Join two young women pilots on India's first-ever Civilian Circumnavigation, in a Motorglider. 🛩️🔄🗺️
Author: The WE! Expedition
The WE! Expedition, World's 1st All-Woman Team to circumnavigate Earth in a Motorglider🛩️, seeks to shatter global, cultural and gender barriers to send a clear message to the world, that for a woman willing to rise, the sky is the limit.
After flying over the Greenland icecap from Kulusuk to Nukk in the first leg of Phase 2, and before taking on the final leg of the Atlantic Ocean crossing from Nuuk, Greenland to Iqaluit, Canada, Aarohi stayed for a week at Johan Fleishcher’s Airbnb. They rapidly established a bond that has continued well into the rest of the Expedition, and yesterday, we received an email that must be shared!
I just read the WE! newsletter, and also had a Facebook message from Aarohi that the world circumnavigation is set on a temporary hold, but will continue next summer.
Aarohi was extremely kind and positive as always, but also sounded tired.
But now the route goes home to India, and she can hopefully relax and re-energize.
It’s my hope that you will give her a fantastic welcome.
She doesn’t come home as a World conqueror in one step, but it’s a big World out there, and sometime it takes more than one step to go all the way round. And she will ultimately succeed, no doubt there.
She has already made 4 World first until now, and I really hope it will be acknowledged and honoured and celebrated. Very much. She deserves it.
Besides the technically challenging tasks, and the skills and courage she showed us, she also made another result, that impresses me SO much.
She left a big shining and brilliant trail of friendships after her, reaching round most of the globe. She binds people and cultures together, and really makes the World a better place.
I’m so impressed. It’s crazy, that I – so much older and experienced – should admire such a young person. But I do. Very, very much.
So again: I really hope, you will give her the most fantastic welcome home.
Celebrate! Party! Invite the press!
And last, but not least:
A very big and sincere “Thank you” to you, Lynn, and the rest of the team. You made all this possible. This project is a sunshine story in a world full of trouble.
I’m really looking forward to see its completion next year or so.
My name is Olga and I am a Russian ferry pilot escorting the WE! Expedition through the Russian part of the around-the-world route, as a navigator from Anadyr to Magadan. As widely known, Russia is vast, rich in natural wonders, picturesque landscapes and versatile climate zones. My task at this part of the route is to accompany Capt. Aarohi Pandit on her plane Mahi via Russian airports, cities, weather and airspace. Since the route is VFR, at many places the ATC do not speak English, hence a Russian speaking navigator is mandatory.
We have started our route together from Anadyr, heading West to the southern borders of the country to Magadan, across the famous lakes of Baikal, Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk.
In my eyes, Capt. Aarohi is the best pilot for this kind of mission and the coolest crew-mate a pilot can wish for! We hit it off since our very first take-off. There is cooperation, mutual trust, safe flight judgement and decision making on board. As a professional pilot I should mention that good CRM (crew resource management) is of a great importance for any kind of flight, especially cross country flights like ours.
Aarohi is a high-level professional and a great soulmate too!
The WE! Expedition so far has been welcomed in a very friendly way at all the Russian airports and airfields. Airport staff and local citizens are helpful and communicative, and they want to shoot pictures and videos with our Pipistrel and our female crew!
I personally believe, such projects as ours are important and influential for a female portrait all over the world. It makes me sad, that in the XXI century we women still have to prove ourselves to be noticed, heard, respected and well-treated. Though it makes me extremely happy to be an active part of a world-wide project intended to change that situation and empower women all over the world!
Girls have power, knowledge, courage and big hearts! Capt. Aarohi and I are proving this every day.
We are receiving lots of feedback and good wishes from our supporters. I want you all to know your comments are very dear to us, and you guys make our days bright every day!
This Canadian summer is nothing like we imagined it to be, at least as far as flying weather is concerned. Capt. Aarohi took off on her 7th day in Kuujjuaq, bidding goodbye to her friend and local handler Ocean Smallman, to fly over the countless lakes and rivers that dot northern Quebec to land in Wabush Airport (CYWK), which sits on the edge of Newfoundland and Labrador.
A word of thanks for Ocean Smallman and her team who took such great care of Aarohi, feeding her warm, soul food, letting her stay in their cosy staff quarters for free and for also making sure Mahi was housed safely in a hangar for the week.
Wabush is just a short distance away from its twin town Labrador City. Interestingly, this region, i.e. Newfoundland and Labrador, is where the famous Labrador dog originated back in the 16th century. They were bred as water dogs and trained to help local fishermen bring in their fishing nets from the icy ocean. No wonder the Labs of today that we know and adore just love frolicking in the water!
