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Captain Zoya Agarwal On Achieving Her Dream Of Flying

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Sonal Nerurkar

It’s 12.30am in the city that never sleeps, and in the same spirit, Captain Zoya Agarwal is raring to go. The Air India pilot, who’s pursuing an MBA from Columbia Business School, is ready to get into another meeting. She also has assignments to work on and an exam to cram for. “It’s a Saturday night, and my friends are all out partying. I can’t go, I have a lot to do. That’s the price for your ambitions,” says the student, who is at college on the prestigious Feldberg fellowship. Pausing, she adds, “But I don’t see it as a price.”

It’s this optimistic outlook that has propelled the remarkable pilot to where she is today. Her incredible journey of overcoming obstacles to pursue her dream of flying, including becoming the youngest pilot to fly a Boeing 777, leading an all-woman team to achieve a record-breaking distance over the North Pole, and her involvement in COVID relief flights, all showcase her indomitable spirit and courage. Her achievements rightfully earn her a place in the San Francisco Aviation Museum.

And still, she yearns to achieve more. “I aspire to foster a sea of Captain Zoyas, where women fearlessly pursue their dreams,” says the proud figure popularly known as ‘Bharat ki Beti’. Her foundation, Udaan Pari, is committed to empowering girls from underprivileged backgrounds to pursue their aviation dreams, akin to her own journey. In January, Nadrat, a girl from Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, was announced as the first Udaan Pari, marking a significant milestone. Zoya aims to replicate this model in the US, focusing on minority communities.

In a lively conversation with this fearless young lady, she shares outrageous tales of her journey, from standing outside airports to catch a pilot’s attention for enrollment advice (the tip: keep trying!), to scouring telephone directories (remember those?) for potential mentors and the best airline to apply to (Air India, of course). “Life has truly been an incredible blessing for me. I’m genuinely thankful for everything,” she says while sharing her inspiring story with HELLO! magazine.

HELLO!: Zoya, you’ve said that you’re proud of all that you’ve accomplished, but most of all, that you have done it “being me and being a girl”. Tell us about what your upbringing was like.

Zoya Agarwal: “Firstly, I am not proud. I’m really humbled and filled with gratitude for every single blessing. My journey has been extraordinary in so many ways. That eight-year-old Zoya, who didn’t know English and simply dreamed of flying an airplane, defying everyone and anyone around her, venturing ahead with no resources... I could never have imagined I’d be here today, studying at an Ivy League college and being one of the highest-paid pilots in India, flying the biggest jets and being in a position of incredible power.

I was a very resilient kid; I never really thought about what others said and with blinkers on, went about doing what I wanted to accomplish. Yes, I had to struggle a lot. I had to go against my family, who wanted me to pursue a traditional career. I had to overcome a lot of things, from learning English... I used to watch BBC News and Star Movies at my neighbour’s house, and that’s how I learnt it... to being the only child, and that too a girl. I would tell my mom, “I don’t want a Barbie doll or a kitchen set, buy me a telescope,” and she was really scandalised.

H!: I’m curious, if you’re growing up in a typical New Delhi home, where do you think that kernel of interest would have come from?

ZA: “I didn’t know anyone in aviation; I was simply fascinated by stars. As a child, I’d sit on our small terrace, gazing at them and watching beautifully lit up airplanes flying through the skies. I’d think, if I could fly like that, I could possibly touch the stars. Naive as it may sound, it was a dream for me.

When I told my parents that I wanted to take science, my mom was like, “Yeh kaisi beti di hain bhagwan ne? (What kind of daughter has God given us)?” She cried, saying, “Isse kaun shadi karega (Who will marry her)?” My dad realised I was determined, so he told me to go ahead. Academically, I was pretty decent, and I got into St. Stephen’s College. Alongside that, I started my aviation course, using all the money I had collected from Diwali and Rakhi bakshish (gifts).”

H!: What steps did you take after college to pursue your dream of becoming a pilot, especially considering the challenges and barriers you faced in the aviation industry at that time?

ZA: “After college, where I topped my class, I received job offers from news channels and in hospitality, but I was laser focused on flying. I had completed my aviation ground classes, so my parents agreed to help me get a loan, and that’s when my dream began. I went to flight school in the US.

In India, the aviation industry was very limited as compared to today. There were few job opportunities and nobody really wanted to hire female pilots. In the 2000s, there was no talk of diversity. Airlines were hesitant to hire women pilots due to concerns about maternity leave and investing capital in talent that might not return to the workforce.

I was discouraged from applying because I lacked connections; I wasn’t “someone’s daughter” or had any jugaad. But it’s so true, if you really want something, you’ll find a way.

Think of SRK’s famous dialogue from Om Shanti Om, “Agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaho, to puri kainaat usse tumse milane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai.”

