India's four polar flight heroines speak on tricky mission, personal struggles

Captain Zoya Agarwal and her 'polar girls' Captain Thanmai Papagari, Captain Akanksha Sonawane and Captain Shivani Manhas achieved many records during the historic flight

India's four polar flight heroines speak on tricky mission, personal struggles
Left to right -- Captain Thanmai Papagari, Captain Zoya Agarwal, Captain Akanksha Sonawane and Captain Shivani Manhas. Image courtesy: Twitter/@ladyonrise)

"I keep on getting messages that I have become a star. I just laugh it off," said Captain Zoya Agarwal jauntily. She had just led a team of four fantastic female pilots, flying a gigantic Boeing 777-200LR all the way from San Francisco in the US to Bengaluru, over the north pole, landing in India in the wee hours of Monday (January 11), following a nearly-17-hour flight.

Captain Agarwal and her "polar girls" Captain Thanmai Papagari, Captain Akanksha Sonawane and Captain Shivani Manhas made history on many counts and made the nation swell with pride.

"I think I have had three coffees and that's it. I had landed at (around) 4 am, I then came to Delhi. By the time I landed in Delhi, my interviews have been back-to-back. In fact, I have not even had the chance to talk to my mom. I have a sore throat. I think I have been wearing my uniform now for the last 40 hours-plus," Captain Agarwal said, having graciously agreed to give an interview at around 9 in the evening on January 11. In spite of the tiredness, there was an unmistakable lilt to her voice, brimming with passion and pride. 

L-R: Captain Shivani Manhas, Captain Thanmai Papagari, Captain Akanksha Sonawane and Captain Zoya Agarwal during the final briefing at a hotel in San Francisco before the flight. Image courtesy: Captain Sivani Manhas

Captain Agarwal's flight was the longest non-stop route to or from India, covering a distance of 15,154 km. It is the second-longest flight among those in service at the moment. It was the longest flight operated by Air India, and indeed, by any carrier in India. It was also the first polar flight by an all-woman cockpit crew. It was the inaugural direct flight between San Francisco and Bengaluru -- two of the world's leading silicon valleys.

Captain Zoya Agarwal in the cockpit. Image courtesy: Instagram/@captainzoya 

With so many records, it had to a momentous occasion, and it definitely was. It represented a tremendous shattering of the glass ceiling by 'Bharat ki Betis' and the commitment of the national carrier and the government to promote women. The flight took off from San Francisco at 8.30 pm local time on Saturday (January 9) and reached Bengaluru at 3.25 am local time (when the engines were turned off and the doors were opened) on January 11. 

Plane Vanilla is the first to bring all four of India's polar flight heroines on the same platform for sharing their thoughts about the experience, operational challenges, passenger reactions, their struggles in the formative years and much more.   

Captain Thanmai Papagari has been flying with Air India since 2005. Image courtesy: Captain Thanmai Papagari

The great circle distance between San Francisco and Bengaluru is 14,004 km, according to flight-tracking website Flightradar24. It is the shortest distance between any two points on the surface of a sphere, measured along the sphere's surface. However, the actual distance covered by this historic flight (AI-176) was 1,150 km more. 

"The distance does vary depending on the best possible route and weather/winds. It is the second-longest flight that is in service now," said the erudite Captain Papagari, whom I had constantly bothered for the minutest of information, and she had helped out every time with a smile. 

"What happens is when we go on certain routes, the distance reduces, the weather is more favourable, you save fuel, in turn, you also save time. And that is brilliant because your carbon emissions are lower and Air India has always been pro-reducing carbon emissions. Among all the international airlines, we are in fact one of the foremost ones who are always striving to do this. So we leave a greener planet for our future. 

Captain Thanmai Papagari in the cockpit. Image courtesy: Captain Thanmai Papagari

"This flight is the beginning for making this route and sector a regular operation. This sector is best suited for the polar routing as the two cities are located diametrically opposite" Captain Papagari said. Captain Agarwal added that the flight saved 10 tons of fuel.      

