“Proud Yet Humbled” - Air India’s All-Women Cockpit Crew After Flying Over World’s Longest Air Route

Poorvi Gupta
·4-min read

Four commercial women pilots scripted history as they flew the world’s longest haul from San Francisco to Bengaluru on January 10. This is the first time that such a long distance - of roughly 14,000 km- has been covered by only-women pilots from India.

Air India’s pilots Capt. Shivani Manhas, Capt. Akansha Sonawane, and Capt. Thanmai Papagiri, commanded by Capt. Zoya Agarwal, achieved the landmark feat by flying over the North Pole. They were flying between two diametrically opposite cities in the world - which have a time difference of around 13.5 hours.

L to R: Capt. Shivani Manhas, Capt. Akansha Sonawane, Capt. Thanmai Papagiri, and Capt. Zoya Agarwal

As the Boeing 777-200LR aircraft touched the Indian soil today making the dream run a success, Captain Agarwal told MAKERS India that she felt pride and humility.

“It was an amazing feeling indeed to be a part of this historic moment. I felt excited, coupled with a lot of humility and responsibility instilled in me by my senior management. At the end of the day I am responsible for the safety of a lot of lives and the aeroplane,” she said, adding that she was living her childhood dream.

“The little Zoya who used to see aeroplanes from the ground and imagined herself to fly one day was happy for creating a new chapter in the world’s aviation history. It is the longest flight for Air India or any other Indian carrier specially operated by an all-women cockpit crew; so it felt proud yet humbling at the same time. Butterflies in the stomach yet an absolutely empowering moment,” she says all smile.

The new service represents the only nonstop flights between the US and Bengaluru. Agarwal notes that a route like this needs to be flown by experienced pilots. “Whether it is a man or a woman, it doesn’t really matter; but it just so happened that eventually four of us ended up on this flight and flew over the North Pole. Till the end of Monday, we didn’t know whether we would fly over the Polar region or not; but we finally did. We all saw the North Pole from 34,000 feet above and it was a great historical moment,” adds Agarwal, who was also the youngest woman pilot to fly the Boeing 777 back in 2013.

Captain Zoya Agarwal
Captain Zoya Agarwal

She chuckled that she might have broken the record for making the most number announcements during the course of the flight as well. “I made seven announcements to inform the passengers every single nitty gritty detail in order to share our collective experience with them. I don’t think in the history of aviation anybody must have made so many announcements. I wanted them to see this flight from my eyes,” said Agarwal, who has a flying experience of more than 8000 hours.

Economical route

For Capt Papagiri, her focus was unwavered from moving from one location to the other at the earliest, keeping the passengers comfort paramount, she tells MAKERS India. She noted that while this is the fastest route to get from San Francisco to Bengaluru, it is also the most economical route - saving the aircraft tonnes of fuel. “When we go over the polar region, we are saving 2000 - 7,000 Kg of fuel and also time. There may be several challenges on this route; but we have been trained by the best so we had a very planned and systematic procedure.”

A scene from the welcome party for Air India's inaugural flight between San Francisco and Bengaluru, at the Kempegowda International Airport Bengaluru. (Image from Air India's Twitter handle)
A scene from the welcome party for Air India's inaugural flight between San Francisco and Bengaluru, at the Kempegowda International Airport Bengaluru. (Image from Air India's Twitter handle)

She adds that this is the most suitable route by far during the pandemic times as there are no stopovers, so it ensures better safety.

On the job of a pilot being unsafe during these unprecedented times, Papagiri says, “We have our safety measures and procedures in place; but we all fear for our lives. I have got kids and parents at home who worry for my health; but they know that we have a very sustainable safety net provided to us by the company.”

She remembers that at the very beginning of the pandemic, she had flown hundreds of students from different parts of the world back to India and how their relieved faces made her feel the happiest. “Even today, we had so many passengers who had booked themselves on the flight so that they can be a part of the inaugural flights that will fly over the North Pole. It is always a motivating factor for us,” she added.

So far, Air India has flown close to 16 lakh people on over 12 thousand flights covering 75 destinations in 55 countries under the Indian Government's Vande Bharat Mission and Air Transport Bubble Arrangement.

India prides itself for having a higher percentage of women pilots than the global average of 5.81% with over 12% women pilots, according to the latest statistics from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISWAP) in 2018. The all-women cockpit crew becoming a reality is a step in the right direction when it comes to giving equal opportunities to women.

(Edited by Athira Nair)