Meet the women flying high and taking their ambition to the skies
India has the maximum number of female commercial pilots in the world! What a long way we’ve come from when Prem Mathur, India's first female commercial pilot, was rejected by eight airlines back in the 40s, before she was offered a job at 38, with an airline in Hyderabad.
In 1953, Prem Mathur joined Indian Airlines as a captain, becoming the first Indian woman to hold this rank. For the next 30 years, Prem continued to work for the national airline, retiring in 1984. She passed away in 1992.
According to data by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India, dated December 6, 2021, out of 17,726 registered pilots in India, 2,764 pilots are women.
A report by the International Society of Women Airline Pilots in 2020 stated that in terms of gender equality in the flight deck, India at 12.4%, is far ahead of countries like Ireland (9.9%), South Africa (9.8%), Canada & Germany (6.9%), Australia (5.8%), the US (5.4%), and the UK (4.7%) among others.
As per the same survey, smaller regional airlines are the biggest employer of female pilots with a 13.9% gender ratio, while cargo airlines have the least ratio at 8.5% in India.
Here's a look at the stories of a few women pilots from India, who are not just making the country proud, but perhaps even Prem Mathur and Sarla Thakral, the first Indian woman to fly ever, for the example they set against all odds, and which inspired many young women to take to the skies.
In May 2021, 23-year-old Jeni Jerome came into the spotlight when Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan lauded her in a Facebook post about how she fought against circumstances, realised her dreams, and inspired women and ordinary people of this generation to emerge as the first commercial woman pilot from Kerala. Jeni flew her maiden flight Air Arabia G9 449 as a co-pilot from Sharjah to Thiruvananthapuram on May 23 last year.
Growing up in Ajman in the Middle East, becoming a pilot was Jeni’s childhood dream. Jeni joined an aviation academy after completing 12th standard. Jeni’s achievement was even lauded by Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, who in a Facebook message called the achievement “the realisation of a childhood dream”.
Anupriya Lakras, a tribal woman from Odisha’s Maoist-hit Malkangiri district, became the first female pilot from the backward region, in September 2019. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik congratulated Anupriya for her success, and said it was “achieved by her through dedicated efforts and (her) perseverance is an example for many.”
Daughter of Mariniyas Lakra, a Havildar in Odisha Police, and Jamaj Yashmin Lakra, a homemaker, Anupriya completed her matriculation from a convent in Malkangiri and higher secondary from a school in Semiliguda. She quit engineering studies midway and joined an aviation academy in Bhubaneswar in 2012.
On October 15, 2021, 23-year-old pilot Captain Aarohi Pandit created history in many ways. When she touched down in her plane Mahi VT NBF, a Pipistrel Sinus weighing only 330 kg, at Juhu, India's first civil airport, she was re-enacting India's first commercial flight flown by JRD Tata in 1932, and paying tribute to the women of Madhapar who had rebuilt the Bhuj runway within 72 hours during the India-Pakistan war.
Aarohi navigated the plane without GPS, autopilot, or computerised equipment, always flying 7,000 feet above mean sea level. On her arrival at Juhu, Aarohi was greeted with a traditional water salute and ushered in by the Indian Women's Pilot Association (IWPA) pilots dressed in pink. She handed over the letters from the Madhapur Mothers to her friend and fellow pilot, Keithair Misquitta.
Earlier this year, at just 21 years, Captain Anny Divya became the world’s youngest commander to fly a Boeing 777—the world’s longest twin-jet aircraft.
Hailing from Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, Anny neither had any aviation background nor did anybody guide her. Anny enrolled at an Uttar Pradesh-based flying school—Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi (IGRUA)—at the age of 17. Two years later, she began her career with Air India, and, when she was 21 years old, she flew her first Boeing 777.
On the gender bias in the aviation sector, Anny feels the narrative is changing in the country, and rightly so, with more women joining the industry. Read the complete story to know about a shocking incident that made her believe gender bias is more predominant in the aviation sector in other countries.
Amid all the pandemic gloom and doom in January 2021, there was news to cheer when an Air India flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru with an all-women cockpit crew made a successful landing at Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru.
The flight was headed by Captain Zoya Aggarwal, and three women co-pilots, including Capt Papagari Thanmai, Capt Akansha Sonaware, and Capt Shivani Manhas.
While the flight itself was historic, Captain Zoya scripted history for being the first woman to fly the Boeing-777 and more recently, the longest commercial flight in the world.
In a candid chat, Zoya reveals her journey, which started as a child star-struck about stargazing and fascinated by little flying objects to becoming the world’s first female pilot to fly a Boeing-777 in 2013 to lead the Government of India’s Vande Bharat Mission in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak that brought back over 14,000 Indians who were stranded abroad.
Edited by Teja Lele