Capt Zoya Agarwal, commander of AI 176, crossed out the word ‘impossible’ from her dictionary one more time when she landed the nearly 17-hour direct flight from San Francisco via the North Pole at the Bengaluru international airport on January 11. As an eight-year-old, Zoya Sapra, now Agarwal, enjoyed star-gazing. “I would look at the stars all night and be fascinated by the trail that flying planes left. By the time I was 12, I had my own telescope. But when I told my parents that I wanted to pursue flying as a career, my mother had tears in her eyes,” she says. This is impossible, insisted her conservative Punjabi family, which had settled in Delhi after Partition. But Zoya was determined. Her parents finally gave in to the wishes of their only child. There’s been no looking back since she first started flying 17 years ago. This mother of two — a nine-year-old daughter and an 11-month-old son — has a flying experience of more than 8,000 hours.
“Every simple reality starts with a dream. Work hard, remain focused and impossible will become possible,” says Delhi-based Capt Agarwal. So when her daughter, a mathematics wizard, says that she wants to become the President of India, why not!
From 1956 when Capt Durba Banerjee became India’s first woman commercial pilot to world’s first all-women crew flight in 1985 to now, we have come a long way. The all-women cockpit crew of Capt Zoya Agarwal, Capt Thanmai Papagari, Capt Akanksha Sonaware and Capt Shivani Manhas created history when they flew Boeing 777-200LR connecting San Francisco with Bengaluru. Covering a distance of nearly 16,000 km, the direct flight between the two tech cities on diametrically opposite sides of the world would save both time and fuel. This feat has made it the longest commercial flight to be operated by an Indian airline. Piloting the flight over the North Pole was quite an experience for these women, but their personal journeys have been equally interesting.
“Why don’t you make your son a pilot instead of your daughter?” The parents of Capt Shivani Manhas from Jammu often had to hear this ‘advice’ from friends and relatives. So it was a moment of immense pride for the family when their little girl went on to create history. The small-town girl was in for a surprise when she was selected for a coveted place in the team.
“At the Pole, it was pitch dark. The sky was clear and one could see millions of stars. The atmosphere in the plane was electrifying,” says Capt Shivani.
The 29-year-old is getting married sometime this year to her Chandigarh-based fiance. Her bond with the City Beautiful, however, is much deeper. As a student at Lawrence School, Sanawar, she, and her friends, would often drive down from Kasauli hills to Sector 17 and grab a bite at one of the happening eateries at the plaza.
Flying was something she hadn’t considered as a career till an opportunity came her way to join a flying club in Madhya Pradesh, where her father’s friend was the chief flying officer. Once she started flying, she knew it was there that her calling lay. Interestingly, she got her licence to fly before she got her driver’s licence. Whenever traffic cops would stop her, she would wriggle out by flashing her flying licence, she reveals.
At 5’2”, Mumbai-based Capt Thanmai Papagari was often asked, “How will you fly a plane? You are so tiny.” To this, she would calmly reply, “I don’t have to push it. I just need to pilot it.” For this mother of two daughters, seven-year and 15-month-old, flying was something she had set her heart on quite early in life while her family was living near a flying club in Hyderabad. “I would keep looking at the two-seater Cessna 152 which would fly over my house.” Her family was initially sceptical about her decision but supported her.
Compared to when she joined flying in 1998, she says a lot of women are entering this field. “Our feat and the way media has covered this event will pave the way for many who want to join this profession,” says Capt Papagari, who alternates shifts with her pilot husband so that one of them is at home to take care of the kids, “Else, mom is just a call away,” she adds.
According to Mumbai-based Capt Akanksha Sonawane, “We didn’t have any precedent before us for this route so a lot of preparation went into it. This included briefings on polar routing and preparing for challenges like crossing over the area of magnetic unreliability over the North Pole. We were also trained in landing diversion in case communication and navigation systems got affected due to the magnetic field”. Capt Sonawane joined flying in 2010 inspired by her sister who is a commander on the Air India Dreamliner Boeing 787.
Capt Nivedita Bhasin, executive director (Flight Safety), also travelled on this flight. She has the distinction of being the youngest woman pilot in the world to fly a Boeing 737.
For the cockpit crew of this historic flight, the experience they got on this inaugural flight, including witnessing the beautiful aurora borealis or the Northern Lights, is something they’ll cherish forever. The cherry on top was when the plane landed, and applause from the passengers and the air traffic control staff resonated through the plane. “They have done India proud.”