How Remadevi Thottathil took the road less traveled to become India's first woman Naval ATC
ATC (Air traffic controller) is a critical function in aviation, a role where a spilt second of delay in decision can endanger people and aircrafts. When the first woman ATC donned her Naval uniform she was not aware of the perilous nature of her role.
This was because the Armed Forces had not opened their doors to women before that. When in July 1992 the Indian Navy started inducting women as Short Service Commissioned officers in select branches of the Navy including ATC (Air Traffic Controller), Remadevi Thottathil was the first woman to walk through its gates.
Born and brought up in a sleepy little village, Nemom near Trivandrum in Kerala, she did her schooling
and graduation from Trivandrum. When it came to the question of a career, she had two options before her- to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor or do a post-graduation and become an educationist. And then suddenly everything changed.Her brother brought her a newspaper clipping with the announcement about the entry of women to Naval Air Traffic services.
Remadevi’s brother was in NCC and had dreams of joining the forces. His talk about the glory of serving the nation and donning the uniform had fascinated Remadevi and aroused her curiosity in this field. This, with the desire to do something offbeat, led her to apply for the interview.
The decision made, an excited and enthusiastic Remadevi headed to Bhopal for the interview. “I cleared the tedious tests and interviews spanning over four days and even the stringent medical tests to qualify and the final hurdle of making it into the merit list as well to get the appointment letter to Indian Navy – Short Service Commission – ATC –Branch.”
Remadevi had set on the road less travelled. She was one among the three girls who were selected to join the first batch of Women Air traffic controllers with Indian Navy.
On 9th August 1993 she joined the Naval Academy in Goa. The thrill of it was hard to contain, but on the first day of the commencement of the military training the truth hit home that the rigorous training was going to break old moulds and remould her into stronger, better person-ready to defend the motherland.
The forces had been the bastions of men but this pioneer batch of ladies who went through the various drills, parades, academics or weapon handling and wore the same uniform as the men did. “But we did,” says Remadevi, “all of it with grace and elan and at par with our male counterparts, if not better.”
Reminiscing about those days, she shares that it was a time where there was no realization of what they were doing – creating history. She remembers how exhilarating it was to win the best in practical’s trophy at the Air Force Academy and how without prior exposure or experience she was able to outperform her counterparts.
The rigorous military training in Naval Academy – Goa taught me the highly disciplined ways of armed forces and then the Air Force academy where I was introduced to the blue skies of our nations and the mighty machines and the men who guard our skies. Being the first lady controller was an exciting and gripping experience as no two days were alike in a zero error tolerance environment. The environment in a control tower when fighters fly is similar to that of an English action movie — with the radars blipping and the tense moments between the controller and pilots in conversation on various scenarios.
As aviation is a zero error tolerance field, process compliance and process discipline are the highest. ATC is considered as one of the most stressful jobs in the world as you are constantly dealing with life critical scenarios/missions while handling fighter aircraft operations. The biggest challenge for an ATC Officer is to stay calm amidst the chaos and converse with the pilots without revealing the real strained scenario on the ground. A task Remadevi proudly performed. She served for 10 years, from 1993 to 2003, as an Air Traffic Controller with naval aviation.
As the organizational mechanism of the naval aviation was not ready for a long-term association with the lady officers, Remadevi was offered a service extension up to 14 years and retirement without pension or benefits. Since she could not accept this proposal, she decided to move on after the completion of her 10-year contract.She stepped into the ‘civilian’ world with her ‘ex-service woman’ tag to explore new avenues. She found her way into the corporate world in the Human Resource sector. She kickstarted her corporate career in hiring for a UK-multinational and worked in various IT/ITES organisations heading the HR function. One of the most challenging profiles she handled was the entire HR and industrial relations of a business group dealing with liquor. Given the work with liquor industry, she had the opportunity to deal with union leaders, government machinery dealing with excise and the various aspects of labour laws. It was a great learning experience for her.
She moved back to the IT industry and is currently the head of Global Talent Management, ITC Infotech and is based out of Bangalore.
Married to Cdr.Mohanraj (retd.) of the India Navy, she has two daughters. Other than controlling the skies and managing people, she loves to paint, sing and read. A voracious reader and a woman who has donned multiple career hats, Remadevi has follwed her heart. She has found the space, time and energy to pursue all her passions and manage her work. She has never differentiated between work, family, life- for her all the roles co-exist and therefore, there has never been a question of balance. She adds, “I do not try to be a super woman in any of the roles. I accept my shortcomings and work on them to improve myself.”
Of the multiple hats she has donned, what is select information is that, just for fun, she even participated in Mrs. Chennai 2008 — Woman of Substance competition and was crowned the first runner up!
A firm believer of the thought- the only person who stands between you and your dreams is YOU- Remadevi says, “dreams do come true. Even if the rest of the world discourages you and disbelieves you, you can still hold on to your dream and, without getting discouraged, focus on your dream, strive towards it– it has to come true!”
Citing her own example she says-
“Given my very modest background, if I could come storming into male bastions and lead men in uniform and control fighter planes – this new generation is far more equipped to take the world on by its horns and prove themselves better.”