Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Indian female pilots ruling skies across the globe

Teacher and flying instructor, Audrey Deepika Maben, 42, has never ventured out of India before. Yet she seems like the perfect candidate to undertake an epic journey that will make her an instant member of that small club of women who have circumnavigated the globe in single-engine planes. This month, Audrey will take off from Delhi in the dinky motor glider Pipistrel Sinus 912 that weighs less than a family of four and whose wings hover just slightly over her 5ft3in frame.

Between teaching and flying and bringing up her children, Audrey never really had any time or money left for international travel. “Yet mummy always said the day she steps out, she’ll see the world,” says her 18-year-old daughter Amy, the eldest of three siblings, who will join her mother as they fly 50,000km through 21 countries in 54 sorties on a historic 80-day flight on a microlight plane. So far, the longest Audrey’s own is 2,500km in five days in 2003, the centenary year of man’s first flight. It was a record for an Indian woman.

Amy was named after Amy Johnson, the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia. She started flying when she was in her mother’s womb, and has often been her mother’s co-pilot on cross-country flights. Now she’s planning the playlist for this journey. Should she introduce her mother to British rock bank Arctic Monkeys and 1990s cult rapper Tupac Shakur? How many ABBA songs is too much? Pink Floyd will definitely make the cut.

The two women won’t be able to carry much more than music and some chocolate. They’ll have to depend on the ground team tracking their flight for a fresh set of clothes at every stop. They will fly not more than six hours every day, with one pitstop. Flying even for a couple of hours in an unpressurised microlight can get tiring. “Imagine throwing a paper plane on a windy day and see the way it gets tossed around,” says Audrey about flying this plane.

Flying first entered Audrey’s consciousness when fighter planes from Ozar Airport flew over her school in Nashik. That was her cue to start running wildly in the direction of the aircraft, eyes glued to the sky. By 15, she was an NCC cadet, a wisp of a girl, going on training sorties in open-cockpit, two-seater planes such as the Sedbergh, her pockets weighed down with coins to increase her weight and balance the plane better.
We meet at Bengaluru’s Jakkur Aerodrome, where Audrey flew her first microlight shortly after Amy was born. Back then, Audrey had a routine. After parking the baby under the shade of a peepal tree, she’d feed Amy, fly, come back to feed, fly again. The ground staff would raise a flag if the baby cried while her mother was in the air.
18/02/18 Priya Ramani/Vogue