Featured 30 Nov 2022 The sky is not the l ...

The sky is not the limit for Captain Zoya Agarwal

Published Nov 30, 2022, 4:41 pm IST
Updated Nov 30, 2022, 4:47 pm IST
Captain Zoya Agarwal (Photo By Arrangement)
 Captain Zoya Agarwal (Photo By Arrangement)

Captain Zoya Agarwal, the first Indian woman to fly over the North Pole, made aviation history recently by securing her place in the SFO Aviation Museum. The senior Boeing 777 pilot with Air India flew over the North Pole travelling a record-breaking 16,000 kilometres.

“I’m so pleased that we were able to have four Bharat Ki Betiyan — Capt Papagari Thanmai, Capt Akansha Sonaware and Capt Shivani Manhas — lead this critical mission — covering the world’s longest air route from San Franciso (SFO) to Bengaluru, covering the North Pole. The government and the civil aviation ministry only believed in us, which made it possible. I’m overjoyed to see that UN Women (entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) has featured Air India and me as an inspiration to the entire world. It is a significant turning point in my career to be recognised as an Indian woman who is making a difference around the world,” says Zoya.

A cockpit dream

Every child is at some time or other asked the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Our ideal occupation changes as we grow. Most of us learn that our first choices of teaching or nursing may not be our true calling. But ever since Zoya first replied ‘A pilot’ to that question, it remained her only response. “I remember sitting and stargazing on the terrace while all my friends played games. I’ve always wanted to touch the sky and the stars and it’s been my biggest inspiration in life,” says Zoya, who has achieved her dreams today.
Being the only child in a middle-class family means that you aren’t always allowed to follow your dreams, especially if you are a girl. A girl is expected to follow the traditional path and settle down after marriage. “So my dream seemed like an unusual career choice to my parents. However, I made the decision to pursue my passion. I dedicated my time to my aviation classes during the second half of the day while concentrating on my STEM degree during the first,” says Zoya.

And did it pay off! Along with co-pilots R Someshwar, Sandeep Mukhedkar and Abhay Agarwal, it was Zoya who piloted Air India’s first Boeing 777 aircraft over the Hindu Kush mountain range.

A hard fight

The fact that many airlines didn’t even consider hiring female pilots until 2016 made life difficult for Zoya. “Women play a dual role, they have their careers and then their responsibilities back home too. An airline, therefore, bears additional expenses when they need to support women on maternity leave. There’s no room for errors and additional expenses in this industry. Times have changed though, and more women are now hired as pilots. I’ve had to fight hard to show everyone around me the strength of women in this field and to shatter the gender biases associated with aviation. But I’m glad I worked for Air India, a company that has always valued equality of the sexes. My airline was far ahead of its time when it became an equal employer 17 years ago,” says the pilot.

Nerves of steel