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These Mumbai youngsters will be the first women to fly around the world in a light sport aircraft

Capt. Keithair Misquitta and (right) Capt. Aarohi Pandit.   | Photo Credit: Akhilesh Kumar

On a small airfield in Patiala, where grass grows in the cracks in the taxiway, we are waiting for clearance from the tower. From beneath my headset, the engine is no louder than a pedestal fan in a wedding hall. Air Traffic Control (ATC) says it’s okay to go, and the young woman beside me flicks a switch and the propeller begins pulling us forward. In what seems like mere yards, we are airborne.

The doors are see-through, visibility is almost wrap-around, and below us, to starboard, fields glide by, most of them paddy under water; to port, one can see the cantonment. I have forgotten that it has taken me years to get over my fear of heights. The plane banks. “I might let you fly her,” says Aarohi Pandit, grinning, then maybe seeing my consternation, indicates she is joking. She idles the engine, letting the plane glide. “Hold the stick, lightly,” she says, “You can feel her fly.” The stick twitches, and I feel the pedals move too, as the controls at my seat mirror the ones at hers. We have made a gentle circle, and before I know it, I see the airstrip below our nose. She asks the tower for permission to land, and as delicately as a dragonfly skimming a pond, we land and turn for the taxiway.

Roughly an hour ago, Pandit and her friend Keithair Misquitta had been worrying that the ATC would not let them fly. The weather had been bad all morning, with low visibility and a chance of rain.

The light was good enough, though, for photography, so the two women put their shoulder to the huge sliding doors, took the covers off the smallest plane inside — the only airworthy one amidst several grounded planes used to teach future aeronautical engineers — and wheeled it out. As we shot, the sun came out, the ATC said yes, and that’s when the pilots asked if I would like a quick sortie.

A world to see

Formally registered as VT-NBF, the plane has a name, Mahi (‘great planet Earth’ in Sanskrit), and she’s one of the girls, say Misquitta and Pandit. If all goes well, sometime this week these three will attempt to make history by becoming the first women to fly around the world in a light sport aircraft or LSA. It will also be India’s first civilian all-woman circumnavigation.

Mahi, a Sinus 912, the only LSA registered in India, is tiny, about the length of a minibus, but lighter (the two pilots push her around with ease) and with wide wings that curve up at the tips, on which she can soar sans engines (the wings also contain the fuel tanks).

The Sinus was chosen partly because it was the aircraft used by Matevž Lenarčič for the first solo circumnavigation in an ultralight, and partly because it is a safe yet strong single-engine plane with gliding abilities. Lenarčič has been a mentor and supporter to this expedition. Mahi is two years old, and has been configured especially for circumnavigations, with autopilot, a ballistic rescue system, and advanced avionics.

Capt. Keithair Misquitta and (right) Capt. Aarohi Pandit met at Bombay Flying Club — while earning degrees in aviation and licences for commercial flying — and became firm friends.

Capt. Keithair Misquitta and (right) Capt. Aarohi Pandit met at Bombay Flying Club — while earning degrees in aviation and licences for commercial flying — and became firm friends.   | Photo Credit: Akhilesh Kumar

While the Sinus can cruise five to six hours, covering over 1,000 km before needing to refuel, the route planned is conservative, flying only in clear visibility and never more than four hours a day and around 700 km before stopping to refuel and rest. Accounting for possible bad weather and rest days, the mission should see them back at base in around 100 days, 90 if all goes well.

Takes a village

The duo, or trio if you prefer, will not be doing it alone.

Misquitta, 24, and Pandit, 22, were selected by Navy Blue Foundation, organiser and fund-raiser for the expedition. They were initially back-up pilots, but became the stars when circumstances changed.

The expedition director is Rahul Monga, former IAF helicopter pilot who now teaches aviation. More to the point, he is the only Indian to have circumnavigated the globe in a microlight, back in 2008.

Then, there’s logistics support. To qualify as circumnavigation, the flight must be more than 30,700 km, touch every longitude, and end at its start point. Due to its limited range, Mahi will make 86 hops, perhaps more, depending on weather, covering 21 countries. Visas, documentation and hotel rooms have to be organised, plus arrangements for refuelling and parking.

Planning all this is Nexus Flight Operations, which handles ops for small planes. Nexus will also have a team monitoring Mahi through the trip. Mandeep Sandhu, CEO, says, “For a business aircraft, we can put together an international trip in less than 24 hours. Given Mahi’s configuration, the planning took about four weeks. There were logistical issues as well, such as availability of fuel, which also defined the route. The other major challenge was the water stretches, which required experience and technology.”

The project, called WE for Women Empower, has sponsors for expenses and safety equipment, besides the backing of the ministry of Women and Child Development.

But once in the air, it’s just the two women, their plane, and the elements.

The wingwomen

Pandit and Misquitta met at Bombay Flying Club — while earning degrees in aviation and licences for commercial flying — and became firm friends.

The two are typical youngsters, with no airs, poring over their phones in spare moments. Misquitta starts off very earnest, conscious that at 24 she’s already a role model to her sisters, cousins and community, but then when the conversation segues into flying, she lights up and the words fly to poetic altitudes. Pandit begins with self-deprecatory giggles, but turns focussed and serious (though similarly luminous) when she talks about the pilot’s life.

Pandit knew she wanted to fly when as a four-year-old accompanying her father, who has a travel business, she first met a woman pilot. There was only encouragement and support from the family when she stayed with her resolve until she was old enough to go to flight school.

