The flight, recorded as the longest commercial flight operated by any Indian airline, landed in Bengaluru early Monday morning.

The team of four women pilots Captain Zoya Aggarwal Captain Papagiri Thanmei Captain Akansha Sonaware and Captain Shivani Manhas with Captain Nivedita BhasinTwitter/Air India
Features Aviation Tuesday, January 12, 2021 - 16:03

Marking a new milestone in Indian aviation history, Air India’s longest flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru landed in Kempegowda International Airport at 3.45 am on Monday, January 11. The flight — the longest commercial one operated by any Indian airline — was operated by an all-women crew comprising Captain Zoya Aggarwal, Captain Papagiri Thanmei, Captain Akansha Sonaware and Captain Shivani Manhas, who have been lauded for the feat. 

The direct distance between the two cities is 13,993 kilometres, with a time zone change of around 13.5 hours. Depending on the wind speed, the flying time is roughly over 17 hours. 

TNM spoke to Captains Zoya and Thanmei, the flight’s commanding pilots, who recalled the journey, flying across the pole region and succeeding as women in a male-dominated industry. 

An opportunity of a lifetime

When Captain Thanmei first heard she would be flying the new route connecting the two Silicon Valleys of the world, she was over the moon. “I am extremely humbled that I received this opportunity to be on this inaugural flight,” she said. “This flight was the most challenging one because the whole world’s eyes were on us and this was the first time, we were doing it.”

Zoya described the flight as an “amazing” experience. 

The flight was the first direct, non-stop flight between the west coast of the United States and southern India, a long-pending demand from passengers. The biweekly flight will take off from Bengaluru to San Francisco on Mondays and Thursdays, and leave San Francisco for Bengaluru on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

The polar route

Incidentally, the route takes flight across the North Pole, an ambitious endeavour for which the pilots have been training for a year. Turning it into a reality felt surreal, Zoya said. She added that they broke the world record for flying over a polar route, connecting diametrically opposite cities of the world, a “proud moment” for the team. 

Captain Thanmei said while the journey was not difficult to make, it was definitely challenging, she added. She elaborated that they cannot fly if the necessary components — cosmic radiation levels, solar radiation, navigation aids, fuel temperature and others — are not in line with the obligatory values. She noted that years of rigorous training teach them to recognise any fault with the aircraft. This flight tested their knowledge and experience of so many years, she said.

Captain Zoya notes, “Within the polar region, it becomes more difficult owing to the extreme weather conditions. We are legally bound to carry equipment specially built for the polar regions, such as polar suits. One cannot step out of the aircraft without a polar suit. There is an extensive list of parameters that we have to take into account before we fly over the polar region.”

Thanmei further added that while she has extensive experience flying long-haul flights, flying over the polar region is very different. The route of flying over the North Pole, the pilot said, is an unswerving one. Unlike other routes, the polar route saves tonnes of fuel, in turn reducing the flight’s carbon footprint.

“There’s a zone in the polar region that can affect the communication of the pilots with the base. We have to take into account the weather, wind direction and solar radiation. We also have to look out for technical issues that may jeopardise the flight. Moreover, in case of emergencies, we have to consider if the facilities the airports can provide,” she said. 

Subsequently, giving an insight into the planning, Thanmei said that the route changes according to the weather conditions. “You do not know until the last moment if you will fly from the polar region or will you go a little farther. We have been flying these routes (Delhi-New York) and this is just an addition [to the existing routes].”

Zoya further fleshed out that it is not just the pilots who go through rigorous training but also the cabin crew. She said that it’s the cabin crew who manage the passengers, and in case of any emergency, they have to tend to them. “The cabin crew are the first who respond to any queries of the passengers. If there’s a sick patient on the flight, it is they who have to manage it and give them temporary respite until we can land or at least divert. Because of the polar region’s extreme conditions, the operation was riskier. Thankfully, we did not have a sick passenger on this flight,” she added.

A team of women

Speaking on their all-women crew in the cockpit, Captain Thanmei said, “Air India has always tried to empower the women employed there, and cockpit crews and cabin crews consisting of all-female employees have carried passengers across the globe. This flight has further boosted it.” 

Zoya recalled how she had to toil to rise from a reserved background where women were expected to always stay in the shadows of men. “Life would be a flatline without challenges. As a pilot, no two days are the same for us and we have to be trained thoroughly for every challenge.” 

She nonchalantly said that without challenges, they would not have grown or evolved. “Achieving this feat was possible because we struggled,” she said. 

The pilots have been called an inspiration by many around the world. Thanmei said, “I would like to tell every woman, every girl out there that if they have a dream, it’s possible. Just dream big and work hard to achieve it.”

Zoya attributed her success to god’s grace and hard work. “Every reality begins with a great dream and every great dream begins with a great dreamer and that is you,” she said. 

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.