'I hold the power to bring change in this world,' says Zoya Agarwal, India’s first woman pilot to fly over the north pole

She is the first Indian to be listed in the SFO Aviation Museum in San Francisco. She gets candid with FPJ about her journey in a male dominated sector

Priyanka ChandaniUpdated: Sunday, November 06, 2022, 02:03 PM IST
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Zoya Agarwal |

Women in India have come a long way in terms of cementing their positions as world’s many firsts. Last year, four women reached all-time high when they, led by Captain Zoya Agarwal, made history by embarking on a journey covering nearly 16,000 kilometres from San Francisco to Bengaluru by air — the longest non-stop commercial route undertaken yet. This was the first time when all-women crew ventured the route. 

Zoya was next up to helm India’s Vande Bharat Mission, an evacuation operation to bring Indian nationals from different countries back to the motherland during the pandemic.

In 2022, Agarwal has made her place in the San Francisco Aviation museum and become the only human to have made it as a pilot in the coveted space. In an exclusive conversation with The Free Press Journal, Zoya shares all that went into completing the mission, what it entails to be the first woman pilot to fly over the North Pole, braving emotional challenges, her many achievements, her life beyond work and more. Excerpts from the interview: 

What does it entail to be the first woman pilot to fly over the north pole?

The journey was indeed difficult, but I treasured every minute of it. It is truly breathtaking when you realise you will be crossing the North Pole when the compass will turn 180 degrees. Taking off and landing over the North Pole is not for the faint of heart.

As the first female pilot to fly over the North Pole, I am truly honoured and humbled by the trust placed in me by the civil aviation ministry and our flag carrier. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pilot a Boeing 777 on its first SFO-BLR flight, one of the world’s longest flights over the North Pole.

You were recently announced the first Indian to enter the SFO Aviation Museum in San Francisco. How do you see this achievement?

Being the first Indian and the first woman to enter the SFO Aviation Museum in San Francisco was an incredible experience. After this experience, I am more convinced that India has much to offer to the global aviation industry and should inspire women around the globe to follow their dreams. If you ask an eight-year-old girl who used to sit on her balcony, looking at the sky and dreaming of becoming a pilot, it’s a dream come true for me that this recognition has been given to me by the United States. I am grateful that I have inspired many women to pursue their dreams in every possible way.

In our last conversation, you shared the emotional upheavals you had to go through to prepare for the exam, what is the impact of those challenges on you now?

The hurdles in my career began at home when I chose to seek a career in aviation. I recall my mother sobbing when I initially told her I wanted to be a pilot. My parents thought that a woman wanting to be a pilot was not ‘normal’, and they encouraged me to choose the conventional road that led to marriage and settle down. When I look back on all those hurdles, I feel that I have come out of it stronger with impeccable passion for my profession. Working hard to learn and get recognition in the aviation sector is what finally earned me my parents’ support and appreciation. My parents are still my biggest supporters.

 Were you ever treated differently for being a woman in your field?

In all honesty, I was the fifth girl to join Air India, and today we have a global rate of 5% of female pilots who are Indian. As late as 2016, several airlines would not even consider employing female pilots due to sexism in the Indian aviation business. But as you know, the world is changing and so is the way to look at women. I’ve had to battle hard to demonstrate to everyone around me the power of women in this industry and to dispel the gender stereotypes that surround aviation.

Unlike many other airlines in India and across the world, which did not allow women, Air India believed in equal chances. Even 17 years ago, my airline was an equal employer, which is tremendous. I am pleased that my airline did not treat me unfairly because of my gender. There will always be people who do not believe in me, and I have utilised this as a driving force to stay on top of my game. It all basically comes down to dedication, hard work, and passion.

More achievements come with more responsibilities. Does that make you overwhelmed?

It does get overwhelming at some point. The healthier way to look at it would be how I hold the power to bring change in this world. As a public figure, I feel to bring change in society one has to take up the responsibility and lead the way for the masses. I firmly believe that women are good at multitasking as they can pull off any responsibility that has been delegated to them. It gives me immense pleasure that I can work hard to achieve every milestone that comes my way and to inspire not just women but everyone across the globe.

How do you balance your emotions and mental health when you have to continuously live up to people’s expectations?

The best way to take care of yourself is to meditate every day. Spending time with your true self will help to maintain the sanity within you and trust me it brings calm to all the chaos around you. Focusing on all the good and keeping all the negative thoughts aside, meditation really helps me to nurture myself.

Do share some anecdotes from your journey so far that you cherish the most.

It is thrilling even when I recall this moment where my team and I saved lives of many. When we flew a flight full of people amidst pandemic (Vande Bharat Mission) and could help people meet their families and loved ones. It makes you realise that you have so much responsibility on your shoulder and people blindly put their faith in you and trust you with their lives. While I was walking out of cockpit and I could see tears in people’s eyes... that left massive impact on me. There was an applause as everyone was appreciating our efforts... but the smile on people’s face was something that I will cherish for rest of my life.

Off the record

How do you spend your work offs?

Honestly, my work is my passion and let’s say that I pursue my passion every day. So for me it’s never the work as I enjoy every single day at work. But I make sure that I look after my health both physical and mental. To stay happy from within is the need of an hour, not just for me but for all of us who’s working hard and trying to create impact some or the other way. Taking out that ‘me-time’ is really essential in these days of haste.

Your favourite travel and flying destination?

Any place on this beautiful mother earth that brings calm and happiness to my soul. This beautiful mother earth is home and my favorite destination to fly to is the entire world. 

If not flying, what do you like to do?

Having a time with myself with a cup of coffee and a good read is how I like to indulge myself.

Last book you read or web series you watched?

This is a little tough as I have been caught up with work commitments but “Wings of Fire” is one of my favourite books as it teaches us life lessons, significance of dreaming big and standing against all the odds that comes our way. I relate to this book on personal level as I am standing strong after beating all the hurdles in my life.

Your favourite food?

In all fairness I can say that I have travelled to some beautiful destinations and tried different cuisine. But ‘Mummy ke hath ka Ghar Ka Khana’ is my favourite as it brings satisfaction to my soul, nothing beats Mother’s love for their children.

Your fashion choices?

For me, comfort is the key. Fashion that helps me feel and be comfortable.

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