What were the challenges that the crew faced while steering the behemoth B777 over the north pole? 

L-R: Captain Vandana Kapoor, who was on the flight to San Francisco; Captain Thanmai Papagari; Captain Akanksha Sonawane; Captain Zoya Agarwal and Captain Shivani Manhas. Image courtesy: Twitter/@airindiain

"See, we have already been trained to fly ultra-long hauls. So we have already been flying for a lot many years, on sectors like Delhi-San Francisco, Delhi-Chicago and Delhi-New York. We have been trained to fly over the Atlantic, over the Pacific and at high latitudes.

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"When it comes to the north pole, there are a few additional things that we need to take care of: one being the weather, the solar radiation, and there is an area of magnetic uncertainty. As you go closer to the north pole, you have this small area. This, in fact, then affects your communication, and as you go further up north, obviously there are lesser (number of) airports and (they are) mostly snow-capped. So what airports are available in case of any emergency, and when we do divert, what kind of facilities are available, all these come into the picture because you want your flight not just to be efficient and faster, but also what you need the utmost is safety," explained Captain Papagari. 

Captain Agarwal agreed that this flight is more weather-sensitive than any ordinary flight. She acknowledged that there are a lot of checkboxes that they had to tick, but "once everything is taken care of, we, as responsible pilots, are trained to make any journey happen from point A to point B and even if there are challenges, if you take them in the stride, they are all positive challenges". 

Captain Agarwal added that she made as many as seven announcements for the passengers. "I think again I created a world's history to have made seven announcements. I don't think anybody else made seven announcements in the history of aviation!" she quipped.   

"We were under a little bit of pressure because we did not know the challenges that might come up since this hadn't been done before," Captain Manhas said, referring to the maiden direct voyage by an Indian carrier from San Francisco to Bengaluru, that too over the north pole. "The route requires a lot of skill to manoeuvre. The concerning factor was temperature. The fuel temperature drops really low (around the north pole). You have to constantly monitor. But definitely, we were very, very excited," she added. 

Captain Shivani Manhas in front of the plane. Image courtesy: Shivani Manhas

All four women, however, agreed that the preparations made by them and the airline were immaculate and there was not even the slightest hiccup on the way. 

"Everything was taken care of right from when the flight took off from San Francisco, all the equipment, all the paperwork and everything. Actually, the challenges are only if you have any kind of an emergency because you are really not in contact with anyone over the radios. So in case of a medical emergency or a fire, you need to divert. It's so cold up there. (After) diverting also, (it) would take some time to get to someplace. Otherwise, there were no problems as such. It was a very smooth flight," Captain Sonawane informed. 

The mammoth Air India Boeing 777-200LR with registration code VT-ALG that was part of the world record. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Simon Boddy

She revealed that in case of adverse weather, the flight would not have been allowed. "They had checked six hours before the flight. They had been checking it throughout the week. There were no effects as such because we were inside a pressurised cockpit. Of course, in the long run, there might be. That's why we are limited to doing only two flights a month because of solar radiation. Only two flights are allowed to fly over the pole in a month. 

"Every flight doesn't mean it has to be over the pole. It all depends upon how much fuel you are saving -- and (on) that particular day, how the wind pattern is, how the weather is. All those things are taken into consideration and then it is decided if we can go over the pole. Otherwise, we choose the normal route, whichever is feasible for us," Captain Sonawane explained.  

Captain Zoya Agarwal cutting the ribbon before commencing the flight. Image courtesy: Twitter/@airindiain  

The conversation invariably shifted to their early years and what went into the making of the supremely adroit pilots that they are today. That's when you realise the amount of hardship that each one of them had to put in to realise their dreams, and you have to doff your hat to the strength of character and determination shown by all the ladies. 

"I was this 8-year-old girl on my terrace, who used to watch the stars and I used to see these flying objects moving about in the sky and my eyes would be glued on their contrails. I used to wonder, Zoya, could you ever fly one of those planes? 