Now all fingers crossed as we pray for clear skies and tailwinds for Leg #32!
Picture of the Week
Spotted at Wabush Airport, little Mahi holds her ground next to a gigantic Bombardier water bomber, an amphibious firefighting ‘flying boat’ used to detect and fight forest fires.
Where are WE!
While we need to keep all future legs under wraps till we actually get there, we are pretty quick about updating our location on the WE! Route Map. You can track our progress here as we journey across the world.
As the crow flies, well almost! That’s how our flight path from Nunavut to Nunavik looked. The 3.5 hours it took to complete Leg 30 of the WE! Expedition were some of the smoothest we’ve had so far. After weeks of waiting, when we finally took off for Kuujjuaq on June 19 at 1500 UTC, the flight was a relatively easy one with some bits spent sandwiched between clouds. For the most part, it was just Aarohi, Mahi, the blue sky above and the icy Hudson Strait below.
Now that we are just about another 6000NM away from a complete circumnavigation of the world, we hope all flights that lead us home are as straight and calm as this one!
And the Two Wise Men
Just a few days before we took off from Iqaluit, Aarohi had the pleasure of meeting polar pilot Bert Rose. An Iqaluit resident since the 60s, Bert has worn many hats – he’s the Chairperson of the Nunavut Surface Rights Tribunal, was the former Dean of the Arctic College, is considered Nunavut’s original party planner and is also the proud owner of the only two ‘trees’ which grow here, hundreds of kilometres from the treeline. He was kind enough to give Aarohi a tour of his home, while also advising her on the whimsical Arctic winds and how best to read them.
On the other side of the Hudson Strait was another celebrity pilot, Johnny May. With a career spanning 51 years and 35000 flying hours under his wings, he is well loved for his annual Candy Drop flight when he drops candy, parkas, toques and mittens from his plane as part of Kuujjuaq’s Christmas tradition. ‘Santa’ Johnny just happened to hear that Aarohi is in town and dropped in at the hangar to say hello.
Some might say these were chance meetings, but we truly believe that we were meant to spend time with these two amazing human beings who had nothing but positivity and encouragement for our young pilot.
On June 7, after being stuck at Iqaluit for three weeks, I had my first ever anxiety attack. The weather had caused the fuel in my Mahi’s pipes to get contaminated and after we had it all flushed out, the winds and clouds stubbornly refused to cooperate.
I am always a happy, easy going person. But that night, I could feel my body acting very loose and tired, completely drained of all energy.
I was confused at first, such things never happen to me. It took me a while to understand that this might be because of the stress I was going through. It lasted only for couple of minutes, maybe 5-7 at the most, but felt like an hour.
I’m writing about this not because I want to prove how hard I am working or how stressed I get sometimes. Everybody works hard, everyone goes through stress. But in the end you deal with it. You overcome your weakness, you overcome your fears, and you also overcome your anxiety.
As I recall, the first time I flew from Iceland to Greenland in September last year was extremely challenging. Crossing the massive Atlantic ocean in an ultralight aircraft with limited range and fuel needs perfect weather and flight planning.
Fortunately this time around, I was able to maintain a higher altitude as the clouding ceiling was high, about 4000-5000 ft. But that did not stop the unpredictable Atlantic weather from ditching me, even when I was blessed with good tail winds. I faced light to medium turbulence, light rain and clouding en route. Let me say that it is never possible to fly only VFR over the Atlantic, at some point or the other you are back staring at your instruments with glued eyes.
Whenever I am stressed or maybe confused about anything regarding my flight, I always reach out to Matevz Lenarcic. He is an ace pilot from Slovenia, a circumnavigator and my mentor. His gentle support and guidance to the expedition right from its inception four years ago, has always been like a soothing salve to all of us. After yet another week of no flying, I wrote to him and as always his reply filled me with the confidence that the weather would break, and that Mahi and I would be fine. I flew over the Hudson Strait two days later, and posted this on Instagram.
My plane is a Slovenia built Sinus 912 motor glider with 472.5 kg of all up weight. Powered by 80 HP Rotax 912, it’s the same plane in which Matevz claimed his FAI record for his Eastward round the world flight in 2004. But thanks to DGCA rules, my plane is fitted with less fuel than his was, which reduces the range, and also I am flying westward. So my circumnavigation may be even more challenging – never mind my young age or my gender!
