Aarohi Pandit considers herself blessed. Not everyone, she tells, gets the support and opportunity to achieve their dream.
She did. She wanted to fly and today, at the age of 26, holds four world records, including being the world’s first woman — and the world’s youngest pilot — to fly solo across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in a light-sport aircraft.
Last year, she had the unique opportunity to recreate part of Indian aviation’s first flight — J R D Tata’s iconic travel from Karachi to Mumbai via Ahmedabad. She is proud of the fact that India has the largest number of women pilots in the world, she tells A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com.
Azadi Ki Amrit Kahaniyan
Aarohi’s achievements are chronicled in the inspirational series, Azadi Ki Amrit Kahaniyan. Presented by the government of India, it follows the lives of seven incredible females and currently airs on Netflix.
When did you realize flying was your 1st love and this is what you wanted to do as a career?
My grandfather began bringing me horseback riding when I was four years old. We were so regular that, after a few weeks, the horse owner would recognize me and let me jump the line to ride first. I also participated in volleyball at the state level for my school.
I loved traveling by plane even then. As my father owns a travel company, I had the opportunity as an eight-year-old to fly in Air India‘s jumbo jet for the 1st time in 2004. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a pilot when I grew up.
- Did you need to convince your parents? Learning to fly is expensive. What kind of financial investment do you need to become a pilot?
My parents and family, particularly my uncle, have always been supportive of whatever I wanted to do. Learning to fly is indeed very expensive. Parents may end up exhausting their savings to support a child’s flying career. But that was a risk my family accepted. Earlier, commercial pilot training did not allow for an educational loan. Now, you can apply for one to support your education.
- You were 17 when you enrolled at the Bombay Flying Club. Did you know how much effort would be involved on your part to become a qualified pilot?
A pilot’s work demands a high level of proficiency. You must be a good decision-maker, communicate effectively, be physically active and, most importantly, keep a cool head.
Flying at 30,000 feet presents numerous issues. Every flight puts your abilities and expertise to the test. As a student pilot, I was unaware of all of this. Initially, my flying sorties were flawed. But, as long as you are committed and persistent, you learn.
Your first big break arrived at the age of 21 when you were selected for the Women Empowerment Exhibitions around the world travel that you would fly on a light-sport aircraft. Can you say us a bit more about this, especially the preparations and challenges involved?
I signed up for the WE! The expedition, a record-breaking all-woman round of the world in a light sport aircraft, after I graduated. It was a fantastic opportunity for my colleague, Captain Keithair Misquitta, and me. The training for this journey was quite different from the training you undergo as a commercial pilot. The flight turned out to be a thrilling adventure. Flying in extreme winters and extreme heat demands quick decisions, short field landings, and long-haul flight practice.
Flying for 6 to 7 hours in a two-seater ultralight aircraft with an 80-hp engine is very different and more difficult than flying in the large jet aircraft operated by commercial airlines.
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As the 1st lady to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Greenland ice caps, and cross-country across Canada in a light-sport aircraft, you have four world records to your credit.
How did you prepare for them? What was your experience on these flights? Has your life changed after you get these records?
I did not know the world records before I began this mission. I received the assignment because I enjoy flying. I’ve always wanted to be a pilot; setting records is the icing on the cake. I consider myself fortunate to be doing something I enjoy and am also knowledgeable and skilled at.
- You recreated JRD’s 1st flight last year when COVID cases were still rampant. Can you share what that experience was like? What did you learn about JRD? What are the standout moments for you from that flight?
The first Indian commercial flight
It was a dream come true to recreate JRD’s flight. I had a great team to support me with this legendary tribute. He flew the first Indian commercial flight from Karachi to Juhu in Mumbai on October 15, 1932.
My team the Indian Women Pilots’ Association, the Tata Power Company, and the WE Expedition — and I got the fantastic opportunity to re-enact (part of) his flight after 89 years. As an aviator, I have always admired him; more importantly, I have admired his leadership abilities. He became my role model because of how he treated and appreciated others around him.