"I am from a conservative family, where we didn't have so much of money growing up and we didn't have everything available to us. I was expected to probably lead a very conservative life and nothing extraordinary. I remember the day when I told my mom I wanted to become a pilot, she cried. She said, 'Zoya, Oh my god! You want to become a pilot? Why? You are the only child.'," Captain Agarwal recollected. However, when she became the youngest woman commander on the Boeing 777 in 2013, her mother cried again. "But this time they were tears of joy. Thank god. So life comes around," Captain Agarwal noted.  

L-R: Captain Akanksha Sonawane, Captain Zoya Agarwal, Captain Thanmai Papagari and Captain Shivani Manhas with Air India's mascot the 'Maharajah'. Image courtesy: Captain Thanmai Papagari

An alumnus of the prestigious St Stephen's College in Delhi, she had always been "academically inclined".  

"St Stephen's is a stickler for attendance. So I had to go to college every day. At six in the morning, my day used to start. Till 3.30 in the afternoon I was in college. Then I used to travel in a crowded DTC bus to south Delhi, where I used to attend classes on aviation. I used to come back home at 9.30 in the night. And when I would come back home, my day did not end there. We had a small house. Sometimes there was no electricity. I would just sit down to study because I knew I could not afford to postpone my aviation assignments. Weekends would be the same. The whole day would go into aviation classes. By the end of three years in college, I finished off all my aviation exams. I think my parents were feeling bad for me. (They felt) that she is working so hard, let her follow her dreams. They thought I would probably lose sight of my focus, but I never did," Captain Agarwal said.   

Captain Zoya Agarwal inspiring school kids. Image courtesy: Instagram/@captainzoya 

"I am talking about the late 1990s when there were not many women in aviation," Captain Agarwal added, fondly recalling her early days. "Forget about women, airlines would not even take women at that time. People would just tell you on your face that airlines would never encourage you to join them because they think to hire women is very expensive. That, in fact, followed as late as half-a-decade back. (After) 2016, I think Emirates and others just started taking women pilots. So it's a very conservative world." 

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"Having said that, I finished my college, my parents took a loan, I went for my flying, came back. I had a lot of joblessness when I would teach kids for their classes, without any money, just to keep myself current, because I was always very passionate about aviation," she said. 

However, a week before her big Air India examination, which was pretty tough to crack, her father got a heart attack and had to undergo surgery. And 10 days before this historic flight, Captain Agarwal's mother suffered a heart attack. "I was joking with my parents, 'Jab bhi mere saath kuch bada hona hota hai na life mein, aap dono me se koi heart attack karke baith jata hai (whenever something big is about to happen in my life, one of you ends up having a heart attack)," Captain Agarwal said. 

Captain Manhas had a story of struggle to tell as well. "I come from a small town. I am from Jammu and it is not very common and not very often that I would see pilots around me. So it's not something that was always in my mind as something that could be achieved because I didn't have too many people around me who were doing this. But it is something I really wished for because you are looking up at the sky, or when you go the airport, you see pilots dressed up and going to fly the big birds," she said. Captain Manhas, however, added that her parents had supported her from day one and that was motivation enough for her. 

Celebration onboard. Image courtesy: Twitter/@airindiain

Captain Sonawane informed that being a pilot was not always her dream, "because we were never aviators' kids". "We come from a very middle-class family," she said. However, she was inspired by her sister, who is also with Air India and operates the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. It is the passion for flying that keeps her motivated, Captain Sonawane said. I look forward to every flight of mine, to wear my uniform, people look up to you. As a girl also. It just keeps me highly motivated. I have to fly. That's it," she explained. 

For Captain Papagari, her aunt was the guiding force. "There are so many women in various fields and in aviation itself. They keep me going," she said. She is a member of the Indian Women Pilots' Association (IWPA). "There are such great achievers out there -- my seniors. They are always an inspiration and they keep us very motivated to continue to do more," she said.

