and found that cycling can increase my leg length. So, I used to cycle the whole ring road every week. But in the end, I came to know that the way I was increasing my leg length was wrong, and surprisingly I also came to understand that the leg length I had, in the beginning, was perfectly fine.
MM: How was your experience at the SSB and Medicals?
[After qualifying CDS Written, candidates undergo a 5-day selection process called Services Selection Board (SSB). A board of assessors will mark the candidate based on psychology, ground training and personal interview. After the board recommends the candidate, they have to undergo a full-body medical check-up. ] (Medical Standards)
AV: Regarding my SSB, it was fun; I mean, I liked it. Because you don't need to pretend to be somebody else, you just need to be you, and it is the job of the GTO (Ground Training Officer) to select the turnout. Either you have in you, or you don't; there’s no middle ground. And the best part of the SSB interview was that I was doing exactly what I felt to do and some of the suggestions. My SSB went smoothly, but my medicals went a bit tough. Usually, the medicals for pilots happen for 5-6 days. Maybe it was destiny testing me and showed that every one working towards their dream should be persistent and determined. Things will happen.
Life at the Indian Air Force Academy, Hyderabad:-
MM: After clearing the CDS, you went to the Indian Air Force Academy, Hyderabad, for your training before commissioning into the service. After securing AIR 1 in the CDS, you joined the Indian Air Force Academy; what were your reaction and experience?
AV: When I got the results, I was amazed regarding my AIR 1. I was an ordinary guy throughout my life; I was never in the First position in any examinations. It was amazing to see me top the board. After this, when I went to Air Force Academy Hyderabad, the training was tough. In typical engineering, we are not used to physical training or punishments. In the first month, you are not allowed to walk; you are always running. I lost about 10 kgs in the first month because you are running throughout. Apart from this, there is physical training as well as getting the military bearings. Since I was a pilot cadet, I had to study various subjects like aerodynamics and flying. So we were in that also; it was a mixture of everything. We were cut off from the outside world, so it is a dedicated effort that was challenging, but it was fun.
MM: What was your experience in all the three stages of training at the academy?
[A flight cadet who chooses flying branch has to undergo 3 stages of training; each of 24 weeks duration at the Air Force Academy, Dundigal, Hyderabad.] (Training)
AV: There are three stages of training. Stage 1 is about Physical conditioning; it's about getting the military bearing and obtaining the service knowledge. Simultaneously you gain knowledge about various aerodynamics and subjects related to flying. You are not studying just to clear the examination; one has to learn and apply the knowledge the next day in a real-time scenario. This lasts for the first six months.
The 2nd stage happened at the Air Force Academy. I began my pilot training in Kiran Aircraft, and the important thing was that we had limited time in which a cadet had to perform. Only a dedicated effort towards flying can make you succeed. And then I wanted to be in the Fighter Pilot stream, and I got into it; that was a pleasant experience.
Regarding the 3rd stage, once I got selected into the fighter stream, I went to the Fighter Training Wing (FTW) at Hakimpet. We were all young fighter pilots. And out of our batch, 10 per cent of us couldn't make it to the next stage. It was a day-to-day challenge we had to go through. A test happens every day; every time I step into the cockpit, it is a test, it is a test to bring out the full potential of the aircraft using my knowledge.
MM: What was that feeling after you completed your training successfully and were commissioned into the service?
[Combined Graduation Parade (CGP) or Passing out Parade (POP) is a ceremony that marks the end of the training of a flight cadet. Cadets are formally welcomed as officers of the Indian Air Force and given their rank of a Flying Officer.]
That particular ceremony is called the Passing out Parade. I had invited my parents and my grandfather for my POP. Their shining faces and glittering eyes were reflecting the whole story. They were proud parents at that time, and it was a fantastic moment. It was an amazing sense of achievement after earning your wings because, throughout the training, you focus on one thing to earn the wings. Those wings, now I wear on my uniform, and I feel proud wearing those wings.
Life of Dreams:- Life at the Indian Air Force
MM: How do you see yourself evolve from an engineering graduate to an executive rank like a Squadron Leader?
AV: I'm very grateful, and I’m satisfied with my life. I’m achieving the goals that I set for myself, even balancing work and life. It feels incredible, getting very energetic and a soothing environment for my family. It's a service to the nation, and I feel very privileged to say that my country is counting on me, making me responsible for flying our aircraft, which costs hundreds of crores, even my helmet costs 75 lacs. This is the scale of responsibility upon us. The cost of one missile costs in crores; acquiring them and using them is over us. So it is a massive responsibility that the mission gives upon us, and I'm feeling very grateful for that.
MM: Many aspirants in the country dream of getting into the forces. Could you please provide a brief insight into life at the IAF?
AV: As we say, we don't meet targets at the Indian Air Force; we destroy them. Life at the Indian Air Force is extraordinary; it gives you immense satisfaction when you get the thing done perfectly. At any given time, one is always a leader as well as a follower, many look up to me, and a lot of responsibility is entrusted upon me. This profession gives a protective environment for the family as well. It's a different feeling altogether when you walk wearing your overalls. The pride is over the roof.
Life in general
MM: There might be various ups and downs and a massive amount of stress to deal with in the forces. What keeps you motivated?
AV: You don't find your willpower; you need to create it. We keep on getting several missions every now and then, and that keeps me motivated. When you save the bigger aim in mind, you will not lose your focus and will not be demotivated by the short term failures. Ultimately, you have to win the war and to win it, every battle need not be won.
MM: Would you like to share any message with the students and aspirants out there?
Everybody has their call, and you will get the call from inside at one point in time. Nobody will tell you that this is your call and this is what you want to do. You will get that call from inside. Now, how you will get the call; you need to gain experience and feel it, and at a certain point in time, you will get that call. After getting the call, interact with the people in that field and know what they do and what they feel. Ultimately you will find your way. Believe in yourself; things will happen.
Team MM congratulates Sqn Ldr Anuj Verma for his achievements and wishes all the best for his future endeavours. He has paved the path for many aspirants out there and has been the source of inspiration for many.
Design Credits:- Cyrus Roy