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Soaring high above the gender barrier

First Indian woman to obtain a Private Pilots Licence recalls the thrill of pursuing her passion and the support of family

Image Credit: Courtesy: Rabia Futehally
Rabia Futehally was the first indian woman to obtain a private pilot’s licence in 1962.
Gulf News

New Delhi: The Futehally family was perhaps way beyond times. In the early 1960s, when few women would even think of pursuing a hobby, Mumbai-based Rabia Futehally chose flying as her pastime.

With the support from her father, brothers and husband, she climbed into the cockpit of a Piper PA-18, a twin-seater aircraft and made history by becoming the first Indian woman to obtain a Private Pilots License.

Rabia grew up playing cricket, she liked swimming, hiking and horse riding with her two brothers. When all the men in her family got together and decided to learn to fly, she felt left out. “How could I have missed out on all the fun,” she said.

With permission from her father Rabia soon enrolled at the Bombay Flying Club. “I had a nine-months-old baby, but even then my father agreed,” she revealed.

Shuttling between her home and the Club, her foray with flying continued for the next four decades.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, she reminiscences her flying experience.

GULF NEWS: Were women in the family supportive of your decision to take up flying lessons?

RABIA FUTEHALLY: My mother was the first and the most supportive person. She would take care of my baby while I rushed for the booking at the Club. My other close relatives were pleased too, though, I suppose, a bit horrified!

Is it correct that you earned the Private Pilots Licence before others in the family?

I procured my license before the boys of my family mostly because of the solicitation of the staff at the Club. They would seldom keep me waiting for my booking, or send me back if there was a remote chance of flying, as they knew of my commitments at home.

Did you consider taking up flying as a profession?

No, such a question did not arise. I was quite clear in my mind that my profession was to look after my family. Besides, back then, employment for a woman, as a pilot was unthought of. It was 18 years later that the first woman, Captain Saudamini Deshmukh, got formally employed by an International Air Transport Association (IATA) Airline. And she is the first in the world to be employed so.

Women pilots have come a long way since the early 1960s. What are the plus and minus points compared with then and now?

In the 1960s, I was the only woman on the Bombay Flying Club airfield. Later, there were two other girls. We became friends and formed the Indian Women Pilots Association (IWPA). Compared with those times, girls today are participating in every aspect of flying – from trainees on the airfield to employees in the mechanical department.

Recently, I felt proud to hear from a frequent flyer on the world circuit, that anywhere in the world, when a woman climbs down the cockpit ramp on landing, heads turn. India now has so many women in the cockpit that no one bothers! The fact is that today India has the highest percentage of women pilots in the world.

Were there any teething problems that IWPA faced?

No, on the other hand, it was fun all the way from the beginning to be with other girls who had the same exhilarating experience of being in the clouds. IWPA was formed on the inspiration of the American Women’s Pilots Association, called the Ninety-Nines, which was formed in 1929 by Amelia Earhart in New York as a sorority of Licensed Women Pilots.

Was it because of IWPA that Indian Airlines hired the first woman in 1980 and discrimination because of gender ended thereafter?

Undoubtedly, it was because of the pushing by IWPA that the authorities had to open the doors for women — in 1980 by Indian Airlines and in 1994 by Indian Air Force, to be followed by other airlines.

If it were in your hands, what changes would you bring about to have more women flyers in the country?

The problem lies at the grassroots. Girls need to be given the opportunity so that they gain the confidence to bid for this goal. Though today, they face the same challenges as men to qualify in the field, if guided properly, they would outshine men.

Is flying still a passion in the family?

My three daughters are trained in flying, but have other absorbing interests, so flying always gets relegated to next year!

Do you still hold the license to fly and go for joyrides?

I let my license lapse some years ago, as there were other pressing demands on my time. But I am always thrilled and ready for a joyride in a small aircraft with the sky around me, and the world far below! 

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