Celebrating achievements and positive changes is a necessity. And celebrating individuals who make these possible, is even more important. Because we never know, whose story will inspire whom, and will lead onto a new story. India, with its developing and evolving social structure, has many such stories. Especially of women, who tread their way into different spheres that were once thought to be off limits for them. One such story is of Padmavathy Bandopadhyay, first female Air Marshal of Indian Air Force (IAF), and second female officer of Indian Armed Force to have been promoted to the three star rank.
Starting of the journey
Born on 4th November 1944, her birth name was Padmavathy Swaminathan. She was born to Mr. V. Swaminathan and Mrs. Alamelu, at Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. With her mother being in hospital most of the time, these experiences drove Padma to take up medicine, so that she could help those who needed medical expertise.
She did her pre-medical studies from Kirori Mal College, Delhi and stood first in the course. Then she went ahead and cleared the entrance test for the first batch of then established Armed Forces Medical College, Pune. But, due to her family’s reluctance to send her away for such a long period to study medicine, she, unfortunately, could not join the first batch. But she didn’t bow down to this challenge and after convincing her parents, she finally joined the second batch of AFMC in 1963. With an extraordinary overall record, she graduated in 1968, having opted for Indian Air Force and doing her internship in Air Force Hospital, Bangalore.
Flying to the success
She was inducted into IAF in1968. Sadly, some complications regarding her eyesight cut her dream short to become a pilot. But she took that in stride and went ahead to pursue specialization in aviation medicine. With the completion of her specialization in 1975, she became the first female officer to become an aviation medicine specialist.
She married Flt Lt. S. N. Bandopadhyay, whom she met at Air Force Hospital. They became the first husband-wife team to be awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) by the President in the same defence ceremony, due to their contribution to the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. They were posted together in the Halwara air base, Punjab.
During her posting in Defence Institute of Physiology & Allied Science (DIPAS) as a Wing Commander , she did commendable research work about high altitude. With her expertise, she contributed in the development of a new acclimatization schedule for Indian Soldiers at high altitudes and also directed the preventive measures to complications like High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema and High Altitude Cerebral Oedema.
She also happens to be the first woman Armed Force Officer to complete the Defence Service Staff College course, with her completing it in 1978. With her promotion to Group Captain rank, she was handed over the responsibility for the post of Deputy Principal Medical Officer of Westren Air Command, IAF. She went down into history when she became the first Lady Air Commodore of IAF, on 26th June, 2000. Along with this rank, she got the honour to command the prestigious IAF Medical Unit – Air Force Central Medical Establishment. For her impeccable performance in all the posts held by her and utmost dedication towards her duty, she was awarded with the prestigious Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) on 26th January, 2002.
She was then promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal, and with that became the first lady to hold this post, not only in IAF, but across all the Air Forces in the world. Following this achievement, she took over the post of Additional Director General Armed Forces Medical Services. She handled this post with great success, which led to her promotion to the highest rank in the medical branch, Air Marshal, which happens to be a three star rank and the second highest active post in IAF. This momentous occurrence took place on 1st October, 2004. With that, she became the first Lady Air MArshal in the whole world, and also attained the honour of being the first Lady Director General Medical Services of the forces.
Apart from achievements in the Armed forces, she also holds the illustrious achievements of being the member of Indian Society of Aerospace Medicines (again being the first woman to do so!), International Medical Society and New York Academy of Sciences. She also took part in a research expenditure in the North Pole, and dedicated four months (November 1989 and February 1990) to this, being the first Indian woman to do so. She was also awarded the Indira Priyadarshini Award for all her glorious accomplishments, and was the first lady in uniform to get this honour. She also happens to be the first lady who is the Honorary Surgeon of the President of India.
She served the Indian Air Force until 2005 and was awarded the Param Vishist Seva Medal in January 2006. In 2020, she was awarded the Padma Shree for her contribution to the medical field.
With an exhaustive list of ‘firsts’ and achievements, Air Marshal Padma Bandopadhyay is truly an ultimate inspiration, who has excelled in everything she has ever set her mind to, against all the odds. Her memoir is titled as The Lady in Blue.