All four women were effusive in praise for their employer Air India. What makes Air India special is that it rewards merit and does not discriminate on the ground of gender. That is something on which there was a total consensus. 

"When I joined the airline in 2004, there were hardly any women pilots. And I was this young little girl, floating around. I was an exception at that time. I was the youngest to join at that time as well and I was in a man's world," Captain Agarwal remembered.  

However, the airline never discriminated between men and women. "Air India has been an equal-opportunity employer. That means if you prove your worth, you rise up. And so long as you prove your mettle, an airplane captain's seat, for example, or a first officer's seat, doesn't understand whether it is occupied by a man or a woman. It's not gender-sensitive," Captain Agarwal emphasised, adding that the fact that an all-woman team was given an opportunity to make history should speak volumes about how women are treated by the national carrier. 

Women are supported thoroughly by Air India. Captain Agarwal mentioned the IWPA, which had been actively involved in organising all-woman flights. Air India has a tradition of operating all-woman flights on International Women's Day on March 8 every year. 

"Without Air India, I would not have been here," Captain Sonawane said, adding, "Whatever the situation is, also (considering) the pandemic that we are going through, we have not lost our jobs, we are still there with them and they have taken care of us. I love being in this airline," Captain Sonawane pointed out. "The company had chosen us to do this. We had been handpicked to be a part of this flight. It is something that really humbles me," Captain Manhas said. 

L-R: Captain Zoya Agarwal, Captain Akanksha Sonawane, Captain Thanmai Papagari and Captain Shivani Manhas. Image courtesy: Twitter/@HardeepSPuri

Captain Papagari listed some additional advantages of being a part of India's flag carrier. "We fly the best of sectors, we have got lovely stations that we fly to, state-of-the-art aircraft and such golden opportunities, where you are piloting all-woman flights, or maybe an opportunity like this. What more can anyone ask for?" she noted.   

Operating during the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely tough for these women, yet the sense of responsibility and the need to reunite families have kept them going. They put national duty over self and family, running the risk of contracting the coronavirus. Don't forget, if you are flying between India and the US, you are actually flying between two of the worst Covid-affected countries of the world. You could get infected anywhere and even on the flight. Their personal lives took a backseat too. 

Captain Zoya Agarwal was the youngest woman to pilot a B777. Image courtesy: Instagram/@captainzoya

"I was the first one to fly from San Francisco to Mumbai on the first repatriation flight and it was a very difficult moment for me personally because it was Mother's Day and that meant that I had to stay away from my own kids," Captain Agarwal noted. 

"At that time there were not many pilots who would step up to fly. Everybody was very scared. I am talking about May first week. And then the Zoya inside me woke up and she said, 'You have to fly, why are you shying away from it? You have kids but look at so many other mothers of the world whose children are stuck in the US, over here and over there. You have to go and fetch them. And who will go if you are going to be selfish about having your own children?' So I was torn between my children and my sense of duty, but I chose my sense of duty because that is where my moral compass lies," Captain Agarwal recollected.   

Captain Manhas was stuck in Jammu in the lockdown when her employer called her to operate a flight to Toronto. She had to travel by road all the way to Delhi in a car with special permission. "Before we went for the flight, we were isolated the entire time, but at the airport and in the flight you are extremely prone to getting infected and at that point, we didn't know the seriousness of the virus. So we were always under a lot of stress. We had to be in isolation all the time away from our families. When you came back from the flight you continued to be in isolation because there was a fear of infecting others, and (had to) continue doing your work. That was quite challenging. And you needed Covid tests before the flight and even after the flight. But it was important because you knew you were bringing people who had been stranded for months away from home," Captain Manhas said. 

