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'From a Little Girl.. I Commanded a Flight Over North Pole': Captain of Air India All-woman Crew

Air India Captain Zoya Agarwal. 
(Credit: ANI/Twitter)

Air India Captain Zoya Agarwal. (Credit: ANI/Twitter)

Captain Zoya Agarwal, the Commander of that historic flight, talks about her journey in becoming a pilot when there were very few women to climbing up the ladder.

It was a historic moment for aviation, a historic moment for India. Flown by four women pilots, the first non-stop flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru landed at Kempegowda International airport in Bengaluru at 3.07 am on Monday, flying over the North Pole and covering a distance of about 16,000 kilometers. The flight was operated by an all-women cockpit crew of Captain Zoya Aggarwal (P1), Captain Papagari Thanmai (P1), Captain Akansha Sonaware (P2) and Captain Shivani Manhas (P2), who responded to the cheers and clapping by showing the thumbs-up sign.

In an interview with CNN-News18, Captain Zoya Agarwal, the Commander of that historic flight, talks about her journey in becoming a pilot when there were very few women to climbing up the ladder. The captain of the all-women flight crew shared her experience of creating a historic moment for India.

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Excerpts from the interview here:

Captain Zoya, so so glad to meet you because back home, here in India, we were all cheering for your commendable feat. We were so happy about it. It’s a symbolic moment. What did it feel like to command a historic flight such as this and what was your team feeling at the moment?

I believe the entire world was looking upon the North Pole as we were in the air and I got to know about all this after we landed. I think there was a fervour in the air, there was a lot of excitement and of course there was a lot of excitement, a lot of responsibility. We were training for it for the last 3 days, we were preparing in SF non-stop at it, just making sure, tying up all the loose ends. At the end of the day, we were the first people, first set of women pilots, Bharat ki betiyaan who were flying across North Pole for Air India; one of the world’s longest flight for Air India, any Indian carrier. It was a matter of great responsibility and pride and it was crazily exciting. However we had to hold back on our nerves, stay calm and stay positive, pray a lot because to go polar would’ve meant that you need to have a lot of weather gods looking up, you know, at least ...So you would’ve had to have the weather absolutely perfect to go polar. There are so many other parameters over and above the normal flight which need to be met in case you have to go polar and there are a lot of other requirements that also have to be met. So we were just praying and hoping. I think, not just me but the entire senior management of Air India, our CMD, our Director of Operations, the Government of India, the MOCA, everyone was looking up at the weather gods to make this polar flight happen and as it were to happen. This dream, indeed, is a reality now and we’re extremely happy about it.

Your happiness and your passion is contagious indeed. So let me tell you about this particular flight. The aircraft Boeing 777-200LR is one that is capable of connecting point A to point B anywhere in the world and which is why this was the longest flight to India by any Indian carrier. And you were also the first woman pilot to fly over the North Pole and the youngest woman pilot in India to say so. Your journey is beautiful. Tell us something about that.

Before that, I think you have stolen those words from my announcement because every single time I do make an announcement, and I always make an in-flight announcement because I feel for me to reach out to my passengers is by the way of making announcements. I always announce that this beautiful airplane that you’re flying in is a Boeing 777-200LR which is capable of connecting any two points on the globe. So I think you’ve probably heard that.

I’m from a very humble background as a matter of fact. But from the very beginning, I used to sit on top of my terrace and I was always a night bird. Now that I’m with Air India, I only work in the night and day time is like you know when I sleep because international flying is such. I used to sit on top, looking upon the sky, star gazing and I would spot those jet planes and I would always wonder looking upon those jumbo jets, "Would I ever be able to fly one of them?” I came from moderate, humble backgrounds and I was an only child. Being the era I grew up in, it took a lot of courage and guts to come out. I remember the tears in my moms eyes when I told her for the first time that I wanted to become a pilot. She was like “oh, who’s going to get married and have children?” and I said “Mom! You know, this is what I want to do.” Then I enrolled in St. Stephens college. I burned the midnight oil, shuttling between my college studies and my aviation studies. Then my parents eventually saw that dedication, the zeal, the perseverance in me and eventually they gave up. They realised that this is what I really want to do. And, there started my journey of flying. It’s been an exciting and overwhelming journey.

When I joined Air India I was amongst the first few women pilots. There were hardly a handful of young women pilots, and I was a little girl who came from nowhere and I made my way up. Air India has been an extremely equal opportunity employer and I would say that I have learned a lot and I have risen to the position of being a 777 Captain who has commanded a flight over the North Pole in 2021 and I think that definitely gives a great start to the year. It’s been a commendable journey for me, definitely filled with a lot of struggles, a lot of hopes and dreams. But, by God's grace, I have been able to achieve them with my parents' blessings and everybody else’s blessings and I’m extremely happy about it.

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Well that’s lovely to hear. You know women achievers like you have to break the glass ceiling more times than one. We were discussing off-camera as well about how there was always a perception about women, we were not very gracefully accepted back then.

Yes

Now it's a different society. Now I’m sure when there are little girls watching you right now as we speak, they would want to become pilots. What is your message to them?

Zeba, a few years back till maybe half a decade back, a lot of the worlds major carriers would not even accept women as their pilots because there’s a lot fo financial cost that's associated, which is understandable from their perspective, however it does look like a discriminatory act. Air India, however, has been extremely accommodating and equal opportunity. They have given women a chance to break the glass ceiling. In 2013, I was a captain on 777 and it was a record of all sorts for me. It’s amazing what a woman sets her eyes on, you can achieve it despite a society that is very limiting. Where we come from, we are taught to walk behind or in the shadows of the men or of the elderly, to break out it’s not a thought that a lot of little girls would go through, especially in the rural areas. In fact, I go to so many schools and so many of these young girls are struggling with the dilemmas of what they want to do in life vis-a-vis what they are expected to do in life. And you know what my message is to them? I tell them, I write impossible as a word to them, I put it on the board, and I say how do you read that word and some of them simply read the word “impossible”. But there are a couple of them, amongst those 50-100 children, and they will read “I-M-Possible” and I see myself in them. But my job doesn't stop there, I tell the remaining 98, “Hey, do not stop dreaming, believe in yourself because remember every great reality begins with a great dream and every great dream begins with a great dreamer and that is you. So keep dreaming, stay focussed, stay driven and you’ll get there.”

That’s an amazing message to all the young girls. It was an all-women crew, your entire team was filled with girl power, there was a lot of girl power yesterday and I can see so many appreciation letters that were left by passengers who were on board this very remarkable, landmark flight. So, what was the team feeling at that time? What about your co-pilot? What was their mindset at this time?

Everyone was supercharged. I was myself so electrified, that everyone that was to be with me was equally electrified if not more because I feel the effervescence was about passing on, you know it’s always about passing on the torch. And, I always like to feel when you have a team even if there's a certain amount of nervousness or hesitation, it's up to how you motivate the rest of the team, right? So, my girls, I call them polar girls, were super amazing. Captain Papagari Thanmai, Captain Akansha Sonaware, and Captain Shivani Manhas were amazing girls and I am truly grateful to each and every single one of them to make this flight memorable, to make our first maiden polar journey memorable, to make Air India’s longest flight an amazing experience because it's all about teamwork and I think we all did it well and in a very happy, excitable and it was an awesome flight.

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