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Back home but raring to go

Aarohi Pandit, left,and Keithair Misquitta.   | Photo Credit: AKHILESH KUMAR

At around 2000 feet, Aarohi Pandit hit a heavy downdraft. Mahi, the tiny Pipistrel Sinus 912 she was flying fell more than 700 feet towards the ocean. It felt, she says, “like a head-shot”, a punch to the face. Dazed for a few seconds, she collected her wits quickly: everything not fastened down — tracker, satphone, chocolate, water-bottle — had flown around in the cockpit. She tried to climb, but the turbulence was too severe.

And so, though she had waited two weeks for the weather window, and had flown two hours that day, with maybe another hour to get to her next halt, she turned the plane around and flew back to Kulusuk, a tiny island off the Greenland coast.

Some time after, the expedition’s controllers decided that global weather conditions, including the slightly early onset of winter, dictated that they should call a pause.

Mission interrupted

Ms. Pandit, 22, with her friend and fellow pilot Keithair Misquitta, 24, were about a third of the way into Women Empower (WE!), an attempt to become the first women to circumnavigate the earth in a light sport aircraft. They had already flown 12,900 km in 27 hops, covering 17 countries.The Atlantic crossing, which needed extra safety equipment, could only be done with one person in the tiny cockpit and the besties separated for the first time, after months of training and then the mission itself. The plan was that this ocean crossing would be done by Ms. Pandit, and after they had crossed North America together, Ms. Misquitta would fly the Pacific crossing — where similar safety precautions would be needed — solo.

The women already have significant achievements behind them, with their flight from the tropics to the Arctic. When she landed in Kulusuk, Ms. Pandit became the first Indian woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

The rest of the records will have to wait until spring, when the expedition will resume. For now, the pilots are back in Mumbai, with a packed calendar of engagements.

Joys and challenges

Looking back at their experiences since they started out from Patiala on August 7, Ms. Misquitta says it is hard to say what was best. Perhaps crossing 8,000-foot-high mountains in Iran: challenging, but so beautiful that it was as much fun not being the pilot in command, being able to just enjoy the view. The tough bit? The long, unplanned wait in Canada for Ms. Pandit, the first time in several months the friends were separated, though they did talk for hours every day. And the bland food: “I will never eat another pizza, pasta or Subway sandwich again. The only flavouring available was salt and pepper.” She is now plotting how she can add to her tiny baggage quota when they resume their mission; she wants to carry home-made East Indian bottle masala with her.

Ms. Pandit says that the five hours and 40 minutes flight from Wick, Scotland to Hofn, a tiny island off Iceland, her longest sortie ever, was also, “Oh my god, my favourite flight ever! The sunlight off the ocean, the view, the first half-hour I couldn’t take the smile off my face.”

Close competition would be approaching Kulusuk from Reykjavik — flying low, about 900 feet above the water, and just before she would need to climb to around 3,000, she spotted her first whale — and crossing the English Channel, being able to see France and the British Isles simultaneously. The Kulusuk wait was the hardest. Having to wait for clear weather for two weeks, filing flight plans almost every day was hard, and the cold, with night temperatures dropping to -7°C made her ill for a few days. When she had her period, she had to take a boat to another island to buy sanitary pads, because the only grocery store in Kulusuk was closed; but she got to see more whales then, so she calls that a plus.

For both of them, while it’s great to be reunited with each other and family, they know that the mission is incomplete. They’re counting the days: there is a world waiting.

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Printable version | Oct 30, 2020 8:11:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/back-home-but-raring-to-go/article25145510.ece

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