The flight took off from Bhuj airport (Gujarat) in honor of the women of Madhapur village, who played a crucial role in India’s 1971 War victory (300 women rebuilt the damaged Bhuj airstrip in 30 days). I operated less than 60 liters of petrol during the trip, which lasted around 5 hours and covered a distance of 500 nautical miles.
The challenging aspect was staying below 5,000 feet above mean sea level at all times, just like JRD, without operating GPS, autopilot, or any computerized technology. The finest part of the flight, for me, was the water salute and the waving of the National Flag when I landed at Juhu airport. Receiving such a warm welcome in my hometown was an emotional experience.
- Before each flight, how do you prepare personally and professionally?
I don’t have a pre-flight motto. I just make sure I’m hydrated and mentally prepared to start the engines. When I’m in the captain’s seat, I forget about my other problems and am ready to take off.
How does your family feel when you do a solo flight? Do they have any suggestions for you?
My family was concerned about my 1st few journeys. Then, they got operated on it. Now, I tell them about my whereabouts on our family WhatsApp group chat; their only advice is that I eat on time and sleep well (smiles).
- Are you facing pressure to get married?
For the time being, marriage is not on my agenda. Managing your professional and personal lives is critical, especially if your job is a demanding and time-consuming one. Your family is very crucial in balancing your life; having the support of your family or in-laws is essential. I think a woman should marry when she is ready and not because of any kind of pressure exerted by anyone or by society in general.
Can you tell us what you are doing nowadays?
I am a trained commercial pilot. At present, I have elected to operate as an ultralight pilot with The Navy Blue Foundation. As I explained earlier, there is a distinction between flying a commercial aircraft and flying an ultralight aircraft around the world. You have to train separately for that. I completed my training program on the Pipistrel aircraft in Serbia and Italy.
Flying ultralight is more of an adventure. The risk involved is much higher than when you fly a commercial aircraft. I was flying a single-engine, low-powered, slow-moving aircraft. I was traveling high-altitude mountains and vast oceans with only a life raft and a limited amount of fuel on board. Any flight can be your last, but that’s the charm of it.
I have done various flights near the Arctic Circle, which is one of my favorite regions to fly in. Since the climate in the northern hemisphere is so unpredictable, flying there is both difficult and scenic.
- Can you share some of the dangerous, life-threatening, or frightening moments you have faced while you were in the air?
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean was one of the hardest challenges. The flight time was around 6 hours and the climate was extremely poor. I didn’t have many options due to the limited fuel on board, so I continued the flight at a fairly low altitude, dodging the terrible weather and navigating in dark clouds and rain at an extremely cold altitude.
I was in a similar situation around the Pacific coast and had to land in extremely low visibility; it was about 200 meters, which is well below the ultralight minimum standards. However, due to resource constraints, the landing was unavoidable.
The Indian Women Pilots Association tells India has the highest number of women pilots in the world. What do you think is the reason for this and what advice do have for young females who want to become pilots?
India holds the title of having the most female pilots in the country. This is something I am quite proud of. The reason is the awareness in our country.
Many organizations, like the IWPA and the Ninety-Nines: International Organisation Of Women Pilots, are reaching out to the community and conducting events in various institutions and schools to meet youngsters and create an environment in which everyone can be a part of aviation. I am a member of these organizations and I enjoy meeting young kids and speaking to them about aviation.
- What is the next record you are aiming for?
Now, I am not aiming at any record (smiles). By profession, I am acommercial pilot. In a few months, you will meet me aboard one of India’s commercial airlines in a few monthss.
I am inspired by several people. I like imbibing the best qualities from everyone — be it boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who fought valiantly to get his people justice, to Ratan Naval Tata, an industrialist, and philanthropist with a positive mindset, a risk-taker and a man of values. I respect them. My ambition is to be the finest of the best.
- What is your message to the youth in India? What can they learn from your life?
I would recommend them not to learn anything from my experience. Everyone’s journey is unique. And it’s best not to bring a guidebook with you if you want to enjoy it.
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