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Women who fly

Indian skies are home to a growing number of women pilots. The Hindu spent time with three elite pilots to find out what makes them fly

March 10, 2018 12:15 am | Updated 12:05 pm IST

Shivani Reddy, SpiceJet

Shivani Reddy, SpiceJet

It is 8.30 in the morning on a Thursday. Shivani Reddy settles into a chair next to her mother Shobana. Her personal trainer has just left after a 45-minute session at their home in Chennai’s Avvai Shanmugam Salai. Her son Aadith, who was watching his mother throughout, even climbing on her during her plank exercise, wanders off after his father. Says Shobana, who has two daughters: “She is my younger kid, so she is very, very special to me. The kind of trouble she gave me was also special.”

The rebel in the sky

Reddy accepts the ‘problem child’ tag, speaking of the time when she was in college and her father, a retired Indian Air Force Group Captain, would nag her to join the Madras Flying Club. “I was a big rebel, I said no. By the time I was in my final year of college, they had stopped badgering me about becoming a pilot. And that’s when I decided to become a pilot,” she says. She joined SpiceJet in 2010 and returned to the company in 2017 after being briefly employed with another airline.

In December 2017, Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha said at the golden jubilee celebrations of the Indian Women Pilots’ Association (IWPA) that India has the most number of women pilots in the world. The IWPA, which conducted a survey ahead of its jubilee, had concluded that 12-13% of all pilots in commercial airlines in the country today were women.

Air India’s Executive Director and Chief of Flight Safety, Harpreet A De Singh, who is also the president of the IWPA, says that the corresponding number in the rest of the world is 2-4%. Singh attributes the comparatively high ratio in India to the scholarship assistance provided by successive governments and the familial support given to women. She admits that the “glamour and the magic” linked to being a pilot may have attracted young women.

Preparing for flight

Reddy is next headed to Port Blair, on flight SG 608 at 12.05 p.m. Only certain pilots are allowed to fly to Port Blair and are paid an allowance (₹1,500) for doing so. Diwakaran, her husband and a pilot who has flown to Port Blair, speaks of a “unidirectional runway with crazy weather” that can test pilots.

“When I land in the monsoon in Port Blair, the guys on the ground make bets saying I will land well. But I will not push myself to do anything out of the ordinary that may not be safe. I cannot do that,” Reddy says.

The cab for the airport has arrived. Reddy gives herself an hour to travel the 16 km to her terminal. She is expected to report to a back office of the airline 45 minutes before each flight and is due at the flight 25 minutes before departure. Carrying her cabin luggage-sized trolley suitcase, she takes the two flights of stairs down and avoids the elevator. “I don’t take the lift when I am going for a flight. I once got stuck in an elevator.”

Once inside the car, she lists the contents of her luggage. Licenses: Airline Transport Pilots’, Flight Radio Telephone Operators’, Radio Telephony Restricted; details of her last annual medical test, her 30th; passport; annual route check papers; simulator documents; personal headsets, which she prefers over the airline’s for hygienic reasons; a flashlight for walk-arounds of the aircraft at night; and an iPad. Once on a trip to Prague, people clapped after landing, she says. In India, women sometimes approach her after landings to congratulate her. But frequently, things are less pleasant.

“People look. If you are a girl, they stare. I’ve had a lot of people telling me things like, ‘You are a girl and you are flying. Are we safe?’ Sometimes they say, ‘ Paathu ottumaa (Be careful when you fly).’ You know, when a girl is driving a car, how people comment? Same thing,” she says.

The cab reaches Gate 1 of Chennai airport’s domestic departure terminal well ahead of schedule. Reddy orders a double-sized coffee from an outlet next to the gate. “I never touched coffee till I started flying,” she says.

She moves to the side of the building, pulling out a 1 mg cigarette. “Lesser guilt, nothing else!” There is a swirling worry about living healthy. Reddy thinks the stringent fitness demands make it an unpredictable profession. She is quite conscious of the potential risks to hearing from the loud sounds of the cockpit, tries to laugh off the annual medical assessment in which she is “always” advised to reduce weight, sometimes packs salads for lunch, worries about airline food, and baulks at a goodie bag of packaged snacks that the airline supplies to its pilots. Today, though, she has dates in her bag.

“If, for some reason I become unfit, what are my options? I can’t see myself doing anything else... I might want to start my own business, but I don’t see myself doing a desk job,” she says.