This mission is not easy, it can take a toll on your emotional health, and the constant weather changes require a high degree of physical fitness. It makes you feel lonely sometimes but also makes you feel like a super hero. I read articles written by various circumnavigators, and I feel so connected to them. The feelings, the pressure, the circumstances are so similar.
I don’t wanna be a great person, I am just an ordinary young girl who wants to pursue my passion for flying.
After becoming the world’s first woman to fly an ultralight solo over the Atlantic ocean and the Greenland icecap, it has definitely boosted my confidence. But the end is still far away. I am here, in Canada, fighting against the weather and trying hard to move forward.
I wish people around the world would understand the importance of overcoming a weak phase. This is life, you have to work hard, you have to be strong. I believe there will be many difficult situations in my life, and I’m sure I will experience that anxious feeling again. But I am a strong person, I was brought up this way.
My father always says – only a weak soul quits. I’m not a weak person and neither, my dear reader, are you.
Aarohi should arrive at the airport in a little while. It is 10:15 AM now, the WX is very nice. Clear sky and warming up. I’ll go over several things with her today.
This has been an interesting trip for me. Visiting a place I would never have guessed I would go to, meeting wonderful people, helping an Indian ‘damsel in need’ – hard to beat that.
I will leave this garden spot tomorrow, overnight in Ottawa, pass through Chicago and end up in Albuquerque around noon on Monday.
This has been interesting in many ways. Getting to know the folks at the FBO, Frobisher Bay Touchdown Services, seeing the harsh environment they operate in and being accepted as a part of the aviation family.
Meeting Aarohi Pandit has been good. She is very smart and has some good experiences, she is very willing to learn as much as she can.
When she comes out of this she is going to have gone through a lifetime of experiences and situations.
I think at best what I have been able to do is boost her confidence by explaining to her more about the aircraft and helping her check the systems. Confirming her knowledge on some things and adding to her repertoire in some others. The biggest hold up on her departure is the wind. I hope they die down overnight and she can leave soon.
The FBO is owned by an Indian, (Bernard Frank) who grew up two apartment buildings away from Aarohi, so they bonded quickly and he has gone above and beyond in supporting her since she arrived here. He has been extraordinarily kind to me also. They have several university interns working for them. One of them is Megan who has bonded with Aarohi, they are close in age and now best friends. This has helped Aarohi feel at home here. Bernard owns a Bed and Breakfast (called Accommodations by the Sea) and I am staying there tonight. Aarohi and Megan are spoiling me, cooking, making tea – they are real sweethearts.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever visit such a place as this.
It is so very interesting. The sale of liquor is state controlled and rationed. Only beer and wine are sold. In the state store there is a sign, “Don’t Walk and Drink”. Yes, they have a serious drinking problem here especially among the native people. We are well north of the tree line, nothing but scrub grows here. Lots of rocks. All buildings are built on stilts with nothing directly on the ground. The permafrost is just about 3 feet under the surface.
Once again aviation has presented me with another unique and enjoyable experience. I have been pleased and honoured to be just a small part of this adventure.
“You need to go to Ottawa. Aarohi needs a familiar face after the Atlantic Crossing. And we need to film a sponsor video.”
Also, she needs a fresh supply of banana chips!
That was pretty much the agenda of my quick trip to Canada. Aarohi was in Nuuk, Greenland getting ready to complete her Atlantic Crossing and was due to land in Iqaluit to make another world record any day now. Lynn wanted me to get to Ottawa before she did so I could welcome her there and mark the halfway point milestone of the WE! Expedition. I filled my too-big suitcase with chips, sponsor decals, gifts and a few sweaters and set off for my 44 hour journey from Delhi to Ottawa via Vancouver. By the time I landed, Aarohi had made her world record. She was now the first woman in the world to cross the Atlantic in a Light Sport Aircraft.
I was picked up from the airport by the wonderful Robin Hadfield, Director of the The Ninety-Nines, and a pilot herself, who offered her full support to the WE! Expedition by hosting us in Ottawa. After a good night’s rest at former Cognos CEO and aviation aficionado Mike Potter’s historic mansion, we had a packed schedule planned the next day. First stop was at Vintage Wings of Canada in Gatineau, Quebec – a state-of-the-art hangar with some gorgeous vintage planes, all shiny and most in perfect working condition! This was followed by a meeting at the Indian High Commission with Sunil Kumar Sharma, Second Secretary (PIC) and Brenda D’Silva, Social Secretary, who assuming that I might already be a little homesick, very kindly took me out to lunch at a popular Indian restaurant. Needless to say, the food was excellent, but it was their warmth, genuine concern for Aarohi and their enthusiasm for the expedition that made me feel so at home.
