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How India’s Youngest Woman to Captain a Boeing 777 Gave Wings to Her Childhood Dream

Surrounded by sceptics and challenged by modest resources, Anny Divya managed to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a pilot.

How India’s Youngest Woman to Captain a Boeing 777 Gave Wings to Her Childhood Dream

When Anny Divya’s mother was expecting her, the family was posted at the army base – close to the air base in Pathankot. Her father, a school drop-out, had to leave his studies at a young age since the family couldn’t afford to educate him. After a few sundry jobs, Anny’s father joined the army as a soldier.

After 19 years of service all over the country, her father took voluntary retirement and settled down in Vijaywada. Educated at the Kendriya Vidyalaya in Vijaywada, Anny – the middle child of the couple – spoke Telugu and Hindi and while she could read and write in English, she couldn’t – like all the other children – speak since no one around her really spoke the language.

Anny moved and studied in schools all over the country. She grew up like her siblings (an older sister and a younger brother) and all children in the area – attending school, sometimes excelling and at times falling behind.

“My mother helped us till she could with her limited education – Class 4 or so – and then she left us to our own devices. No pressure was ever put on us so, sometimes we did well and sometimes we didn’t,” says Anny.

Photo Credit: Kamlesh Pednekar

Anny’s mother, however, was keen that her middle child – the one born in the vicinity of the air base – should become a pilot when she grows up – an unimaginable dream that everyone laughed off since the family didn’t have the wherewithal or even know how one could go about it. But she spoke of her dream to her daughter and at some level influenced the young mind.

When Anny was in Class 9, one of her teachers asked her to list all that she wanted to achieve in life and Anny made a list of ten things. Top of the list was her desire to become a pilot. She submitted the list (it included learning Sanskrit, doing law, learning music and dance) hesitantly – aware that her ambitions often invited sniggers. Coming from as modest a background as she did, no one really thought she had a chance. Moreover, all children in Vijaywada only aspired to become engineers (join IIT) or doctors; no other professions were considered worth pursuing. When teachers asked students to stand up and tell the classmates what they wanted to be, Anny was the only one who stood up and said ‘a pilot’, much to the amusement of her classmates.

Nonetheless, she penned down the ten things she wanted to do, although she kept telling her teacher that she didn’t know how to achieve even one of them. He insisted that it didn’t matter how; she just needed to be clear on what she wanted to achieve.

From Class 4 to Class 8, Anny was an average student, but her mother let her find her own feet. She never put any pressure on her children to perform. “My mother’s reaction was the same, whether I got 100% or zeroes”, says Anny.

But at some point, Anny got her own act together academically. When she was in Class 11, someone told her she needed to get 90% to become a pilot (not at all true as she later discovered). As a result, in Class 11, Anny managed to get 100% in all subjects – except English (92 on 100) and Sanskrit (98 on 100). She did very well in her Class 12 Boards and by then she was tutoring other children.

After she finished Class 12, her parents suggested she take the engineering examinations like everyone else and, although her heart was not in it, she cleared the entrance and got a seat in the best engineering colleges in Vijaywada. Fees were paid and she started attending but she kept telling her parents and everyone who was willing to listen that she wanted to become a pilot. This was not what she wanted to do.

One day a Swami came to their house and Anny asked him whether she would become a pilot someday and he said she would. When he went back, he sent her an advertisement of IGRUA, the flying school. Just that year (2003) they had started taking students with zero hours of flying. Till then, they only took students who had a PPL – initial hours of flying.

Anny decided she wanted to appear for the examination but her father maintained that he couldn’t afford to pay for it. But her mother and sister backed her and Anny had to come to Delhi for her written examination. She had never travelled by air before (the first time Anny flew was when she flew the airplane!) as they simply couldn’t afford it. She travelled with her mother by train – unreserved – so more or less standing for two days. Her father was still opposing the whole thing, arguing that he didn’t have the money to finance it.

