(January 9, 2022) Zoya Agarwal dared to dream the impossible quite early in life. As a child, she would often spend hours on the terrace of her home, stargazing while all her friends were busy playing games. She imagined herself touching the sky and the stars. Back then, anybody who would asked her what she wanted to become when she grew up, her only reply would be “a pilot.” Over the years, she braved many odds as she set out to make her dreams come true. Eventually, they did.
Captain Zoya Agarwal became the first Indian woman to fly the world’s longest air route from San Francisco (SFO) to Bengaluru, covering the North Pole, making aviation history by travelling a record-breaking 16,000 kilometres in 2021. It is the longest non-stop commercial route undertaken so far.
“It was a significant turning point in my career to be recognised as an Indian woman who is making a difference around the world. My journey was super exciting and magical,” smiles Zoya Agarwal, who led the all-women crew on that flight, speaking exclusively to Global Indian.
Taking the world by storm
The senior pilot with Air India, who not only made her parents proud but took the world by storm with her mammoth feat, is the only human to have found a place in the San Francisco Luis A Turpen Aviation Museum in August 2022. The museum recognised Zoya’s illustrious career in aviation and her passion for empowering women worldwide.
Becoming the world’s youngest lady captain to fly to the North Pole has been my dream. This feat has given flight to young girls across the world.
Coming from a humble middle class family of Delhi, Zoya opted for science in her 11th and 12th of schooling and went on to do her B.Sc from St Stephen’s college, Delhi.
Being the only child in a middle-class family meant that she was expected to follow the traditional path and settle down after marriage. “My dream of becoming a pilot seemed like an unusual career choice to my parents,” recalls Zoya, who was by then, firm in her mind that she wanted to pursue her passion.
Shattering the gender bias
She divided her time between her aviation classes and her STEM degree. “The first half of the day was for STEM and the second for my aviation classes,” says the pilot, who has motivated millions of young women and girls to achieve their ambitions.
The fact that many airlines didn’t even consider hiring female pilots until 2016 came as a big stumbling block for Zoya. “With career and responsibilities back home, women play a dual role. Therefore, an airline bears additional expenses when they need to support women on maternity leave. There’s no room for errors and additional expenses in this industry,” she says of her initial days.
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However, times have changed for the better, with more women pilots now being hired. “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,” says the senior pilot, who was glad to get into Air India, a company, she feels, has always valued equality of the sexes.
Taking care of people’s trust
Zoya feels that anyone can learn to fly but one needs nerves of steel to work in the airline industry. “One has to be fully prepared for emergencies and land the plane safely,” says Zoya, who became the youngest pilot in India to fly a Boeing-777 in 2013. She also piloted Air India’s first Boeing 777 aircraft over the Hindu Kush mountain range.
“Making the passengers feel safe is the most satisfying part of the job,” says Zoya, who garnered attention for her role in saving a passenger’s life on a Delhi-New York flight in 2015. The passenger complained of breathlessness mid-air and Zoya swiftly turned the aircraft around, going back to Delhi where the passenger was taken to the hospital.
Being a pilot is not an easy profession. One has to work diligently and remained focused all the time. After all, people trust the pilot with their lives.
Avoiding all distractions and maintaining proper mental equilibrium is a must for pilots. “In my profession, the safety of passengers always comes first. Pilots have to be tough and selfless,” says Zoya, adding that the job requires her to be alert, have swift decision-making abilities and multi-task. Perseverance and passion (for the job) is what drives the pilot.
On top of the world
Zoya’s job takes her across the world but the journey excites her more than the destinations themselves. “I love looking out over the world when in the clouds,” smiles the ace pilot, who made an appearance on Indian Idol for its Republic Day special episode, soon after she and the other crew members completed their longest flight ever.
Her favourite destination? “Being on top of the world,” smiles Zoya, who was chosen by the United Nations as its spokesperson for Generation Equality.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, when India initiated the ‘Vande Bharat mission’ in May 2020, Zoya was chosen to co-pilot the first repatriation flight, which evacuated thousands of Indians from different countries.
“One of the memories I cherish the most is the flight from San Francisco to Mumbai which I had piloted. Every member of the crew greeted me with a loud round of applause. I can never forget that experience,” says Zoya, who was witness to emotional family members reuniting with their loved ones.
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