L-R: Captain Shivani Manhas, Captain Thanmai Papagari, Captain Zoya Agarwal and Captain Akanksha Sonawane before leaving for Bengaluru. Image courtesy: Captain Thanmai Papagari

Captain Manhas, though, acknowledged that some frontline Covid warriors did face resistance from the society because "when you step out of your house, people see that you are getting out and getting exposed and they don't want you to come back with the virus". Indeed there were reports of Air India staff being hounded and ostracised by vigilantes in some housing societies in Delhi and Mumbai, which led the airline and even Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri to speak up. However, Captain Manhas informed that she, personally, had not faced such problems and her family and neighbours had been quite appreciative.

Captain Sonawane missed flying when flights were suspended during the lockdown. "It was a really sad situation. But I also flew during the pandemic -- a couple of cargo flights. Initially started with cargo flights and (was) also taking passengers. There were fewer flights, but in June we started the first flight to New York. The Mumbai-New York route. We were the first ones. And I did that flight from Mumbai," she said.  

Captain Sonawane felt happy to be able to bring back people stranded in different parts of the world as the Covid-19 pandemic struck and countries banned regular air travel. "In this situation, everyone wants to be with their loved ones. You don't want to be stuck in a country where there is no one. This is a time when you realise the value of life, family, everything. I was just happy to get them back," she noted.    

Captain Shivani Manhas has been flying with Air India for the past four years. Image courtesy: Shivani Manhas

Captain Papagari rued that the pilots' interaction with the passengers had reduced in view of social distancing requirements, but expressed happiness at being able to bring back students, people who had gone on vacation and others, who were caught unawares by the pandemic and the resultant travel bans and were stranded in various parts of the world.  

The topic of pilots' interaction with passengers brought us to the reception that this historic flight received from them. "I can't even begin to tell you what an effervescent atmosphere it was onboard my flight, how people clapped the moment we touched down and how that clapping was resonating even in my ears post-touchdown. In the cockpit, I could hear the clapping. We had a full flight. It was amazing," Captain Agarwal said. She added that the sight of the stunning aurora borealis or northern lights made the flight all the more thrilling. 

Captain Manhas pointed out another very interesting thing about the flight. "We met a lot of passengers who had bought the ticket specifically to be a part of this flight. They did not have to go for some work, they were not travelling to meet anyone, they just bought the ticket to travel to be a part of history," she said. Captain Papagari agreed. 

"This particular flight that we have set this record on has been the dream of our Prime Minister (Narendra) Modiji to connect the two cities which are the silicon valleys of the US and India (respectively). That was his long-standing dream," Captain Agarwal said. 

"This was a much-awaited sector, which was long overdue. Plus, it's very good for all the cities down south, especially for Bengaluru, where we have a huge load from this silicon valley to the US silicon valley. We have reduced stopover. Earlier it always used to be via Mumbai or Delhi. Now they (passengers) don't have to do that. Plus they save time too, and during these pandemic times, it's even better because your exposure reduces. You are not getting off at airports. It was perfect timing for such a flight," Captain Papagari explained. She pointed out that this flight was a part of the air bubble agreement between India and the US.

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Captain Sonawane echoed her colleague's words on the passengers being happy for a direct connection between San Francisco and Bengaluru. She pointed out that the passengers got a full service onboard and they were very happy with it. 

Air India would operate two non-stop flights every week from San Francisco to Bengaluru departing on Saturdays and Tuesdays, according to a statement by the San Francisco International Airport. The return flight would reach San Francisco on Mondays and Thursdays. The B777-200LR aircraft would be used for these flights. It is equipped with 238 seats, comprising eight first-class, 35 business class and 195 economy seats.   

The two commanders Captain Agarwal and Captain Papagari are Air India veterans. While the former is in her 17th year, the latter is in her 16th year with the national carrier. Captain Sonawane, on the other hand, joined Air India in 2010. She was on the smaller Boeing 737 fleet for three-and-a-half years, and in 2016, transitioned to the B777. Captain Manhas has been a part of the airline for the past four years and handling the B777 for a-year-and-a-half. 

