On board an aircraft, how often have you paid attention to the voice of the captain announcing details about the flight? Well, next time, maybe you should. For it could be a woman in the cockpit. And that could well be Captain Saudamini Deshmukh, Deputy General Manager, Indian (formerly Indian Airlines).
Capt. Deshmukh has many firsts to her credit. She was the first woman in 1985 to become a check-pilot on a Fokker-27. Then, she went on to captain an all-woman crew on a Boeing 737 from Calcutta to Silchar in 1989. Then, in 1994, she became Captain on Airbus-A-320, and in 1995, in another first, she captained the airbus with an all-woman crew. And to top it all, she’s the first woman to occupy the chair of deputy general manager (Operations). So what made the Science and General Law graduate, who had a comfortable bank job, take to the skies? “My childhood dream. I always wanted to be among the clouds,” said the Captain during a snappy interview. She was in the city to participate in the Madras Management Association’s Golden Jubilee Women Managers’ Convention, recently.
She continued, “Since my father could not afford it at that point, I temporarily gave up my dream. And took up a bank job. When I could afford it, I started taking flying lessons at a private club. After paying Rs. 25 per hour and completing 250 hours of mandatory flying, I got my commercial pilot’s licence. And my dream came true.”
Capt. Deshmukh landed a job with Indian Airlines in 1980 as a commercial pilot. Did she face any kind of discrimination, you wonder. Pat comes an emphatic reply, “Never. I was never treated differently because I was a woman. I think it’s in the minds of people… this discrimination thing.”
That she also trained with pilots from the Ninety-Nines Inc., an international organisation of women pilots in the U.S., was an added advantage. “I had a great time during that period. I got to live with these women and train under them. It was a liberating experience. It taught me much more than just the nitty-gritty of controlling an aircraft,” she reminisces. The organisation conferred the `Achievement Award’ on Capt. Deshmukh.
As for the various records that she has set, she says, “Well, the first all-woman flight on the Fokker was sheer coincidence. My co-pilot was Nivedita Bhasin, the youngest pilot in civil aviation. But the Boeing flight was planned to the last detail. It was indeed an exhilarating experience.”
Explaining the difference between the two aircraft, she says, “A Fokker is a small two-engine turbo, while a Jet is a high-powered aircraft. To fly a Boeing, I took a six-week course that included ground classes, simulator and actual flying. Here, I’d like to add that once you are behind the controls, size does not matter.”
So, what matters, you want to know. She replies, “An alert and scientific mind, the power of analysis and judgment, and above all, passion for the job.”
With the Indian skies opening up to private airlines, the Government outfit faced stiff competition. What are Capt. Deshmukh’s views on the issue? “I think it’s a good move. Our service has improved a lot. Competition has made a difference in the way we operate. In fact, plans are afoot to introduce flights to the U.S. and the U.K.” Today, the organisation has more than 12 women piloting aircraft across various sectors.
As for aspiring women pilots, she says the options are many. There are several private flying clubs, which operate across the country. Then, there is the Indira Gandhi Udan Academy, where one can undergo formal training.
What’s that one overpowering emotion that Capt. Deshmukh experiences when she enters the cockpit and takes control of the aircraft? “Joy. Absolute Joy.”
Here are some firsts by women in the world of aviation:
1906: E. Lillian Todd became the first to design and build an airplane. She did not fly it.
1908: Mme. Therese Peltier of Italy was the first to fly solo.
1910: Baroness Raymond de Laroche became the first woman to officially qualify as a pilot.
1911: The first Woman’s Flying Club was opened in France. It was run by qualified pilot Jane Herveux.
1932: Urmila Parikh became the first to get a pilot’s licence from the Aero Club of India and Burma.
1951: Prem Mathur was the first commercial pilot for Deccan Airways.
1995: Nivedita Bhasin at 26 is the youngest pilot in civil aviation history to command a jet.
1999: Gunjan Saxena at 24 is the first to fly in a combat zone during the Kargil war.