Ankuja Dey has just finished her morning classes at the Bombay Flying Club.
Dressed in a crisp white pilot’s shirt with winged shoulder flaps, Dey’s hair is tied back in a stylish braid to keep it away from her face.
Growing up in the small city of Golaghat in northeastern India, Dey was told that nice girls never leave their parents’ sight.
“I could never stay in one place for long. I wanted to get out,” Dey says.
At 16, she moved away from home to train in Taekwondo, but really, to prove that she could take care of herself.
Today, she is a first-year flying student across the country from where she grew up and is training for a commercial pilot license. Today, she is far from home.
Bombay Flying Club was established in 1928, and is one of India’s oldest flying schools. As a nonprofit that offers subsidies to its students, it made for a more economical choice for Dey over other, more expensive, flying schools in India. Many of the students in the school come from middle-class, non-aviation backgrounds, the principal of the school, C. Kumar, says. “For these families, money does not grow on trees. They work hard, save up and take out loans to send their kids to flying school.”
This marks a shift toward an acceptance of more non-traditional professions in conservative middle-class families in India.
A recent worldwide study conducted by the International Society of Women Airline Pilots has found that India is leading the charge in hiring women. Between the six major commercial airlines in the country — Air India, Jet Airways, Indigo, Go Air, Spice Jet and Air Asia India — 12.4 percent of commercial pilots are women. The country’s numbers are more than twice the world average of 5.4 percent.
The unconventional nature of the job in a deeply patriarchal society makes India an unlikely victor. Industry insiders say it’s due to a combination of a booming population, a gradually evolving social climate, an increase in opportunities for women in STEM, and a rising middle class.
The journey for Rabia Futehally, India’s first female pilot to receive a private pilot license — a certification that allows pilots to fly privately for non-commercial purposes — started in 1962.
All Futehally knew was that she wanted to fly. It seemed thrilling to sit in an airplane, soar into the open sky, and leave behind the roads. Her brothers were taking lessons at a nearby flying school. It seemed only fair to her that she learn how to fly, too.
Several factors were working against her: Futehally was 25, married, had a 9-month-old daughter and came from a conservative Muslim family.
“What we were expected to do as women was to stay at home and look after the child, you know. People frowned upon these kinds of activities.”
Futehally forged on despite the rumblings of some of her family, and trained at the Bombay Flying Club on a zippy two-seater Piper PA 18 alongside her husband, Sadiq Futehally, who supported and encouraged her.
"We flew together a lot. We used to go picnics flying. We would fly three hours away from Bombay, have coffee and sandwiches and come flying back,” she says.
There were only a handful of women on the entire campus. “I used to go fly, and then come home immediately. We never hobnobbed with the boys,” Futehally says. “We girls would always stick together.”
In 1967, Futehally, along with fellow female pilots Chanda Budhabhatti and Mohini Shroff, gathered other women aviators from around the country and founded the Indian Women Pilots’ Association. Today, the group has about 300 members and supports the development of women in all professions involving aviation and aerospace.
Around the same time, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru offered large subsidies to younger people studying aviation, which made the country air-minded, Futehally says. This also created a legacy of female firsts in the field. Durba Banerjee became the first female commercial pilot in 1956 and Saudamini Deshmukh became the first Indian woman to command a Boeing 737 in 1988 and later an Airbus A320 in 1994.
More than 55 years have passed since Futehally first showed up at the Bombay Flying Club.
“I have seen a great change,” Futehally says.
Kumar of the Bombay Flying Club says country-wide education campaigns like “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (save our daughters, educate our daughters) help encourage families to further educate their daughters in non-traditional fields. The number of women studying at Bombay Flying Club has been rising steadily over the years, he says.
“Our classes have about 25 to 30 percent women and I won’t be surprised if we see the number of female pilots in India reaching that number in five years," he says.
Sakshi Batra, a spokesperson for Indigo, one of India’s largest private budget airlines, says the company currently employs 330 women pilots. Five years ago, that number was just 80.
“The job’s got long and odd hours, which mainly stops women from choosing it,” Natasha Gracias, a pilot with the airline, says.
To combat this, Indigo offers a choice of contracts: You can choose to fly over the week and stay home weekends or fly for a few days straight and then get a longer leave. They also offer security to female employees while traveling to and from the airport at certain times in areas that have been deemed particularly unsafe.
Other airlines and the government are also making strides. On International Women’s Day, Air India sent out an all-women crew (20 pilots and 75 cabin crew members) on its four longest routes from India to the United States, which it says makes it the first airline to ever do so. This year, Avani Chaturvedi, Mohana Singh and Bhawana Kanth became the first female fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force.
With India’s Me Too movement gaining traction, questions about workplace discrimination and workplace harassment are more pertinent than ever. Women who are part of cabin crews note they are often subjected to inappropriate advances by co-workers as well as passengers.
Pilots face noticeable sexism, as well.
“People assume that women are bad drivers, so they must be bad flyers as well,” says pilot Chahat Dalal. For instance, if a female pilot has a harsh landing, she will often face snide comments about it. But if a man has a harsh landing, it’s assumed that the weather is bad. When Air India put together the all-female crew to fly around the world, Dalal heard passengers joke about how travel should be avoided that day.
Inside the industry, however, women say there is a strong structure of support.
While Gracias and Dalal are fortunate to belong to a class of Indian parents who support their daughters’ ambitions, they agree that there’s still a long way to go. Daughters of the rising middle India are still discouraged from picking “dangerous and risky” professions.
“It’s personal, some families are not ready to let their girls take risks in their jobs," says Gracias. “But they need to understand that at the end of the day, it’s just a job. You work hard at it, earn your pay, and you go home.”
Every time Gracias flies in or out of a small town, she makes sure to invite parents with young daughters into the cockpit, allowing them to ask her questions.
Dey’s family is split in the middle. Her father, a local businessman, is still unhappy with his daughter’s desire to fly. Dey’s mom, her “fighter,” is the one arranging loans and money to fuel her daughter’s dream. Along with adjusting to the big city and the demands of her training, Dey is still awaiting approval from her father.
When she has it, Dey says, is the day she will truly be able to fly.