Robin then took me to the local Canadian Tire store so she could put together an emergency wilderness survival kit for Aarohi’s flight over the Canadian bush. This included waterproof matches, a whistle, work gloves, water purification tablets, some high-protein turkey jerky and a high-intensity mosquito/black fly repellant, among other things.
But the wait in Ottawa was going to be longer than expected. The clouds were thick and low and Iqaluit was seeing snow flurries and ice cold drizzles. Aarohi wasn’t going to be able to fly out for the next few days and my return ticket had been booked for the end of the week. So another quick overnight decision was made and I was off again, flying over the many lakes and rivers of Quebec for Baffin Island.
Out of the blue and into the white. That’s how I would describe my whirlwind trip to Iqaluit.
The temperature was supposed to be 1-2 degrees, and lesser still if you count wind chill, which you should! I had come prepared for Ottawa’s balmy 15 degrees, so my light overcoat wasn’t going to cut it. With a borrowed ski jacket and beanie, all thanks to Robin, and brand new wool socks, I was set and ‘bracing’ to go.
You know that feeling you get when you see a favourite niece or a little puppy who you haven’t met in so long, but who has changed so much since you last saw her. That’s how I felt when I saw Mahi from a distance, sitting with her white ‘bonnet’ in the middle of Iqaluit’s strangely busy tarmac. I wanted to run to her and give her a hug, pet her head and say “Oh how you’ve grown little Mahi!”.
Last time I saw her, she was a baby bird taking off from Patiala, hoping to change the world. And here she was, multiple world firsts and records under her belt, an ocean flying veteran and ice cap conqueror.
Really, how she has grown – this little plane with the wide wings and funny snout who has earned her place in history.
And her pilot has grown with her. Completely at home at the Frobisher Bay Touchdown Services office, Aarohi is the same Bombay girl with the same Bombay ‘chill’. Except she is so used to the tundra climate now, she’s roaming around in a light dry-fit jacket. And leggings! If they were fashionable enough, she’d probably be wearing her rubber flip-flops everywhere.
The scene was almost surreal. Aarohi sharing her packet of banana chips with everyone at the FBO office, chatting and laughing over hot cups of coffee. You just needed to ignore the icy landscape outside the window and the polar bear skin hung on one wall, and you could’ve been sitting in a cosy sitting room in Juhu!
Also surreal because here was Bernard Frank, President of Frobisher Bay Touchdown Services in remote Iqaluit, who just happens to be a Bombay boy from Borivali who grew up on the same street as Aarohi. Surreal because Husam from Lucknow pulled out a packet of dates to share as he broke his Ramadan fast. Surreal because there was a massive baleen, a comb-like filter feeder system from a whale’s mouth sitting on the chest of drawers.
Refreshments done, Aarohi and I stepped back out into the freezing cold to clean Mahi, stick on the new sponsor decal and shoot the video. Meanwhile CBC had also gotten in touch for an interview and were setting up their camera outside. The interview was mercifully quick and after multiple takes of Aarohi getting in and out of Mahi, we ran back in with painful, semi-frozen fingers which I had to hold over a heater vent to thaw.
Iqaluit is a wonderfully strange place. All the houses here are on stilts because of the permafrost, with dirt roads, forgotten upturned sleds and a surprisingly high number of pet dogs. Bernard gave us a quick tour on our way to his lovely B&B called Accommodations by the Sea where we were given the biggest rooms with the best views of the frozen bay. Bernard said that mine was extra special – Leonardo DiCaprio had stayed in this very room when he was here to shoot his documentary Before The Flood.
Once in the heated house, Aarohi shed the jacket and went back to her flight planning. She had to find the next best window to fly out and it wasn’t looking good. With overcast skies predicted the next day as well, we went out for dinner at The Discovery where our adventurous pilot with the non-adventurous palate chose to eat a prawn coconut curry with rice. You can take the Mumbaikar out of Mumbai, but…you know the rest.
Yours truly chose the local Arctic char paired with a fantastic caribou steak which was totally worth writing home about. I’ll spare you the picture.
My flight back to Ottawa was scheduled for the next afternoon. With no flying window in sight, we stayed up way after the sun went down (it sets after 10 pm), catching up and talking about the next milestone.
I was worried about saying goodbye to Aarohi and Mahi the next day. But seeing the calm Mona-Lisa-esque smile on Aarohi’s face made me realise that this girl and her little plane are going to be just fine. She knows what she’s doing, she is mentally and emotionally in a good place and completely focussed on the task at hand.