At the time, it was an all-India exam with only 30 seats, but Anny was selected, clearing both the entrance and the interview (her parents accompanied her for this to Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh). Her Class 11 teacher prepared her for the interview in Vijaywada.

Coming from a conservative society where the only accepted professions were doctors and engineers, a lot of people dissuaded her parents from letting their daughter join. Many also said that there were very few jobs at the time for co-pilots and so, for them to attempt to pay so much and make her a pilot with no job surety didn’t make sense.

But Anny had her heart set on it and her parents finally relented. Her father had to try and raise Rs 15 lakh from somewhere. They took a loan – partly from a bank and partly from relations. Anny was at the academy for 2 years and three months.

It’s this period that she recalls as the toughest time of her life; not due to training, which she loved, but the culture shock. She came from a rural, non-English speaking, modest background and found herself surrounded by far more aggressive batch mates from Delhi and Mumbai. She was ragged from day one – often for her accent and lack of facility with English. She was also very sensitive as she had never experienced anything like this before. She would cry at the drop of a hat. She often couldn’t understand their humour or jokes.

But she didn’t cave in. She worked extra hard since she knew her parents were not pilots or from an aviation background (unlike many of her batch mates who were the children of senior captains and commanders), there was no one to push for her and moreover she knew how hard it was for her parents to support her through this. “I didn’t go back during the holidays – both because it was expensive and also so I could work harder.” Since she worked hard, she did better at her course than many others. This made more people envious of her success. In fact she did well enough to win a scholarship towards the end of her training.

Slowly, Anny gained confidence. She also started speaking English more freely and didn’t bother even if she made mistakes. “People made fun and laughed at me but I knew that I had to speak – even if I made mistakes – to actually learn”, says she says.

That was the beginning of a new chapter in Anny’s life and there’s been no looking back. She finished her training at 19 and landed a job in Air India in 2006 on merit. She was sent for training to Spain – her first time overseas – and came back and started flying on the B737 as a first officer. And now at 30, she is among the youngest female commanders of the B777 anywhere in the world and certainly in India. She flies regularly to New York, Chicago and San Francisco. The aircraft she commands – the B777 –- is the longest-range aircraft and the largest twin jet in the world. A senior Air India commander who was one of her instructors on her command training says that Anny is both “skilled and diligent” and willing to put in the hard work required. She remained “above standard” throughout her training.

Financially, Anny’s working for the last several years, and making it to commander so early in life, has meant that the family‘s fortunes have changed. She herself has lived simply but has paid off the loan her parents took for her course. She has financed her brother’s studies in Australia. She has financially supported her elder sister to leave India and go to the United States to study. Her sister is now pursuing dentistry in America for which the family has taken a loan of Rs 2 crore (which they are all contributing to pay off). She’s bought a nice house for her parents in Vijaywada and has invested in a house in Hyderabad. She says many of her peers have spent their money on buying more property but she feels her money is better spent investing in her sibling’s education.

While hard work and luck have certainly played a role, Anny gives full credit to her parents and to her teachers. “People think the Kendriya Vidyalayas don’t have good teachers but I had fabulous teachers and I owe everything to them”. She remembers a Math teacher who refused to proceed teaching in class till each and every student had grasped a concept. She had an English teacher who had cleared the UPSC exam – something that would land him a highly coveted job – but he eventually didn’t leave as his passion was teaching. Her parents let her follow her heart and dealt with frequent barbs and comments from their local and rather conservative community.

But even as she achieved her financial goals, Anny has pursued many of the things on the list she presented to her teacher as a child. While working with Air India, she has earned a degree in BSc Aviation, done a course in classical keyboard, learnt various forms of modern dance and is a lawyer (something her mother wanted to be herself) to boot. All of this has been done in just the first three decades of her life. With most of her life still ahead of her, the sky – for Anny – is literally the limit.

(Written by Anjuli Bhargava)

About the author: Anjuli Bhargava is a Consulting Editor for Business Standard.

This article was originally published in Business Standard.

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