August 7, marked the beginning of a new dream for Mumbai’s 22-year-old Aarohi Pandit and 24-year-old Keithair Misquitta. They were embarking on a first-of-its-kind expedition to circumnavigate the earth in a light sports aircraft called ‘Mahi’.
They were the first Indian women to achieve this feat.
On Friday, the two women pilots landed in Mumbai after a gruelling expedition.
And though the mission had to be temporarily aborted in Greenland due to terrible weather conditions, the two young pilots managed to fly the aircraft for 12,900 km in 27 hops, covering over 17 countries.
Aarohi Pandit also became the first Indian woman pilot to have flown solo over the Atlantic Ocean in the light sport aircraft.
Conceptualised and executed with the support of Social Access Communications, in association with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the idea of the expedition was to fly this all-woman crew over 22 countries in 84 arduous legs for 100 days, over land, mountain, sea and ice.
Once successful, it would be a world record made by the two Indian pilots.
Also, the first ever civilian circumnavigation by a non-commercial flight by India, the larger cause of this expedition was to raise funds for the WE! Udaan scholarship to train underprivileged girls living in areas connected by Udan, India’s regional connectivity programme, to learn and earn from flying.
The young women who kickstarted the expedition from Patiala were trained at the Bombay Flying Club and received additional coaching to fly the aircraft in Serbia.
The pilots built a treasure trove of memories through the ambitious expedition they undertook, even taking a fishing boat to another island to buy sanitary pads when the only grocery shop in Kulusuk closed and crossed the LoC.
Speaking to the Mumbai Mirror, Keithair said, “Never in our wildest dreams had we thought that we would go across the world in a small aircraft meant for leisure flying. It was a huge challenge. We were just two girls flying with two bags full of aircraft tools!”
Aboard the aircraft, the pilots flew over west Asia and Europe, until they reached Scotland where they separated for the first time. The biggest challenge staring them in the eye was crossing over the North Atlantic ocean. The tanks had to be full, which would increase the weight of the aircraft. In addition, the aircraft had to be equipped with safety tools/kits, food and water, if it was to land on water.
According to The Hindu, a life raft was strapped to the co-pilot’s seat. This meant there would be space for only one pilot in the small Pipistrel Sinus 912 cockpit.
And so, Aarohi was selected.
On September 6, as Keithair went ahead to Canada to wait for her best friend and co-pilot, Aarohi flew from Wick, Scotland, to Hofn in Iceland. She then flew to Reykjavik, and then to Kulusuk in Greenland, considered one of the remotest airfields in the world.
Speaking to Mumbai Mirror, Pandit, who became the first Indian woman pilot to have flown solo over the Atlantic Ocean in an ultralight, said, “When the engine fails while flying on land, you can still land, but flying over the ocean, you have nowhere to land. In the flight that lasted five and a half hours, I saw land only for 40 minutes while landing and take-off. The rest of the journey was just water and silence around 3,000 feet above sea level.”
When she tried flying south, she realised that she had entered dangerous territory. The weather conditions did not allow it. The turbulence was life-threatening.
At the time, Social Access and expedition director Rahul Monga decided to choose the safety of the crew over the completion of the mission. And so, they decided to abort it temporarily.
Speaking to The Hindu, Lynne de Souza, founder of Social Access said the expedition wasn’t over and would resume in March 2019.
For the time being, Mahi is stationed in Greenland. Keithair told the publication about how leaving their crew member and beloved aircraft Mahi was heartbreaking.
“I spoke to Aarohi as she was securing the aircraft, and she seemed like she would burst into tears. But it’s only the first part,” she told The Hindu.
The women who received teary welcomes from their families, especially their mothers, have been felicitated by the Indian Women Pilots Association (IWPA). We hope for them to resume their expedition at the earliest.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)