Some careers push us beyond our limits, thus equipping us with the skills we need to handle what is coming ahead !

Ankita Thakur, our next pathbreaker, is Airline Cadet Pilot for a commercial airliner operating out of India.

Ankita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her career journey and the numerous challenges in her way to getting her commercial pilot license.

For students, challenges shouldn’t unnerve you, instead channelise your aggression to find your way through the obstacles !

Ankita, what can you tell us about your growing up years?

So, my name is Ankita Thakur. I was born in Mumbai and completed my schooling from Pune.

I studied at a prestigious institution called St Mary’s School and continued my higher secondary education in their Junior College. It was an ICSE ISC based curriculum and definitely required a lot of studies. Though I was always the studious kind, I also knew how to have my share of fun. I honestly wasn’t great in maths and it’s pretty crazy that I’ve gone on to get a Mechanical Engineering degree with Maths being the foundation. My dad has been associated with the airline industry and my mom is a teacher, so I was extremely inclined towards being a pilot from the beginning because of the environment I grew up in.

What are the requirements to become a Pilot in India?

To become a pilot in India one doesn’t necessarily need to have a degree though my parents were of the opinion that a degree is necessary, and rightly so. Although I disagreed with them back in the day, they felt I should have a strong fall back option and so I pursued my engineering before I started preparing for my Air Force exam. As unbelievable as it might sound, I was rejected from the Air Force on the same grounds as Gunjan Saxena was. I was a cm short in height and that put my military career to a standstill, but I still wanted to become a pilot and so began my journey towards becoming a commercial pilot.

I did my BE in Mechanical Engineering from MIT College of Engineering Pune.

Tell us about some of the influences that led you to flying?

I’ve always been fascinated by aircrafts, the first flight I remember was an IndiGo flight I took from Pune to Bangalore because we were visiting the Tirupati temple. Of course I had flown before, but that was the flight which made me look at my dad and tell him “I want to be a pilot when I grow up.” I wasn’t that old. I was probably 10-12 years of age and I remember sitting next to the window seat near the wings, but I had a childlike admiration for this beast of a machine and since then it’s always been my dream.

My parents were against the idea of me becoming a pilot because they felt it would be difficult to have a family life especially being a woman in India, and so they kept stalling it as much as possible until they realised they couldn’t. As a new adult I even got a small aeroplane tattoo on my 18th birthday as an act of rebellion and passion that this is what I wanted to do and I will do whatever it takes to get there; and so my journey began with trying to excel in engineering just so I have a leg to stand on and tell my parents, “I can do it, I can become a pilot even if I’m really bad at math.” I’ve worked hard ever since to get here. It wasn’t easy, but it was absolutely worth it.

My key driving force was everyone being against the idea of it, that’s the reason I wanted it more than anything else, everyone mainly being my parents who didn’t think of it to be a good profession for a lady. I believe that’s a very widespread mentality as we can see there aren’t many female pilots in the industry and I have always wanted to slowly be able to change that, even if the change is as small as me just adding myself to the list.

Anyway, I cleared my engineering, got medically rejected by the Air Force and started working towards my DGCA exams, which is the exam every student pilot needs to pass for the issuance of a commercial pilot licence (CPL)

I’ve always loved studying, especially things I really wanted to study. I purely enjoyed this liberating move from Pune to Delhi where I studied for my ground classes. It was crazy. I had never sat in a plane before and I studied 3 vast subjects in the span of a month and a half, most of it being self taught because the ground school course was supposed to be of 3 months and I cleared all my exams in the first attempt. It felt genuinely unreal.

How did you go about carving your career path as a Pilot?

My father had no idea about how to become a pilot because he was always into the business aspect of it and I wanted to be self made. I made a friend in engineering who had the same passion as I did. He was a year senior to me, he started me off with the basics, told me to get my Class 2 and Class 1 medicals done, and apply for a computer number which is essentially a permanent number every pilot in the system is given for their entire lifetime. He also told me which classes to apply for and what the different flying schools were.