I had been told that Air India was the only ‘true airline’ as it offered an opportunity to fly ‘big birds’ (larger airplanes) and international flights. The entrance exam was multitiered, and I travelled to Mumbai to take the written test under very difficult circumstances. Just days before, my father, who was already stressed about the loan he had taken for my flight school, suffered a massive heart attack. Despite his condition, he encouraged me to go. In a daze, I left for Mumbai with just a polythene bag containing clothes. Miraculously, I cleared that entrance exam, and I think my dad’s health improved a lot after that. Then I just kept on clearing every single level, ultimately securing a position at Air India, and the rest is history.”

H!: In 2013, you achieved the milestone of becoming the youngest female pilot to fly a Boeing 777, and later, you became the first woman pilot to fly the world’s longest air route over the North Pole. Could you share with us what makes piloting a large aircraft so exceptional?

ZA: “On smaller planes used for domestic flights, you get a lot of practice with take-offs and landings, which is valuable. The frequency of landings is much higher, typically one to one-and-a-half hours. So, let’s say something goes wrong. You can just land, right? But the bigger the plane, the more advanced systems and features. The challenge arises with long flights, like those lasting 16 or 18 hours; you encounter dynamic situations, like unpredictable weather conditions and potential complications, that demand quick decisions. I remember flying from Chicago to New Delhi when we were informed the Pakistan airspace closed, and having to land that 777, which is a huge bird, at an absolutely new airport in the middle of nowhere.

Another time, while commanding a flight from New Delhi to New York, a passenger fell critically ill. I made the decision to turn the plane around and return to New Delhi. I also negotiated with authorities to jettison fuel over Pakistani airspace, as it’s unsafe to land a heavily fuelled aircraft in bad weather. I recall landing in New York during a severe snowstorm and being stuck onboard the plane for nearly four hours due to a lack of parking space. Actress Brooke Shields was among the passengers, and her husband threatened to sue us. To avoid a lawsuit, I made the decision to deplane directly on the runway. The moment we did it, other airlines followed.

In every situation, the responsibility ultimately falls on you. You have to rely on your experience, skill and intuition and make decisions really fast to turn the circumstances to your advantage.”

H!: From your photo shoot, it’s clear that you enjoy make-up and fashion. Have you faced challenges in being taken seriously because of this?

ZA: “When I joined the airline, women were expected to conform, with short hair etc., which is fine if that’s what you want to do. But I’ve always been my own Barbie in my own kind of body. I’ve always been a girly girl, but I worked very hard to reach a level where people started respecting me for my professionalism.

If I enjoy wearing lipstick or love pink, that’s great. It’s a breath of fresh air to be able to express ourselves. We can set an example for other girls to be themselves. There shouldn’t be any stereotypes. Some people used to express fear about flying with me because of my appearance. Even now, you’ll see comments on social media implying doubts about my abilities as a pilot. We need more trailblazers to change these perceptions.

I often visit schools in New York to inspire young girls. When I ask them what they want to become, they mention celebrities like Kim Kardashian, models or NBA players. However, when they see my picture in a Boeing 777 flight deck, their reaction changes. They say, “Oh my God, I want to become like you! You’re a badass, so pretty, and still feminine.” Seeing me, unafraid to show that side of myself, helps them realise that being a pilot doesn’t mean sacrificing your femininity.”

H!: When you’re not changing the world, what do you do to relax and unwind?

ZA: “I was like a one-and-a-half-hour workout person every single day! I still love it. I’m also an avid reader and working on bettering myself.

I also love to eat, by the way. I enjoy trying amazing food, from street-side gol gappa to Michelin-starred restaurants. Like that guy Orry said, I’m a liver—I love to channelise my energy into living the very best moments of life because who knows how long we have, right? So, yeah, live it to the fullest, kick the ball out of the park, and just go for it. That’s my life mantra.”

H!: Regarding your sense of style, could you share what you enjoy wearing and some of your favourite brands?

ZA: “I’m unapologetically a girly girl — I love to wear those Marilyn Monroe halter frocks and drive sports cars, who doesn’t, right? But achieving this luxurious lifestyle took a lot of hard work.

When I bought my first Louis Vuitton bag, I earned it and truly enjoyed it. On my birthday, I treated myself to the Porsche experience because it was a gift to myself. Coming from where I did, not even having a scooter, driving a Porsche in a cute pink dress with YSL shades is a big deal for me.

I like to spoil myself with experiences — I’ll travel, indulge in luxury handbags, and sit in the best places on Champs Elysees. It’s my way of acknowledging how far I’ve come, a pat on my back, so to speak.”

H!: What message would you like to share for Women’s Day?

ZA: “I want to be Bharat ki Beti to the entire world and advocate for gender diversity and equality within aviation on a global scale. We need more collaboration and contribution to create more leaders like Captain Zoya and improve the lives of girls like Nadrat, who have the potential to change our world.”

H!: Lastly, how do your parents feel about your marriage prospects now?

ZA: “I think my mother has given up. (Laughs) I know I’m not thinking about it at all. If things have to happen, they will.”

Interview: Sonal Nerurkar; Photos: Dabboo Ratnani; Creative Realisation: Avantikka Kilachand

This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s March 2024 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!