Captain Manhas was full of praise for her senior colleagues in the AI-176 cockpit. "I got to learn a lot from all of them individually because we work as a team, but definitely it was a great learning experience for me since I am the junior-most and they are all my seniors and I have a big respect for all of them," she said. Captain Papagari thanked the entire team, comprising the cockpit crew, cabin crew, ground staff and others, that had come together to put this historic flight together "because it can't just be a one-man show", she said. 

All four women thanked the civil aviation minister from the bottom of their hearts for the opportunity. He had been constantly tweeting in appreciation of the all-woman AI-176 cockpit crew. "I am really thankful to the minister of civil aviation Puriji for being so encouraging and supportive to basically empower all the women that are there and making us sheroes. So I am truly grateful to the minister of civil aviation to give this opportunity and trust the four 'Bharat ki Betis' (India's daughters) with the responsibility of flying so many people on one of the lesser-known northern polar routes between two diametrically opposite city pairs," Captain Agarwal said. 

Nivedita Bhasin, Air India's Executive Director (Flight Safety), travelled on the flight as a passenger. An ace pilot herself, Bhasin had made history, when in 1990, at the age of 26 years, she became the youngest pilot in the world to command a commercial aeroplane. Her husband, son and daughter are all pilots too. While her husband and daughter are with IndiGo, her son is her colleague at Air India.  

Before we wrapped up, I had to ask these champions: what would their advice be to their thousands of admirers, and youngsters, in particular, who would now be looking up to them?

"I made my own path. In fact, I go to a lot of schools (and meet) a lot of little girls. I inspire them, motivate them because I see their societal challenges which I went through sometime back and I feel they can benefit a lot from my experience so that they know they can break the glass ceiling," Captain Agarwal said.  

"Nothing is an ending for anyone. You have to dream. In fact, a lot of times when I give lectures in school I write down on a piece of paper 'Impossible'. Then I show it to them (students) and ask what is written. A lot of the girls say, 'Impossible, ma'am'. A lot of them say 'I M possible' and when I hear that my ears stand up and I see the little Zoya on the terrace. It's fascinating how some kids are more driven than the others, but the ones who say 'Impossible', I tell them, 'Hey listen! Nothing is impossible because in life every single reality that is there -- my reality, your reality -- everything starts off with a dream. You have to dream and every great dream begins with a great dreamer, which is you. So focus, set your eyes on a goal, chase it with all your determination, dedication, perseverance and follow your dreams because there is nothing that you can't achieve. There is no word called 'Impossible'. So take a deep breath, and read it out loud 'I M Possible'," noted Captain Agarwal, words sufficient to give any listener goosebumps.    

"Dream big, dream high and work hard," Captain Papagari said. Captain Sonawane added that a pilot's job is not only a job but a lot of responsibility as well. 

"Being a captain of a flight is a very responsible job. Because you are in charge, in the air... like when I was in the air at 34,000 feet over the north pole, I was in charge of so many lives. It's basically a lot of responsibility resting on your shoulders -- of the passengers, of the aeroplane which costs more than $300 million," Captain Agarwal added.

"When you decide on something, you figure out ways to do it. Don't give up and you will reach where you want to. I have achieved my dreams, and if a girl from Jammu can do it, I am sure any kid can," Captain Manhas said.  

Talking about her colleagues in the cockpit, Captain Agarwal said, "They are super pilots, amazing professionals and true 'Bharat ki Betis' and I am so glad they were my 'polar girls' and together we all got to not only see the north pole from 34,000 feet, but we also got to break the world record and created a new history in aviation." 

She rightly pointed out that the historic flight provided the world with positive vibes. "I don't remember seeing any such positive news in the past year ever since Covid had struck. I think this has created an amazing amount of effervescence and fervour. During Covid, I think this is the silver lining to the dark cloud we needed indeed to rise up and hopefully (when) the start of 2021 is so good, it should get better from here," Captain Agarwal observed. 

That undying hope and positivity is the lasting impression that one takes from the magical chat with India's four aviation heroines.