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Zoya Agarwal, the pilot who dared to dream

By ANITA AIKARA
June 07, 2021 07:53 IST
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'Even today, I am like a kid in candy land -- I look at my airplane with as much excitement as an eight year old.'

IMAGE: Captain Zoya Agarwal's achievements are an inspiration for many young women.
Photographs: Kind courtesy Zoya Agarwal

On January 9, 2021, Captain Zoya Agarwal and her team made history as the first all-women flight crew to fly the world's longest air route.

The non-stop commercial flight covered nearly 16,000 km from San Francisco to Bengaluru, via the North Pole, at 34,000 feet in the sky with 250 passengers on board.

In an interview with Anita Aikara/Rediff.com Captain Zoya speaks about her journey, her dream of becoming a pilot, her most memorable flight, and why the world needs more women pilots.

What sparked the interest in you to become a pilot?

My father is retired and I'm the only child.

I was born in Delhi and come from a traditional and conservative background where women are expected to have a normal education, grow up, find a suitable boy, get married, settle down, have kids and look after their family.

My mother used to tell me, 'Ab accha ladka milna chahiye shaadi ke liye (now we should find you a good boy to get married).'

There are still many mothers out there who feel 'agar aacha ladka nahi mila toh meri beti bilkul hi useless hain (my daughter is useless if she doesn't find a good boy)'.

I was not one to be confined to these gender stereotypes.

I was ambitious and wanted to go places.

I used to sit on the terrace of my home and see the twinkling of the strobe lights of airplanes passing by and wonder maybe if I'm flying one of those planes I could touch the stars.

When I was much older and took my first flight, scientifically I knew I couldn't touch the stars, but that feeling was as naive and pious as it felt years ago.

Is it true that you enrolled for an aviation course with the money you had saved up over the years?

I had the habit of saving the money I received on birthdays.

My nanaji would give me some money on Diwali, which I'd also save.

Then during Raksha Bandhan I'd receive money for tying rakhi -- I didn't have siblings so I used to tie rakhi to the entire world.

I never spent my savings and when I was in college and wanted to pursue an aviation course as well, I used that money.

My parents never wanted me to become a pilot. So, during the three years of my graduation, I had to convince them that I was not letting go of my dream at any cost.

I was always academically inclined. My parents thought once I get into a good college I may get distracted and not want to pursue my dream.

I had to prove to my parents that I was serious about my flying course.

I didn't ask them money as I did not want to ask them something they couldn't afford.

So, I broke my piggy bank and paid for my aviation course, which at that time cost me a couple of thousand rupees.

Was it difficult juggling your graduation in science alongside an aviation course?

I used to wake up at 6 in the morning, attend college till 3:30, and then travel by bus from one end of the city to the other end to attend the aviation course.

I would get back home by 10 pm and -- when there was no electricity at home -- I would surrender myself happily to the mosquitoes under the street lights and finish off my assignments.

I had too much in my platter so every day I worked hard towards finishing off my assignments.

Even during the weekends I'd attend the aviation classes and I refused to slack.

That was my only chance to prove to my parents that I was serious about flying and I didn't want to fail.

When the results were out, I topped in college and my classmates couldn't understand how someone who was so distracted about becoming a pilot could do so well.

My parents felt that as I had worked very hard for three years and I deserved to pursue my dreams.

By the end of my college, my father helped me in taking a loan to pursue my dream of becoming a pilot.

Your biggest fear when you fly a plane?

I am the only child, so I have always feared that what if something happens to my parents if I'm out on a flight.

Once I was in Riyadh, and my mom felt ill. Nobody informed me as they felt I'd rush back to India.

The call of duty is a tough one, and the only time I wish I had a sibling is when I am flying.

Which was your most memorable flight?

There have been quite a few, but the one that comes to mind is when we managed to save a life.

In 2015, we took off from Delhi to New York in extremely bad weather and an hour after take off I was informed that a lady passenger was very unwell.

I feel that every life has value -- the person is someone's mother, daughter or wife.

The value of life for me is above all, including all the money in this world.

I was over Pakistan when the doctors told me the passenger had two hours to live.

I had a decision to make -- whether to land in Lahore, which was very close, but one couldn't ignore the tension that exists between the two countries, or return to Delhi.