After the coffee and cigarette, Reddy is early by 20 minutes at the back office. While waiting for the flight documents to arrive, she pulls out a hardbound brown notebook from her suitcase. “My book of knowledge,” she calls it. Inside are notes of the “non-normals” that Reddy has come across. She has had it with her since 2014.

First Officer A.K. Gokulnath (31) joins Reddy and both of them clear their breath analyser tests — recorded before a video screen — in an adjacent medical room. Then she spends the next 30 minutes studying the weather forecast and wind predictions over Port Blair. Later, Reddy ducks under the nose of the Boeing 737-800 she is going to fly. She points to specific parts of the plane and asks the ground staff questions.

Inside the plane, Reddy’s pre-flight announcement is detailed. The passengers are not surprised when they hear that their Captain is a woman. Reddy announces the runway number, the departure sequence, explains that the take off will be in the easterly direction, that SG 608 will fly 11 km above sea level, that the outside temperature will be minus 50 degree Celsius and the cabin temperature between 22 and 25 degrees, and that they are likely to arrive five minutes ahead of the scheduled time, which is 2.15 p.m.

The flight lands in Port Blair nine minutes ahead of schedule. Reddy steps on to the tarmac after her passengers have alighted and returns to the flight, which is still being cleaned. She is anxious to know what the crew thought of her landing. “Ma’am always has good landings,” one of them says.

It is a quick turnaround at Port Blair. Passengers queue up outside the aircraft even as the cleaning crew is winding up. Reddy signals her permission for boarding and returns to the cockpit. The aircraft, now SG 607, takes off at 2.45 p.m., five minutes late, for another 1,372 km-long journey.

Reddy lands in Chennai at 4.51 p.m, four minutes ahead of schedule. As she emerges from the cockpit, her all-women cabin crew — all from Kochi, and who were to have a layover in Chennai — are waiting to take a selfie with her. On her way to the domestic departures terminal, Reddy checks her email. Her schedule informs her that she will be at home the next day because of an early flight that will commence a Chennai-Hyderabad-Patna-Bengaluru loop. After a day’s rest, she will do the loop in reverse, returning to Chennai.

In the cab home, Reddy speaks of her preference for shorter flights. “I can’t handle such long flights. Just can’t sit,” she says, the rebel child making a comeback. “I need to keep doing something.”

The cab has reached Avvai Shanmugam Salai. The road has been cordoned off: there is an event at the AIADMK headquarters located nearby. So Reddy gets out and walks home, trolley in tow, as men and women stare at her.

This time, she takes the elevator.

Joyrides to rescue missions

From giving joyrides on a glider to rescuing Indians from strife-torn Libya, Captain Nivedita Bhasin, 54, has done it all in a career spanning over four decades. “The excitement is still there,” says the Delhi-based pilot. She comes across as candid and soft-spoken during an hour-long conversation at a coffee shop in Delhi. “When I was a young girl, my eyes were always turned to the sky. Now when I am flying I always look through the window.” she says.

Nivedita Bhasin, Air India

Nivedita Bhasin, Air India

 

As a young girl, Bhasin always knew she wanted to be a pilot. “I don’t know how it started but I was always fascinated by airplanes. It never occurred to me that flying a plane might be difficult for a girl,” she says. Her dream was to fly the biggest aircraft for the erstwhile Indian Airlines. She achieved that goal in 1997, when she captained the Airbus A300 (which was the biggest aircraft then). Now she flies the 787 Dreamliner. She attributes her success to a simple mantra from her father: If you start something, finish it. Bhasin, who flew for the first time when she was 16, became the youngest woman pilot in the country when she commanded a commercial flight in 1990 at the age of 26. “I first went to a flying club. But the clerk there scoffed at me. ‘Go back and study,’ he said.” So she went to a gliding club instead. By 17, she had started taking passengers on joyrides. “My friends thank me to this day for the joyrides they enjoyed with me.”

She got her licence in 1983. Not long after, she saw an Indian Airlines advertisement seeking pilots. “I studied really hard to make the cut. It was a do-or-die situation.” In 1984, Bhasin joined Indian Airlines as a pilot — only the third woman in the company’s history to do so. The first woman pilot for Indian Airlines was Captain Durba Banerjee who joined in 1956, followed by Captain Saudamini Deshmukh, who joined in 1980.

“At first it was like being in a sea of men,” recalls Bhasin. “It was very lonely. Some captains I flew with were very encouraging, some nasty. It was a mixed bag.” She also encountered paranoid passengers who preferred to change flights rather than be flown by a woman pilot. The Bhasin family is a unique ‘aviator family’. The love of flying is common among three generations – Bhasin and her husband, their son and daughter, and her late father-in-law.

