Ayesha Aziz, 21, from Jammu and Kashmir, northern India, got her student’s pilot license from the Bombay Flying Club at the age of 16, and now she’s India’s youngest female pilot thanks to her commercial pilot license.
How does it feel to hold the title?
I never thought I would become famous one day. I had no idea that something like this might happen during my studies. But what fascinates me is that so many people are inspired by me and want to follow. They want to know more about me. That brings me happiness.
How has your life changed?
People now recognise me, especially at Srinagar airport, and want to shake my hand. I often blush. Also, a few days back when I was in a café with my friends, a girl spotted me. I heard her whispering to her friends about me. It’s the best feeling when people recognise you for who you are.
What role have your parents played in your achievements?
They’ve had a major role. My parents have been my backbone. I would not have reached where I am today without them. I want to tell all parents to never stop their children from doing what they want. It’s only with support can anyone accomplish anything.
Describe the moment when you first flew an aircraft.
I first experience flying in January 2012. I would describe it in one word - freedom. And what made it special was that I had my parents on board. It was a fantastic experience.
Were you scared?
Not at all. There was no sense of fear or nervousness. I remember my father saying: ‘Look at you! You’re not even a bit nervous.’ I still have those words in my head.
When did you first think of becoming a pilot?
I was in sixth standard at school, aged 12, when I wanted to become a pilot, although I was unclear of the exact reason. But as I grew up, I found that I was obsessed with freedom. Anything associated with freedom – whether it be the freedom of going out or freedom of choice – I was obsessed with that. And flying gives me that feeling of freedom. Also, the grace the profession carries fascinates me. I always looked up to other pilots – the crisp shirts they wear, their uniform and the way they walk with confidence through the airport. There’s nothing that gives you more pride than this.
Describe your journey up to now.
I’ve been studying a lot. But the real struggle started after I shot to fame. As I come from a Muslim family, I was criticised for not wearing a hijab. I was targeted by conservatives in Kashmir and was told that a Muslim girl should not choose such a challenging profession. The comments online were very disturbing. I would go offline for long periods of time and stay away from social media due to this. There was a lot of negativity.
Tell us about your experience on a training course at NASA?
It was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It helped me broaden my horizons, think about general prospects. We learnt about many other things, such as how to live as an astronaut in space, how to eat in space and what it takes to be an astronaut. It taught me a great deal.
I’m currently applying for jobs with airlines. There are a series of examinations to clear first so I’m preparing for that.
What are the four best things about being a pilot?
Firstly, you don’t have a 9-5 desk job, and you have the freedom to pick up your chosen time zone. Secondly, you are never in one place, you are constantly on the go. Every day is a new day. Third is that you get to meet and interact with a lot of different people. You get to learn many things. Fourth is that it’s a very challenging job. You are responsible for people’s lives so that feeling is very unique.
Is there something you’d like to achieve in the sky over the next 30 years?
I want to fly a fighter jet. Though my focus now is to be an airline pilot, somewhere down the line I have the dream of being a fighter jet pilot.
Do you think other people your age are in awe of you or jealous?
There are both. There are many people I meet who want to be like me, whereas some question my choices.
What is your opinion on aviation for women?
It’s really bright. There are many women are in India who are learning to fly. Currently 11.3 per cent of pilots in India are women, against just three per cent globally, and it’s increasing.
What message do you want to send?
Believe in yourself. Be confident. Be goal-oriented and focussed. You have to be dedicated to your goal, only then you can achieve it your dreams.