A five-year-old girl in Mumbai dreamt of becoming a pilot. Nearby, a young couple was teaching their daughter to shoot for the sky. Little did the girls know that less than two decades later, they’d find themselves soaring high in the sky, on an expedition that has never been attempted before.
Meet 22-year-old Aarohi Pandit and 23-year-old Keithair Misquitta, who are attempting to become the world’s first all-woman team to circumnavigate the earth in a motorglider. Over a period of 90 days, the duo will cover 40,000 kilometres, cross three continents, and 23 countries, to spread their message of women empowerment and encourage more girls to take up flying.
When dreams find a runway
For Pandit, it all started during a family vacation. Her father had a travel business, which ensured she got to explore the country extensively. “Being a pilot has been my childhood dream. I was fascinated by women pilots ever since I saw one for the first time at the age of five,” she reminisces.
Misquitta, on the other hand, was egged on by her parents to dream big. “For a family hailing from a conservative East Indian community, my parents are torch-bearers – they have encouraged me and my three sisters to pursue our dreams, as unconventional as they may be,” she says with pride.
The two met at the Bombay Flying Club as students training to get their commercial pilot license and are the only license holders in their families. Despite having contrasting personalities – Misquitta being more mature and observant, while Pandit being the happy-go-lucky one – the two got along well and shared an easy camaraderie. They are India’s first women Light Sports Aircraft (LSA) license holders.
They caught the eye of The Navy Blue Foundation for piloting the WE! Expedition. Captain Rahul Monga, a world record holder for the fastest circumnavigation in a microlight aircraft (a feat he performed in 80 days) and a Shaurya Chakra awardee met them and was impressed by their physical resilience and mental endurance. With Captain Monga’s nod to their selection, the duo started training for improving their fitness and strength for the expedition.
Piloting a cause
The WE! Expedition is helmed by Social Access Communications in collaboration with the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development and supported by various sponsors and partners. The organizers were looking for two women pilots to raise awareness about women empowerment and also raise funds for the WE! Udaan Scholarship through a crowdfunding campaign to train at least 100 women pilots spanning 110 cities and towns across India. One of the ardent supporters of the expedition is Maneka Gandhi, Union Minster of Women and Child Development, Government of India, who has been championing the cause of girl child education.
“The fact that we were chosen for the WE! Expedition did not sink in until we began our formal training for the mission in Serbia in April this year. Once the magnitude of the voyage sunk in and we became aware of the responsibilities and challenges in store, we became fully committed to the project,” Misquitta says.
“We realize that we are fortunate that the WE! Expedition team chose us. Completing this journey successfully will be a tribute to the efforts of the entire team. But more importantly, it will be a pathway to allow young girls to pursue a career in the skies,” Pandit adds.
Not only would they have to deal with the sheer physical challenge of flying long distances over the next three months but also deal with adverse conditions on their own. All this while being confined to the small cockpit of their LSA, that they’ve named Mahi, which means “Great Planet Earth” in Sanskrit.
Mahi is a Sinus 912 LSA Motorglider, an air-hero with multiple awards and records to its credit. Weighing less than 500 kilograms and a wing-span of 15 metres, the aircraft flies at an altitude of under 10,000 feet and can cover 1,200 kilometres with an endurance of less than 6 hours. One of the features that works in its favor is its low fuel consumption of less than 10 litres an hour at a cruising speed of 200 kilometres per hour. While all this is impressive, the Sinus 912 LSA Motorglider is super safe and has a special safety cockpit where the entire cabin is encased with energy absorbing structures made from Kevlar fibre.
All this comes at a price. Mahi can only carry 472.5 kilograms of all up weight. This means that Misquitta and Pandit would not only have to pack light but also choose their equipment very carefully. To help them navigate better in the sky, they chose the Microsoft Surface Pro as their primary navigational interface for the expedition. The Surface Pro not only weighs significantly lesser than regular laptops but also offers powerful performance without any limitations, which means all the applications and software they need for the expedition work smoothly.
“Its long-lasting battery life and rich interface make it indispensable for flight navigation, accessing critical information, record-keeping and documentation mid-air,” Pandit explains.
“It’s a perfect companion, given its ultra-light weight, high performance and fast speed. It is also easy to use in the limited space we have in the cockpit,” Misquitta chimes in.
Preparing for take-off
The duo took off from the Patiala Aviation Club in the northern state of Punjab on July 30 flying westward. As they continue their flight, the enormity of the expedition is not lost on them. They are flying not only to make history but also spread the message of girl child education. Adorned with the message “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save the Girl Child, Educate the Girl Child), Mahi is taking their message to the world.
“There is nothing as empowering as education. Educating one hundred girls will empower the women fraternity in myriad ways and I can’t wait to see that happen,” Misquitta says. “We’re flying to give them wings,” adds Pandit fervently.