The world will have to wait

Mother Nature calls a pause to the plan by two young Mumbai women to circumnavigate the earth

Updated - October 05, 2018 12:12 pm IST

Published - October 05, 2018 01:10 am IST - Mumbai

 High-flyers:  Aarohi Pandit (left) and Keithair Misquitta in  the cockpit of  Mahi,   at Patiala flying club.

High-flyers: Aarohi Pandit (left) and Keithair Misquitta in the cockpit of Mahi, at Patiala flying club.

On August 7, Aarohi Pandit, 22, and Keithair Misquitta, 24, took off from Bhuj and landed in Karachi, becoming the first Indian aircraft piloted by an all-woman crew to land in Pakistan.

The Mumbai duo were just the beginning of a far more ambitious quest: Women Empower (WE!), as their expedition is called, is their attempt to become the first women to circumnavigate the earth in a light sport aircraft. (See The Hindu Magazine, July 28 .)

In the weeks since, Mahi (the plane’s nickname; its call sign is VT-NBF) made its way across west Asia and then Europe. In Scotland, for the first time, the pilots separated. The North Atlantic crossing, arguably the most challenging leg of the expedition, required extra safety precautions, like a life raft strapped to the co-pilot’s seat, so there was only space for one pilot in the tiny Pipistrel Sinus 912 cockpit. On September 6, while Ms. Misquitta went ahead to Canada to wait, Ms. Pandit flew from Wick, Scotland to Hofn in Iceland. From there she flew to Reykjavik, and then to Kulusuk in Greenland, one of the remotest airfields in the world. In the process, she became the first Indian woman pilot to have flown solo over the Atlantic Ocean in an ultralight.

There, the weather changed. Ms. Pandit made several attempts to fly further south, but had to turn back as the conditions were dangerous. Eventually, expedition director Rahul Monga and Social Access, which planned the trip, decided that for the safety of the crew, it was best to pause. “We are seeing some very unusual weather conditions this year all over the world with winter setting in much earlier than expected in North America,” he said. “When it comes to Mother Nature, whether you are a man or a woman, it is best to remain respectful and wait your turn.”

Lynne de Souza, founder of Social Access, told The Hindu that the expedition will resume around March. Their aircraft will remain in Greenland. Ms. Misquitta, who returned to Mumbai earlier this week (Ms. Pandit is en route back as this report is being filed) said that while they knew that the decision to pause was in the best interests of the pilots, it still felt heartbreaking to leave Mahi behind after spending months with her as almost an extension of their bodies. “I spoke to Aarohi as she was securing the aircraft, and she seemed like she would burst into tears.” It has been life-changing so far, she says, “But it’s only the first part.” She looks forward to being able to continue the expedition in spring.

The expedition has so far gone from the tropics to the Arctic, 12,900 km in 27 hops, covering 17 countries. Mr. Monga, a retired IAF wing commander and now an aviation entrepreneur, who has himself circumnavigated the globe in a microlight in 2008, says, “What they have done until now is absolutely incredible. With their level of experience, reaching this destination in itself is mind-boggling.”

The organising team will use the time until then to raise more funds for the rest of the expedition, but also to have the young pilots spread their message of the empowerment of women. They have a packed schedule of events ahead, starting on Saturday, with a felicitation by the Indian Women Pilots Association.

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