I had made a list of pros and cons of every flying school and realised that the biggest con is the cost of education. It’s a course and it’s pretty pretty expensive, which definitely was a setback though it didn’t stop me.

Finally, I came across the IndiGo cadet programme wherein they offer you a job based on a round of interviews and on successful completion of the programme, after which we join them as a Junior First Officer.

This is it! This is what I wanted. I had to justify the cost to my parents, and having a job surety in a fickle industry like aviation did just that.

I went for several rounds of interviews. My first interview was with Flight Training Adelaide (FTA) which was a school where they trained IndiGo cadets. I cleared my written interview, but in my PILAPT which is a Pilot Aptitude Test wherein they check your psychometric and multi tasking skills along with spatial orientation, I failed because my eyes started watering while focusing on the screen. I failed by a point and it was demotivating. I started questioning myself whether I even deserve to become a pilot, after rejection by the Air Force, by the FTA; but I didn’t give up. There was another programme for Air Asia and I applied for it. But again the same thing happened, and I failed the same test. I couldn’t take it anymore. Though I was upset and shaken, I again tried for IGRUA – Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi and cleared all three rounds, especially the one I was failing, PILAPT, which was the toughest test I had faced. The selection email made me feel all is not lost, but this was not the place I wanted to train, the major setback being time of training and no job surety. So I tried Skyborne, another IndiGo Flight Training Organisation. This was my last attempt with IndiGo and it came 6 months after my first attempt because we are barred from giving the exam for 6 months. I finally gave the exam and cleared all the five stages: Written, PILAPT, Ground Discussion, Flight School Interview and finally the main one, the IndiGo interview for the job. I floored the IndiGo panelists and it felt pretty amazing, I knew I got it. I just had the confidence. That same day I had one of the toughest DGCA exams, my Nav paper. I had to travel from Gurgaon where the interviews were held, to another completely remote corner of Delhi for my exam and I just made it in time and cleared my exam. And so began my journey of preparing to leave for the US for training. But the Pandemic hit in March 2020. Luckily, I had completed my last exam on 3rd March which was a Radio Telephony Exam and I was all set to leave in April. But things took a drastic turn and now I was completely taken by surprise. I made the decision to finish all my exams before leaving for the US. I could have left in Feb, so that was a dark phase when I didn’t know when I would leave, and sitting at home was definitely eating me up. I lost my grandmother to Covid, and on the 13th day of her passing away I left for the US. I was very close to my grandmom, so although the news was a happy one, that I was leaving in August, I didn’t feel that happy because Covid had personally attacked my family, but like they say the show must go on and I did. I left for the US for my pilot training and came back this August (2021) as a full blown pilot and I’m sure my grand mom must be very proud of me.

I trained in Phoenix, Arizona. 

I used to fly out of a Class Delta Airspace Airport which was one of the busiest training airports in the country ( Deer Valley Airport). A lot of celebrities and important personnel use the airport instead of the Phoenix Sky Harbour International Airport, so it is pretty busy. 

The name of the flight school is Westwind School of Aeronautics and they had partnered with Skyborne which was the Flight Training Organisation selected by IndiGo. 

We first completed our training on a Single Engine Cessna 172 in both the analog and glass cockpits. There are several stages, prog checks and FAA check rides to clear before becoming a commercial pilot. 

When you start training, you are issued a Student Pilot License, post which you train enough to get a Private Pilot License, then Instrument Rated which is essentially flying into clouds and not just around them, and finally the Commercial Pilot License. 

After that, you are taught on a Piper Seminole, a Multi engine aircraft and you are Multi Engine Rated. You can then go for your Type Rating which is the stage I’m waiting for currently, so that I can fly with IndiGo as a First Officer on the A320. 

Indigo has training schools across the world, two in USA, Skyborne and CAE, L3 in Africa, FTA in Australia. You can apply to whichever school you wish to and continue with your training through the organisation. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break is yet to come! I can’t wait to finally get done with my Type Rating in the A320 which is a simulator training before you fly the big jet. Once I’m done with that you can hear my name from one of the IndiGo cockpits.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Learning something completely new is always a challenge in itself.

