On a small airfield in Patiala, where grass grows in the cracks(दरार ) in the taxiway, we are waiting for clearance from the tower. From beneath (नीचे की ओर ,तले) my headset, the engine is no louder than a pedestal fan in a wedding hall. Air Traffic Control (ATC) says it’s okay to go, and the young woman besides me flicks a switch and the propeller(संचालक शक्ति )begins pulling us forward. In what seems like mere yards, we are airborne.
The doors are see-through, visibility is almost wrap-around (चारो ओर), and below us, to starboard(जहाज का दाहिना भाग), fields glide by, most of them paddy under water; to port, one can see the cantonment (छावनी ). I have forgotten that it has taken me years to get over my fear of heights. The plane banks. “I might let you fly her,” says Aarohi Pandit, grinning (मुस्कान ), then maybe seeing my consternation (घबराह्ट), indicates she is joking. She idles the engine, letting(आज्ञा देना ) the plane glide (उड़ना). “Hold the stick, lightly,” she says, “You can feel her fly.” The stick twitches, and I feel the pedals move too, as the controls at my seat mirror the ones at hers. We have made a gentle circle, and before I know it, I see the airstrip below our nose. She asks the tower for permission to land, and as delicately as a dragonfly skimming a pond (ड्रैगनफ्लाई एक तालाब को खत्म करता है।), we land and turn for the taxiway.
Roughly an hour ago, Pandit and her friend Keithair Misquitta had been worrying(चिंताजनक) that the ATC would not let them fly. The weather had been bad all morning, with low visibility and a chance of rain.
The light was good enough, though, for photography, so the two women put their shoulder to the huge sliding doors, took the covers off the smallest plane inside — the only airworthy (उड़ान योग्य) one amidst (मध्य में) several grounded planes used to teach future aeronautical engineers — and wheeled it out. As we shot, the sun came out, the ATC said yes, and that’s when the pilots asked if I would like a quick sortie.
A world to see
Formally registered as VT-NBF, the plane has a name, Mahi (‘great planet Earth’ in Sanskrit), and she’s one of the girls, say Misquitta and Pandit. If all goes well, sometime this week these three will attempt to make history by becoming the first women to fly around the world in a light sport aircraft or LSA. It will also be India’s first civilian all-woman circumnavigation.
Mahi, a Sinus 912, the only LSA registered in India, is tiny, about the length of a minibus, but lighter (the two pilots push her around with ease) and with wide wings that curve up at the tips, on which she can soar sans engines (the wings also contain the fuel tanks).
The Sinus was chosen partly because it was the aircraft used by Matevž Lenarčič for the first solo circumnavigation(जहाज द्वारा परिभ्र्मण करना) in an ultralight, and partly because it is a safe yet strong single-engine plane with gliding abilities. Lenarčič has been a mentor and supporter to this expedition. Mahi is two years old, and has been configured especially for circumnavigations (जहाज द्वारा परिभ्र्मण करना), with autopilot, a ballistic(प्रक्षेप ) rescue system, and advanced avionics( एवियोनिक्स -एविएशन में इलैक्ट्रौनिक विज्ञान का प्रयोग)
While the Sinus can cruise (परिभ्रमण करना) five to six hours, covering over 1,000 km before needing to refuel, the route planned is conservative(अपरिवर्तनवादी), flying only in clear visibility and never more than four hours a day and around 700 km before stopping to refuel and rest. Accounting for possible bad weather and rest days, the mission should see them back at base in around 100 days, 90 if all goes well.
Takes a village
The duo, or trio if you prefer, will not be doing it alone.
Misquitta, 24, and Pandit, 22, were selected by Navy Blue Foundation, organiser and fund-raiser for the expedition(अभियान). They were initially back-up pilots, but became the stars when circumstances changed.
The expedition director is Rahul Monga, former IAF helicopter pilot who now teaches aviation(वायुयान में उड़ने की विद्या). More to the point, he is the only Indian to have circumnavigated (जहाज़ द्वारा परिभ्रमण करना) the globe in a microlight, back in 2008.
Then, there’s logistics support. To qualify as circumnavigation, the flight must be more than 30,700 km, touch every longitude, and end at its start point. Due to its limited range, Mahi will make 86 hops, perhaps more, depending on weather, covering 21 countries. Visas, documentation and hotel rooms have to be organised, plus arrangements for refuelling and parking.
Planning all this is Nexus (सम्बन्ध) Flight Operations, which handles ops for small planes. Nexus will also have a team monitoring Mahi through the trip. Mandeep Sandhu, CEO, says, “For a business aircraft, we can put together an international trip in less than 24 hours. Given Mahi’s configuration, the planning took about four weeks. There were logistical issues as well, such as availability of fuel, which also defined the route. The other major challenge was the water stretches, which required experience and technology.”
The project, called WE for Women Empower, has sponsors for expenses and safety equipment, besides the backing of the ministry of Women and Child Development.
But once in the air, it’s just the two women, their plane, and the elements.
The wingwomen Pandit and Misquitta met at Bombay Flying Club — while earning degrees in aviation and licences for commercial flying — and became firm friends.
The two are typical youngsters, with no airs(घमंड), poring(विचार करना) over their phones in spare(अतिरिक्त) moments. Misquitta starts off very earnest, conscious(जागरूक) that at 24 she’s already a role model to her sisters, cousins and community, but then when the conversation segues into flying, she lights up and the words fly to poetic altitudes. Pandit begins with self-deprecatory (प्रार्थना करनेवाला) giggles (खिलखिलाना), but turns focussed and serious (though similarly luminous) when she talks about the pilot’s life.
Pandit knew she wanted to fly when as a four-year-old accompanying(जुड़ा हुआ) her father, who has a travel business, she first met a woman pilot. There was only encouragement and support from the family when she stayed with her resolve until she was old enough to go to flight school. Misquitta describes her family as typical East Indians (Mumbai’s initial inhabitants who converted to Christianity in colonial times), but with ambition for their daughters; her father told her at 16 that he wanted her to be a pilot, and she obediently adjusted her sights. But when she first sat in a training plane, she says, she was terrified. “Until we took off. The teacher told me to look at the runway behind us. I was calm; all the fear disappeared. It’s like a fairy tale come true; you can command an aircraft all by yourself. What else could you want? The landscape unfolds, you are a tiny speck. The first day I landed solo, I knew that it was it. I’d rather die in the cockpit than being hit by a car.”
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