In 2011, Bhasin was asked to fly to war-torn Libya as part of a government rescue mission to bring home the Indians stranded there. “I did the first flight to Tripoli. It was heart-wrenching to see the conditions there.” The airport there had somewhat rudimentary navigational facilities and uncertainty loomed large, she explained, adding, “We would spend hours on the ground at Tripoli, not knowing when we could return to India as we were dependant on the Indian passengers being released by the Embassy in Tripoli.”

As soon as the flight landed in Delhi, the crew informed Bhasin that someone wanted to meet her. “It was my Calcutta neighbour from 25 years ago! She was weeping when she saw me, and thanked me for getting her back home safely. I will never forget that. These are moments where you feel god has planned things for you.”

Breaking barriers

One Monday morning last February, under clear skies and perfect weather conditions, a MiG-21 Bison fighter jet took off from Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Jamnagar Air Force station. The sortie was like any other, undertaken every day as part of routine training, except that as the jet went supersonic, it not only broke the sound barrier but many other barriers as well, for in the cockpit was Flying Officer Avani Chaturvedi, 24, the first Indian woman to fly a solo sortie on a fighter aircraft.

“When we sit in the cockpit and close the canopy, any feelings of achievement, empowerment, and so on are left on the ground. We don’t carry them in the air. The aircraft is so fast and the reaction time for any situation is so little that we don’t have time to think about anything else,” says Chaturvedi, when asked what was going through her mind as she pushed the jet to 700 kmph.

Avani Chaturvedi, Indian Air Force

Avani Chaturvedi, Indian Air Force

 

On this flight, which lasted about 30 minutes, she performed what is called the ‘perfect leaving and rejoin’ as per set procedure. “What that means is a take off, go to the general flying area, and then circle back to land,” she explains. Chaturvedi, along with Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh, are India’s first batch of women fighter pilots and were commissioned into the IAF in July 2016. They have since been undergoing the final phase of training on the Advanced Jet Trainers (AJT) before graduating to fly the supersonic fighters.

In October 2015, the government decided to open up the fighter stream for women on an experimental basis for five years. The second batch of three women trainee pilots in the fighter stream have already been selected and are undergoing training at the Air Force training academy. However, combat roles in the Army and Navy are still off limits due to a combination of operational concerns and logistical constraints. Women also constitute a very small fraction of the nearly 1.4 million-strong Indian armed forces, which makes the achievement of the three women fighter pilots all the more remarkable.

On her second sortie of the day during the training, when Chaturvedi was rolling for take off, there was a warning on the canopy audio which caused some confusion. But her training kicked in and she decided not to take off. “That day I realised how the decision of a split second can get the situation under control or push it out of control. Had I delayed my decision to abort take off or gone airborne with the canopy open, the consequences could have been catastrophic,” she says.

The IAF has a three-stage process for training pilots. Stage 1 consists of 55 hours of flying in a basic trainer in a Pilatus PC-7 aircraft at Dundigal academy, Hyderabad. Stage 2 is in an intermediate jet trainer on the Kiran aircraft for 87 hours at Hakimpet Air Force station, Hyderabad. After this, the cadets are commissioned into service and segregated into streams like helicopter, transport, and fighter. Those qualified for fighter training proceed to the Stage 3 advanced training of 145 hours in the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainers at Bidar. After this, officers begin further training to fly the supersonic fighter jets. The specific aircraft one trains on depends on the squadron assigned.

The transition from Hawk to MiG-21 is gradual and there is a structured syllabus to become an operational pilot, says Chaturvedi. She started Hawk training in July 2016 after getting commissioned, completed it in October last year and got posted to No. 23 Squadron, which flies the MiG-21 Bison. She spent one-and-a-half months in ground training, including on MiG-21 simulators.

“It took almost four months to go solo,” she says. The time taken to fly a solo sortie varies from person to person and also depends on a lot of variables. She added that her course mates, the other two women pilots, were undergoing advanced training and will perform solo sorties soon. “My next objective is to become a full-fledged operational pilot.”

Such advanced training has been a first of sorts for the three women pilots as well the Air Force. So, how does it feel to be part of an all-male team? “It was new for the people in the squadron, as they were seeing a woman for the first time,” says Chaturvedi. “They were very welcoming and we share the same facilities. Ultimately, a pilot is a pilot. It does not matter whether you’re a man or a woman.”

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