From sarees to stripes – true stories of commercial women pilots in India

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The book has also helped Puri achieve her dream of spreading information on women pilot’s in India…writes Vishnu Makhijani

“Revolution does not come overnight and social revolution takes time to come. Social and logistics aspects also take time,” the Supreme Court had observed on International Womens Day (March 8), noting that the mindset has changed with induction of women officers in the armed forces and promising to assess the possibility of allocating more seats to women candidates in National Defence Academy (NDA), after deliberating the implications of this in the long term.

The mindset in India’s civil aviation sector, however, began to change way back in the 1930 and has resulted in a situation today where there are 2,764 women among the country’s 17,726 registered commercial pilots. What this also means is that while only around 5 per cent of all pilots globally are women, their number in India is a whopping 15 per cent and twice the number compared to most Western countries, including the US and Australia.

“The roadmap ahead is already flying high, more and more women are joining this profession,” Captain Manisha M. Puri, who has flown both Boeings and Airbuses for Air India, told in an interview of her book, “From Sarees To Stripes – True Stories of Commercial Women Pilots in India” (Amaryllis) that details the extraordinary challenges that women have faced to be where they are today.

“Society is accepting, families are accepting, even the Air Force has opened their doors for women, inducting them as fighter pilots, which was not the case in our times. Even though it is conquering one mile at a time, it has already started to be noticed, appreciated and rewarded. The sky ahead is blue and we are soaring higher and higher each day,” Puri added.

She clocked more than 27 years of flying before taking voluntary retirement, is an active member of the Indian Women Pilots’ Association and is Secretary of the International Women Pilots Organisation, ‘The Nine-Nines Inc’ India chapter. Having being honoured at Amelia Earhart’s birthplace at Atchison, Kansas, with a plaque bearing her name engraved in the International Forest of Friendship, along with some other Indian aviators, she today focuses on sharing some of life’s real challenges as a motivator and mentor in the ‘Nai Disha’ NGO where she mingles with children who give meaning to her life and help them move forward to reach their goals and dreams.

The book has also helped Puri achieve her dream of spreading information on women pilot’s in India.

“I would often meet people within or outside the aviation circuit who were not aware of the fact that women in India had been flying aircraft since the (19) 30s. This inspired me to write this book bringing the history of women pilots, their stories, struggles and determination that made them reach the skies in spite of all difficulties that they faced.

“It was also my way of thanking my seniors, paying tribute to the first few women pilots who broke the glass ceiling making way for many like me,” Puri explained.

These pioneering women pilots have had to overcome astounding challenges and paved the way for women of today and tomorrow to follow their dreams, and so, their inspiring stories must be read by everyone. The book weaves together a narrative of India’s aviation history, behind-the-scenes drama and the absolute conviction with which these gutsy women fought hard against all odds to fulfil their dreams.

These women boast several firsts in the industry, from being hired as pilots to fly for Indian Airlines, the first in India to induct women pilots as early as in 1966, paving the way for many more in the subsequent years with Air India. They not only flew state-of-the-art aircraft across continents but also created history by operating all-women crew flights over some of the most challenging navigational routes, including the Polar route.

In fact, history was created in January 2021 when an all-women crew flew Air India’s longest direct flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru, covering a distance of 16,000 km and saving 10 tonnes of fuel by flying over the North Pole.

Considerable research went into writing the book, starting with Capt Sarla Thukral, India’s first woman pilot.

“I decided to meet in person all the women pilots and talk to them to gather all that I wanted to write about. Capt Sarla Thukral was 93 years old when I met her and talked to her about my passion to write a book on the stories of the daring women who entered the so-called male dominated profession. She gave me her diary/other records which she had kept as valuable items.

“Her passion for flying lasted till she lived. Today she is no more but my promise to her about the book on women pilots is a reality. People are reading and learning about these amazing women who worked silently with utmost dedication to reach the skies,” she added.

Detailing the evolution of India’s civil aviation sector, Puri said the common factor “that still remains in every decade is the passion to fly and overcome any challenge whatsoever… It is with pride that we say that the earlier women proved that it is the performance rather than gender that is needed for this profession”.

“Women have broken all records be it the longest route, flying the Poles, fastest in speed and first all women flight in 1985. Women have faced all emergencies be it single engine, hydraulic failure, emergency with passengers or emergency landings, they have performed and made a mark and impact all around.

“Having family – husband, children, parents – they have not left this highly stressed job but juggled in their own way, each one of them,” Puri added with justifiable pride.

She concluded on a philosophical note.

“It is a profession that needs a lot of dedication, focus, hard work and discipline but once you are in it, it gives tremendous satisfaction.

“It’s a profession where your office is in the sky, no two days are the same even on the same airfield and you continue to face challenges each day. The satisfaction is that this is the only profession where once you leave the cockpit, your work is complete for the day!”

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