Please tell us about yourself
Last year ahead of Women’s Day Air India scripted history by flying an all-women crew flight around the world. The flight that took off from IGI Airport in Delhi on Feb 27 to San Francisco covering a distance of around 15300 km in 15 and a half hours over the Pacific route and on the return journey from San Francisco over the Atlantic created a world record of the longest direct flight. The flight was commanded by commercial pilot Capt. Kshamta Bajpai and today on this International Women’s Day we got candid with this 50-year-old pilot for whom the sky has never been the limit. In a freewheeling conversation with us this woman with strong grit and gumption reflects on her passion for flying and also talks about her life- ‘from the cockpit to the kitchen and back’.
Tell us a little about your childhood. What is it that you wanted to become as a kid?
I grew up in Delhi with three siblings. My parents were teachers. My mother quit her job to take care of us, while my father went on teaching to become principal of a school. Like most kids my goal posts were ephemeral and forever changing. However, I enthusiastically participated in all sorts of sports at school. By the time I was in fifth grade, all I wanted to pursue was athletics. I drew my inspiration from PT Usha. Of course, I wanted to better her and bring home a Gold.
Who were the other women you use to draw an inspiration from as a kid?
PT Usha inspired me and she was also my competition through my childhood. By the time I was fifteen I had a bagful of women who deeply inspired me – Sarojini Naidu, Indira Gandhi, Kiran Bedi to start with. Bachendri Pal and Chandra Prabha Aitwal were my heroes. However, the women who were closest to me and who shaped me so well were my maternal grandmother and my mom. My granny was the Concord – way ahead of her times. She was a freedom fighter, and she continued her struggles to prevent the mindless daming of Ganga at Tehri.
Describe your journey of becoming a pilot? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
I ended up at NCC Air-Wing more by accident. However the walk from the Entry gate to the hangar at the Safdarjung airport set my heart to explore the world of aviation. The NCC offered gliding and flying to its cadets. I was fortunate enough to be seconded to Delhi Gliding Club, where I learned to fly from Capt RK Wason. He taught me how to soar, and set me on path that would shape my life. I learned power-flying at Delhi Flying Club. I even qualified for admission to Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udan Academy to train for commercial qualifications. However, I had no money. So I went ahead writing a letter to the erstwhile Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Much to my surprise I got a scholarship from the PMO and I joined IGRUA.
Is aviation still a male dominated field?
In India, approx 12% pilots are women. The Secretary General of the body that controls all sports aviation in India, The Aero Club of India, is a woman pilot. Air Force has been inducting women in all roles for past several decades and now they have begun to induct women fighter pilots as well.
What compelled you to take up the path less taken? Were you consciously attempting to break stereotypes?
I wasn’t attempting to break stereotypes or walk a path not taken by women. I was just doing what I loved. I fell in love with flying when I strapped myself in seat of a glider for the first time. It was natural that I continued on this path.
Can you narrate a few interesting experiences?
Commander Bajpai recollects how her first flight instructor, Captain Gunaratnam M. David, shouted at her when she was training on a simulator more than 25 years ago. “I was training with a boy at Air India who was much thinner than me,” said Bajpai. “We were the captain’s first students in Air India, his first experience in training—he was ex-air force. So to start he said to me: ‘You’re a girl, and you’ve just come up. You’ve got to perform at 200 percent to be seen at par with them [men],’ ” she said. “There were some days you’d do well and when you didn’t do so well, the captain would get really riled up. ‘Don’t think that because you’re a girl I can’t sock you! I can sock you just because you’re stronger than him! There is no gender bias here!’ ”
Bajpai savors those words. The captain never made good on the threat, she said. “But when he talked to me like this, I said to myself, ‘I’m in the right place.’ ”
Do you often get addressed as sir instead of ma’am by the traffic controllers? If yes, then what is your general reaction?
Yes, I do! That is a reflection of taking the gender out of the equation from the flightdeck. It’s more because we have common uniforms, protocols, processes and procedures that are meticulously followed and thus it leaves little cue for the subconscious, to label the pilots with a gender. In case of absence of these cues, people tend to address us as sir. This is rather like authors forced to write as “he”, when they really mean “(s)he”. Calling the pilots “it” might be even more awkward! So, it’s normal and has got nothing to do with aviation being a male dominated field.
So, last year ahead of women’s day you led an all-women air craft around the world and created a world record. How was the experience?
There are two kinds of records. One made consciously and deliberately, through incessant trial and efforts. The others are incidental – made in normal course of events. These records mark the milestones of the relentless march of human endeavour and should be seen as such. Our record falls squarely in this category. My crew and I might be the face of the record. However in reality the record was driven by serendipity more than anything else. It is truly the celebration of the Human endeavour, the ethos, culture, the working together of the flight-deck, the airline management, myriad departments of the airline – those who are here now and those who first initiated the process of inducting the first woman in flight-deck. Needless to say that it felt wonderful to fly all women crew on that flight and it continues to be so!
How is life back home?
It is no different from any other reasonably functional home. I love home and my family. My life could happily be described, ‘from the cockpit to the kitchen and back’. I love to cook, just as I love to fly. My family, especially my son enjoys my culinary adventures.
You are a high achiever. Does your son feel the pressure of filling your large shoes?
My kid’s shoe size is definitely larger than mine – both literally and metaphorically. Like any other mother I am happy that my son treats and loves me like any mother rather than someone to live upto.
Did you know you have become an inspiration for a lot of women? A message that you would want to give to the youth that looks up to you?
Explore and revel in your childhood and youth, till you stumble on something that you truly desire, and begin to dream about. Many words come to my mind – focus, determination, hard-work. However, what matters above all is that we have genuine respect for our dreams.