Misquitta describes her family as typical East Indians (Mumbai’s initial inhabitants who converted to Christianity in colonial times), but with ambition for their daughters; her father told her at 16 that he wanted her to be a pilot, and she obediently adjusted her sights. But when she first sat in a training plane, she says, she was terrified. “Until we took off. The teacher told me to look at the runway behind us. I was calm; all the fear disappeared. It’s like a fairy tale come true; you can command an aircraft all by yourself. What else could you want? The landscape unfolds, you are a tiny speck. The first day I landed solo, I knew that it was it. I’d rather die in the cockpit than being hit by a car.”

Capt. Keithair Misquitta and (right) Capt. Aarohi Pandit were selected by Navy Blue Foundation as back-up pilots initially.

Capt. Keithair Misquitta and (right) Capt. Aarohi Pandit were selected by Navy Blue Foundation as back-up pilots initially.   | Photo Credit: AKHILESH KUMAR

They seem unperturbed by the scale of what they are attempting, even though neither has travelled abroad (except to Slovenia to train with Pipistrel) let alone flown anywhere except over Indian territory. A prime worry is what they can carry: after accounting for their body weights and emergency equipment, they have a 5 kg allowance between them. They’ve decided to buy and discard clothes en route, and rely on hotels for toiletries. They are also worried about being able to understand accents. English is the almost universal language of aviation, but as Pandit says, her brows knitted. “In Slovenia, we struggled to understand the ATC.”

The women always have each other’s backs. They sometimes complete each other’s sentences, and seem to communicate telepathically, like when I ask them if they have time for boyfriends. (“We make the time,” they say, after having consulted each other with glances on the wisdom of confiding in reporters.)

Most important, considering they will have no relief from each other’s company for three months — stuck in a cockpit with less wiggle room than an autorickshaw — they enjoy being with each other. They live and eat together, and even shop and go for walks together.

What’s in the air

What will the tough parts be, we ask Captain Monga, going from his own experience. Since his time, he says, there are a lot of great apps on phones, and communications, support systems, navigation aids are all much better, even for small planes.

Importantly, many of the countries they will fly through have a far stronger aviation culture than India’s. “Even the smallest airports have good facilities. In Alaska, I have seen 5,000 aircraft parked in an airport, like in a car park.” Pilots get a lot of freedom and experience in decision-making, he says, unlike in India, where “everything is controlled by some agency or the other.”

And that decision-making ability is going to be tested quite rigorously. He explains that small planes aren’t equipped for all weather, and they will have to take quick calls based on local conditions wherever they are. “They are young, with not much experience. But they’re smart. They earned their licences, which isn’t easy. [The expedition] looks complex, but it’s very easy to get used to a tough scenario, as they will find.”

There are, of course, some places where risks are much higher, like the open-water crossings. One is small, from Alaska across the Bering Strait into Russia. Before that, there is another far longer crossing, from Europe into North America. They will fly this in several hops, from Finland to the Faroe Islands, then to Iceland, then Greenland. On this part of the journey, to maximise safety, only one of the two will be in the plane at any time, clad in an immersion suit, with a life raft in the other seat in case of an emergency landing in water.

Monga says this is where they will encounter strong winds, and there will be no emergency landing spot available if the weather turns, hence the extra precautions. They will then fly short legs around Greenland’s southern coast before a final hop to Newfoundland. Another section where the pilots will not fly together is over Russian territory; by law, they are required to have a Russian navigator aboard.

Happy landings

Lynn de Souza, founder of Social Access, which handles communications for social development projects such as this expedition, says they have specifically chosen young civilians to prove that adventure achievements don’t necessarily need the resources of the armed forces behind them. While the expedition is on, the team plans to crowdfund a set of scholarships to fund the aviation training of at least 100 young women. to They hope to inspire thousands of other young women to become pilots.

Pandit and Misquitta know that by the time they get back, life will have changed for them. Misquitta ticks off what she has already learned from Mahi. “You use obstacles to get above them. You take off against the wind to get lift, then use the wind to soar. If you can fly with the wind, you don’t have to struggle with power. If there’s too much wind and you can’t go out, well, you can’t go out. And no matter what you do, the winds keep moving around the planet; they never stop.” She hopes to qualify as flying instructor one day. Pandit too knows she will stay involved with flying in some way, but isn’t sure how. Both eventually hope to qualify for the armed forces, perhaps as transport pilots.

They giggle when I tease them about being preternaturally mature; it reminds me that they’re still 20-somethings with a lifetime ahead to fail or succeed at lots of things. First, they must wait in Patiala for a clear weather window so they can set off, just them and Mahi, and an entire planet to face together.

Right now, they are itching to continue putting in more hours honing their skills. They wait for me to walk clear of the wings before starting the prop. Then they wait for the ATC. Intent, they don’t see me wave goodbye. As I walk to the gates, they are cleared to fly. They roll out to the runway, line up, pause, and then dart into the sky.

Can glide, can fly

    Mahi is a two-seater Light Sport Aircraft/ Ultralight Motorglider with a single engine; a Sinus 912 manufactured by Slovenian company Pipistrel

    The Sinus has a wing span of 14.97 m, and empty weight of 285 kg, while the maximum take-off weight is 472.5 kg

    Consumes less than 10 litres an hour at 200 kmph cruise speed; can cover over 1,000 km with a full load in its 60-litre tanks

    Needs less than 100 metres to take off, and can land in tiny airfields or even a 15-metre-wide highway in an emergency

    In favourable winds, can glide using thermals to gain height

    A Sinus was World Champion in 2001. Another flew a record-breaking solo around the world in 2004

    The aircraft is popular with flight schools because of low operating costs and ability to glide as well as fly under power

This article has been edited for clarity.
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Printable version | Oct 26, 2020 12:53:38 PM |

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