Wings of Grit : A profile on Geetanjali Parelkar, first women pilot from the state of Orissa

A few years ago I read the book, Laws of the Spirit World that reveals about the work souls choose for their earthly journey. Some souls take on difficult life lessons that expands their essence but at a cost.  Geetanjali Parelkar the first women pilot from Orissa , East India is  one such soul. Geetanjali  is a  classic beauty. Sleepy eyes, finely tapered nose, a gently smiling visage, wisps of hair escaping from a loose knot and voice that rustles like the wind. Such is her vulnerability that the first instinct is to protect her . On a Friday night we connected on the phone, me in New Jersey and she in Mumbai to talk about flying , warmth of family , betrayals  and a quest for something more.

Geetanjali ‘s working parents  were protective and disciplinarians (father was an income tax officer and mother a teacher) .It was a normal life pursuing commerce, Odissi dance and horse riding until one day  her father’s colleague suggested the career of a pilot for her. So far her only connect with flying was to rush out of her home and wave to a yellow trainer craft as it trailed across the blue skies.

Laughingly she reminisces about the defining day at the Government Aviation Training Institute , Bhubaneswar when in a tail dragon aircraft her height at five foot two  inches fell short. But aided by two cushions and that her legs are longer than her frame, her feet could finally press down on the rudders to enable her first test flight. She  felt no fear, just  immense freedom  and deep comfort like a child springing into the vast cradle of open skies.  It was a punishing schedule waking up at 4am for horse riding,  bathing and massaging the horses , cycling to the flying club for a  sortie at 7am , then college.  The only hindrance  to her flying lessons were  the instructors loud protests about the cockpit smelling of horses , hay and dung.

In 1988 Geetanjali  completed her PPL (private pilot license)  then ploughed on towards Masters in commerce, but finally gave up everything to single-mindedly pursue the next leg in her piloting journey,  a  CPL (commercial private license). Laughingly she recollects about free rides to Delhi in the then chief minister of Orissa Sri Biju Patnaik’s  state aircraft . The chief minster himself a famous aviator and empowering visionary sponsored her for a scholarship on successful completion of CPL exams.

Unlike the fixed trajectory of the Boeings she flies Geetanjali’s journey to become a pilot was slow and tedious designed to make her scale the peaks of patience and persistence. The training centered on being medically fit,  arranging for staggering finances for endorsement trainings every time she joined a new airline and jolting her feminine being amongst a swarm of males in foreign lands. She was never rankled with the technicalities of her flight training but turned a beetroot red  whenever the male barometer warmed towards her .  Chuckling she relates how her father  in India  worked late in his office  to make international calls to Texas ,reminding her to uphold  family honor . Of course she didn’t let him in on the secret of  preparing burgers for her male colleagues : the bribe for a car lift to the training airport in Texas .  

In 1992  she became a qualified commercial pilot  and left for Mumbai to seek a job. As the aviation industry struggled with red tape,  the waiting  made Geetanjali desperate enough to appear for an airhostess interview . She was declared overqualified but vowed the interview panel in her pencil skirt and slim jacket . Finally she landed her first job as a pilot in East West Airlines in 1993 and until 1999 joined other airlines and  travelled worldwide for aircraft trainings. Unknown to Geetanjali dark clouds were gathering on the horizon of her life.  

Gulzar the famous lyricist once commented on his relationship with his estranged wife as the longest short story. In 1997 Geetanjali joined NEPC airlines and met her future husband in Chennai. Marrying the wrong person  changed her concept of “I never understood myself “. The soul work had begun. From a family that believed in work , independence , joy and supporting each other she moved into a listless world that made frequent demands of compromise of self and career, despite the fact that her ex husband  was a pilot too. Sixteen years of an on and off relationship took an emotional toll but forced her to become assertive and responsible for her two daughter’s  well being and financial security. To further her aircraft training she was in desperate need of funds . To this day Geetanjali remains indebted to Captain Saudamini Deshmukh the first Indian woman captain to command a Boeing 737 and Airbus 320 who loaned Geetanjali three lakhs from her private funds .

It is lady pioneers of early flying and her own mother who inspire Geetanjali to raise the bar in work and in person, to be adaptable and yet prepared for any contingencies. In 2000 after the birth of her first daughter Geetanjali got her big break with Jet Airways for their international sector.  She flew to Frankfurt for her training leaving her three month old daughter with her parents , heavier by forty pounds, but with a light heart.   Since then Geetanjali has been with Jet Airways for eighteen years and has gone from strength to strength flying first an ATR 500, then Boeing 737 and now Boeing 777. But even as she soared in her professional life , her marriage imploded.  Looking back she sees her personal and professional life running parallel to each other but never converging. The only good that came out of the painful liaison was  two beautiful daughters . She withdrew into a shell  upset with destiny, angry with self. But the love of her parents, sisters and friends  beamed warmth into her stunned heart just as bringing up her kids and flying necessitated her daily appearance on the page of life.

Globally, less than 5 percent of pilots are women, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. India has the highest proportion of female commercial pilots in the world at 12 percent

I ask  her how she discovers joy and a wonderful world  . She admits that  as she has had to literally wear the pants in her life (and also in cockpit)  she fulfils her feminine being by wearing saris  with accessories and flowers. Night conversations with her sisters and friends lighten her day and chasing her daughters for their dreams keeps her grounded .For herself she’s done all she could and now explores the world, besides enjoying the journey to excavate her true self.  Just back from a trip to the holy city of Varanasi and vibrant with its energies she shares a few pictures.  In one frame she is draped in a  hot pink Banarasi sari ( her wedding sari)  as she lets afloat a small but valiant lamp on the expanse of sacred  river Ganges. The moment  brings to my memory writer Sarah Ban Breathnach’s words that we are put here on this earth for something more than uncaring marriages and wasted dreams.

 And when Geetanjali is deftly taking off and landing a Boeing 777 with about four hundred passengers then whatever she does  on the sky , the earth and in between is I am sure acknowledged  and applauded by the creator amongst  the cumulus clouds.

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I believe good writing is about telling the truth. I pen issues on culture, human relationships, spirituality and travel, besides evolving life issues.