It’s not something you can learn and memorise. You can only get better at it with practice and that was/is the biggest challenge.

Also, practising continually even on days when flights have been so bad that you question your self worth and if you’re ever going to be able to even take a plane up in the air, alone, is a challenge. 

Debriefs are rough and it’s always a challenge to take them in your stride. It always is. But it’s like quicksand, you can sink so deep into the negative feedback of a flight, and as much as people say they are amazing at flying, which is an absolute lie. Each take off, each landing, every crosswind you face, all parameters change with each flight and the second biggest challenge is to adapt. You cannot be dependent on your previous good flight for your next flight to be good, in pilot terms we call it complacency. Everyday you’ve to still come home, chair fly, imagine the cockpit, read your checks consistently till it’s muscle memory and adapt to whatever the day brings to you, whatever it may be, based on weather or just a bad personal day. My ground instructor once said that if you take off from the ground, your earth problems stay on Earth and you come back to Earth to deal with the other problems. 

The next biggest challenge is detachment, which is having all your senses in that moment only to be utilised for your flying skill, you cannot and should not be bothered about anything else. I get how it sounds, it almost sounds like something great in theory, like a tumblr quote, but it takes practice to become like that, to become quick thinkers, to become people who believe in “you panic, you die” and maintaining their attitude and the aircraft’s attitude at level with the horizon.

What are you doing currently?

Due to the pandemic, our training was put to a stand still as the aviation industry took a big blow and it’s no use going ahead with your training because a pilot’s life is determined by proficiency and currency. 

Currency is being up-to-date on the knowledge of the aircraft and the ability to fly it. It lapses every 6 months. So if you’ve not flown for 6 months you’ve to get your currency again. 

Proficiency is, lets say even if you do have your currency, but if you haven’t flown in say two-three months, are you proficient enough to fly the plane? As long as you are not rusty, you are considered proficient. 

So now, due to these limitations, IndiGo has put us on hold for Type Rating. Once we are done with our A320 training, we can join their induction process as a Junior First Officer. So special request could be made to the IndiGo HR if you wished to work elsewhere during this time which would be subject to their approval.

Since I got approval, I currently I’m working at MIT as an aerospace engineer until I find myself in the cockpit soon enough. I’m also working towards my ATPL- Airline Transport Pilot License exam which is for becoming the commander of the aircraft and I wish to get the exams out of the way so I have a frozen ATPL and can unfreeze it whenever I reach my flying hour requirements to be a commander.

I hope to fly soon !

How does your work benefit society?

We help people meet each other, whether it’s a long lost friend, or a destination marriage or seeing a close one during their last days, especially if it’s something you wanted from a different part of the world. We connect people with things, and with people who matter to them and I feel that’s huge.

Humans can now fly! That’s the benefit

Your most memorable experience?

This hands down for me or for any pilot really is their first solo flight!

I remember taking off and when I looked over my shoulder to the right I had a clear view of the right side because it wasn’t being blocked by an instructor telling me what to do.

It felt majorly powerful, all that hard work, turmoil, bad flights, back breaking landings, tears, a lot of studying finally paid off.

It felt surreal to be incharge of a cockpit all alone and I’m the only one now responsible to bring this plane back to the ground safely. That’s tremendous responsibility for a person with some odd 15-20 hours of flight.

There’s no word for how it feels, how the landing feels.

It feels absolutely unbelievable when you’ve to give your “Clear for Takeoff” call on the radio and mention “Student Solo”

And the best part is your friends and instructors, everyone waiting for you to land and finally donning a clear white uniform getting your wings pinned on your chest.

Your advice for students?

If you want something really really bad you’ve got to go get it, no matter how crazy the odds, don’t give up!

Future Plans?

I will be commencing my Type Rating which is simulator training for A320. I would’ve started it by now but the pandemic dealt a big blow to the aviation industry!

Post that, I will start my line training with IndiGo as a Junior First Officer.

Hopefully now things are recovering and I cannot wait to finally go back into the cockpit and do what I love doing so passionately, on good days and even the bad!

I can’t wait!