There was no Plan B and I had to take the correct decision. I made a decision to return to Delhi, despite the bad weather.

I was carrying fuel to go from Delhi to New York, which is Olympic size fuel.

To be able to safely land back in Delhi, I had to get rid of that fuel.

The weather in Delhi was really bad, there was lightening.

If I had to remove fuel from the plane in Delhi, it would be my worst nightmare come true.

I had to jettison fuel over Pakistan, and I was able to negotiate with the Pakistani air control room and they came back to me with a positive reply.

We landed safely in Delhi and could save the passenger's life. We also managed to take off for New York.

 

IMAGE: Captain Zoya says she feel proud of her job the minute she wears her uniform.

Have you been ever told that flying planes is a man's job?

Around the time I was studying, being a pilot was a new profession; it was out-of-the-box. Even if I had to tell my college friends that I wanted to become a pilot, they would give me that look.

Everybody, even my teachers were like, 'Really! Who becomes a pilot? And then you are a girl.'

The pilot's seat doesn't know whether I'm a man or a woman.

For me, it is a job that needs to be done whether the pilot is a man or a woman.

It is more about people's perception about a job and high-time that perception changes.

There is a very low percentage of women pilots across the globe.

In India the numbers are a little better. But I would love to see more women in uniform.

What do you love the most about your job?

Every single day the job fascinates me.

I have an amazing office that has ever-changing views and I have had the opportunity to travel the world.

Even today, I am like a kid in candy land -- I look at my airplane with as much excitement as an eight year old.

I love the fact that there are young kids who come up to me and tell me that they want to become pilots like me. It is so sweet and touching.

There are so many parents telling me that they want their daughters to be like me. It is such an amazing feeling.

I have so much respect and appreciation for every single moment of my career.

The job also lets me achieve these impossible feats that inspire and empower women world over.

How has life been post the flight you commanded from San Francisco to Bengaluru?

I didn't know that the flight would turn out as such a huge inspiration for people.

The messages I get on Instagram are unbelievable.

There are children who are so inspired by me that I have tears in my eyes when I read their messages.

People write to me and tell me that they had given up on their dreams, but now want to pursue it.

Why is it important for people to dream?

Somewhere I feel people should let their children dream.

If one does not dream, how will they make their dreams come true. Everything starts with a dream.

If you have people who curb their dreams, it will end up in them being frustrated and they'll not be able to realise their true potential.

I have been a dreamer since my childhood. I truly feel it is about how one perceives things.

No one is born a daredevil or go-getter. We become like that along the journey.

All you have to do is want something really bad from your heart and soul.

You can do anything you want if only you're willing to work very hard to achieve it.

You may need to burn the midnight lamp and struggle, but it is worth the effort.

Don't feel hesitant in putting your 100 per cent into your dreams.

IMAGE: Captain Zoya has been inspiring a number of young women to dream and fly high.

Is the eight-year-old Zoya still alive in you?

I have an inner voice which guides me; I call her the 'Inner Zoya'.

I owe a lot to her, because whenever I wanted to give up, that inner voice would push me to do better.

I am a human; I have my weak moments too. But that inner voice has always told me that failure is not an option.

I want to make the most of the beautiful life that The Almighty has gifted me.

I want to leave behind a better world for the future generations.

Even if you look closely at impossible you can read it as I'm possible.

My eight-year-old self had the courage to follow her heart and that's how I want to be, all my life.

What advice do you have for aspiring women pilots?

Please do not give up on your dreams, even if society is against it.

This is a challenge which a lot of women face in India, where your own family will tell you that this profession is way out of your league.

Not just becoming a pilot, for any profession my advice to women out there is to dream and carry on with your dreams without giving up.

Always remember every great reality, begins with a great dream.

And every great dream begins with a great dreamer.

Go ahead and dream, focus on your goal and work towards it.

If there's something you'd want right now, what would it be?

I want to see a free world. COVID-19 has taught all of us the huge value of freedom.

Right from the very breath we're taking one realises that their freedom is curbed because we need to wear a mask.

I look forward to a world where we can travel again without fear.

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ANITA AIKARA / Rediff.com
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