'I was on top of the world' said an elated Captain Zoya Aggarwal, who headed the four-member all-woman cockpit crew that flew into Indian aviation history on Monday, landing the San Francisco-Bengaluru AI direct flight after going over the North Pole.
As AI-176 landed at the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru and the crew members walked to the lounge, a huge crowd of people gave a rousing reception for scripting history with the about 17-hour journey, the longest flight by the national carrier or any other airline in the country.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Puri said the four-member cockpit crew created history while Governors of various states, leaders, including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi and Telugu Desam Party chief N Chandrababu Naidu, and social media users lavishly praised the women pilots.
Captain Aggarwal, the first pilot, said she felt as if she was on top of the world flying over the North pole, surrounded by Arctic ocean and the northernmost point on earth.
"I was on the top of the world. I would rather call it, top of the North Pole because the North Pole was the world for me when I was commanding that Boeing-777 200 LR above 34,000 feet," she told PTI in Bengaluru.
The other three women pilots were Captain Papagari Thanmai, Captain Akansha Sonaware and Captain Shivani Manhas and the flight that departed from San Francisco in the United States of America at around 8.30 pm (local time) on Saturday landed in Bengaluru at around 3.45 am on Monday.
The direct distance between the two cities at opposite ends of the world is 13,993 km with a time zone change of around 13.5 hours.
Asked if there was any fear flying over the Polar region, Aggarwal said she only felt excitement and her instructors had all along inculcated complete confidence in pilots like her.
"I am very motivated...I don't think the word fear exists in Air India. No, not at all," she said.
Thanking the ministry of civil aviation and the Air India for reposing faith on her and other crew members, Aggarwal said she was grateful, felt happy and humbled.
She also gave credit to the 'weather God' as the weather across the polar region was 'immaculate and suitable in order to make a polar flight happen'.
'In a moment to cherish & celebrate, women professionals of Indian civil aviation create history. Heartiest congratulations to Capt Zoya Aggarwal, Capt Papagari Thanmai, Capt Akansha Sonaware & Capt Shivani for flying over North Pole to land in Bengaluru from San Francisco,' Puri tweeted.
He hailed it as an embodiment of 'Nari Shakti'.
Rahul Gandhi said: 'Congratulations to the all-women cockpit crew for completing Air India's longest flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru over the North Pole. You have made the country proud.'
Aggarwal, hailing from a conservative family and the only child of her parents, broke the glass ceiling to become an AI pilot and carved a niche for herself by steering the inaugural flight from America.
"I am the only child of my parents. So, I grew up in a world where I was taught to walk behind the men and their shadows and to grow up and get married and look after my kids," she recalled.
She said when she told her parents her wish to become a pilot, her mother cried out of fear but today her mother's tears were out of joy.
The AI flight, after getting airborne from San Francisco under the command of Captain Aggarwal left the polar region at a speed of 940 kmph as Captain Thanmai, the second pilot, steered the aircraft.
'...Kudos for making Air India proud. We also congratulate passengers of AI176 for being part of this historic moment,' the airline said, describing it as a landmark journey.
The flight was operated with a Boeing 777-200LR aircraft with a seating capacity of 238 seats, including eight First Class, 35 Business Class,195 Economy class configuration besides four cockpit and 12 cabin crew.