Next time I see them both again, they will be circumnavigators.
Back to Ottawa
My last day in Ottawa was spent with the amazing Dr Carl Christie, historian, archivist, author and aviation geek. Carl is another one of those rare human beings who did not think twice before he volunteered to host a complete stranger in his home. All for his love for aviation and because he thought it was “kind of neat to play even this tiny role in such a fantastic project”.
I disagree with Carl though. His role in this expedition is far from tiny. Ever since WE! began, it’s the people we have met along the way – in this case Robin, Sunil Sharma, Brenda, Bernard and team, and Carl – who have played an immensely important role in helping us come this far and who I cannot thank enough. As I fly back to India, via Frankfurt this time, (thus completing my own circumnavigation even if it’s as a passenger in a commercial plane) I realise once again that it’s the faith, the positivity and genuine affection that will propel and power Aarohi and Mahi forward.
They are the human dots that connect as Mahi flies around the world, tracing a line around the Earth, tying us all together.
Vestmannaeyjar aka Westman Islands. This little island that I had never heard of before, has been my home, on and off, for pretty much 3 months now. It was wonderful to come back to my room at the Lava Guesthouse and put down my bags. It’s almost like I never left.
What a journey it has been getting here though. Phase I of the WE! Expedition ended 7 months ago. After we took off from Patiala, we landed in Karachi, flew over the Iranian mountains, the green valleys of Europe, the white Alps, the Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s safe to say that both of us have ended up older and maybe a little bit wiser.
But Phase II is going to be different from Phase I. After the hot and dry weather over Asia, I now have to fly over icecaps and glaciers in Greenland, Canada and Russia. So en route Iceland, I had the opportunity to fly with Nejc Faganelj, a fantastic aviator and Pipistrel test pilot in Slovenia. We did a lot of high altitude flying, practised emergency procedures and I used an oxygen mask for the first time.
Another stop before Iceland was in Ljubljana where I got to spend some time with our dear friend Damir and his awesome family. He is one guy I always look forward to seeing, with his positive energy and ability to make everyone around him happy. Also as promised the last time I was here, he took me for a hot lap in his Porsche which was the highlight of my day there!
Now that I’m packing my bags again (basically just one backpack) and preparing Mahi for our next stop, its time to say goodbye to the land of fire and ice, hands down the most beautiful country I have ever been to.
I am grateful to my mentor and amazing pilot – Gummi, who is an unconditional giver. He is so passionate about flying, you can say he basically lives for it. Thank you for taking such good care of this little girl and her plane from India.
To my lovely family here – Kolla, Biggie, Anton and my cute little brother Birgir. They have treated me like their own and made sure I was always warm and well cared for, no matter what the weather was like outside. I will miss them so much.
In Reykjavik, I have to thank Oli Oder, a ferry pilot par excellence who has always been patient, kind and helpful no matter how many times I’ve had to call him. A big thank you to Agust Gudmundsson, for taking the time out and meeting me for dinner and then also turning up to flag me off at the airport.
It’s overwhelming to see the amount of support I have got from the aviation community in Iceland. Last year this time, I would never have imagined that I would have so many Icelandic friends in my contact list who I can rely on and call in every situation.
With a promise to visit them again, it’s time to fly off to Greenland and the start of Phase II of the WE! Expedition. I’m ready for the challenge, but as everyone here has reminded me over and over, the most important thing to do is to have fun.
It was an evening full of laughter, fond reminiscing and fielding some tough questions from the pilots-to-be at The Bombay Flying Club (BFC) felicitation, the flight school where both Aarohi and Keithair earned their stripes. We are grateful to BFC Principal, Capt. C Kumar for inviting them to speak to the next generation of pilots. It was an honour to share the stage with aviation legend and WE! supporter, Rabia Futehally, along with their parents.
Aarohi and Keithair were also guests of honour at two International Women’s Day ceremonies – one organised by Mauli Prathishthan, a not-for-profit organisation that works on Women’s Health issues, and the second at SevenHills Hospital where they were felicitated by their women leadership.
As Aarohi prepares to leave Indian shores once again tonight to take on the arduous and challenging Phase 2 of the Expedition, flying over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the snowscapes of Greenland, Canada and Russia, Keithair is getting back to her first love, flight instruction. She joins the newly set up Blue Wing Aviation, a venture promoted by pioneering women pilot instructors, Capt Mamatha of Flytech Aviation and Capt Ranjita, ex Bombay Flying Club. The buddies will reunite in Mahi’s cockpit at a later stage of the WE! Expedition.