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 every day for four days since we left Bhuj and till we reached Rafsanjan, both of us were feeling a little worse for wear. The huge welcome we got at Rafsanjan airport meant we didn’t make it back to our hotel till 2.30 in the afternoon, by when Keithair was starting to look a little green around the gills. It is at times like these when you really miss home, but it is also at times like these that you find your guardian angels. Ours was called Fatima, our wonderful Farsi translator.
A quick trip to the doctor and a good night’s rest was in order, which meant the following day’s schedule had to be pushed. Having recuperated enough by next afternoon, we decided to take in the sights and flavours of Rafsanjan with Fatima and her friends, Armin and Ehsaan.
It was a fantastic afternoon, sunny and breezy, for an ‘open-air’ meal with barbecued shrimps in the middle of the desert. Poor Keithair, who is a vegetarian by choice, looked the other way while we enjoyed our snack.
This was followed by a visit to the troglodytic dwellings of Maymand historical village which has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site. We saw a public bath, a museum and underground shelters, all carved out of the soft rock. Some of these homes are still in use, especially during the freezing winters!
All that walking around can make you thirsty and the perfect solution lay in the piping hot cups of Persian tea AKA ‘chai’, not too different from what we drink in India, minus the milk.
A long and eventful day drew to a close with a traditional Iranian meal shared with the first new friends we’ve made since we left home. Hopefully, the first of many, many more!
All prepared for our second leg of the expedition, we woke up at 5 am with a lot of energy. It was going to be my longest cross-country with Mahi as PIC. Going through the flight plan sent by Nexus Flight Ops, I realised it was going to be a tough sortie with 20 knots gusting at Ahmedabad.
It was 7 am when we headed down for breakfast and actually got a poolside table (it’s always reserved BTW). Ate my omelette with bread, toast and tea ( no sugar) and rushed back to our room to get into our uber cool flight suits.
We were feeling really smart in our uniforms, when I saw my phone beeping. It was Capt. Rahul Monga. I had passed on incorrect fuel details to the flight ops team. Scared and sweaty, I replied to his messages and apologised, realising what a huge mistake I had made.
Quickly passing on the corrected information we headed straight for the airport. We went through security and got ourselves inside the terminal, prepared Mahi for today’s flight and waited for our clearance while sipping a welcome cup of tea. Going through Ahmedabad approach plates and aerodrome charts, I crosschecked all the frequencies. With one last look at the weather expected en route, we were ready for our departure. After a quick briefing call with Capt. Rahul, we started our engines.
We took off with 11 knots of crosswinds. Maintaining the runway centre line below me, we set course for Ahmedabad. With hills to our right and bare land to our left, we somehow managed to climb to FL 065. Overflying NIKOT with contact with Jaipur, we were then released for direct routing to Ahmedabad.
What a beautiful view – with clouds below us and the bright blue sky above, we were cruising at 92 knots due to strong headwinds.
At about 50 nm inbound into Ahmedabad we cruised left right, deviating due to clouding at our flight level. Once in contact with Radar, we requested radar vectoring (basically telling us were to go and what to do) and we were on long final for Runway 23. 2000 ft, 7 nm on final, we realised the visibility is NOT 5000m which was reported by the ATC. Aligning my aircraft with the centreline with two white, two red, landed Mahi with a little high round off.
Big airports are so confusing for an LSA pilot with a tiny aircraft so we asked for guidance till our parking bay.
Parked and secured, we cleaned her up. When we finally left the terminal, we got to the hotel and were happy to just go back to sleep. Zzzz!
We got up at about 7.30 this morning and freshened up. While we took the stairs down to the restaurant we wondered what a typical Rajasthani breakast would be. Sad to report, we were surprised to see that were no daily specials and we had a rather regular menu to choose from. I settled for cornflakes and milk while Aarohi opted for vada-sambar, and chai. The tea served here was amazing masala chai and Aarohi’s breakfast turned out to be 6-7 miniature medu vadas and a huge bowl of tangy sambar.
Talk about South Indian food in a North Indian Haveli! Globalisation in a nutshell.
We quickly finished our food and headed back to the room to dress up and leave for Ajmer.
Ajmer is a small town located amidst the Aravalli Mountains and is famous for the Garib Nawaz Dargah or Ajmer Sharif, a place known to fulfil the wishes of all the pilgrims who visit. After an uneventful 50 min drive from Kishangarh, we were dropped off at Delhi Gate where we quickly covered our heads. We walked up the kilometre long buzzing Dargah Nazar street to reach Nawaz Gate, the entrance to the Dargah. The relatively empty Ajmer streets were in stark contrast to the jam packed, tiny little lane winding up to the base of Taragarh hill where the shrine is located.
There were all sorts of stalls there, some sold sweets while some sold offerings that you could give at the shrine. There were tiny little restaurants and street food stalls, toy shops and souvenir shops. The strong presence of ittar was quickly replaced by the fragrance of flowers as we reached the shrine.
We had never been to a Dargah all by ourselves before and thus decided to follow the large groups of people thronging to get to the Sanctum. The shrine is an all-marble structure which houses the sanctum of Garib Nawaz right in the centre, surrounded by beautiful buildings within a complex. Unaware of the rituals of offering, we followed the queue, paid our respects when everyone else did and followed the crowd out. Something about the place was mesmerising. And just to see the number of people braving the hot sun to reach the shrine, was even more fascinating.
After we left the shrine we headed down the road back to Delhi Gate where our car was waiting to pick us up. But we got waylaid at the sight of chilled Kulad lassi which is basically a thick creamy yoghurt drink served in an earthen cup. The sun was now overhead and the heat was quite unbearable, so this was just what we needed to cool down.
Our next stop was Akbari Qila which is another heritage location in Ajmer. The Qila or Fort was built by Emperor Akbar as a place to rest after his annual pilgrimage to Ajmer. After his ‘dua’ or prayer for a son was fulfilled, Emperor Akbar visited the Ajmer Sharif every single year and offered his gratitude. The Fort which is now a museum has typical Mughal style architecture with four bastions on each corner and a Diwan-e-Khas or central hall in the middle. Inside the museum are seven galleries filled with Mughal and Rajput art and ammunitions. We spent quite a while there before heading back to Kishangarh.
By the time we reached the hotel we were famished and decided to eat at the restaurant instead of heading to our room. I ordered the Rajasthani Special Gatta Sabzi, a chickpea flour preparation, and Aarohi had Chicken tikka with rice and curry.
Tummies full, we headed straight up to the room to rest and plan for the days ahead.
Today is when we officially take-off on our expedition. After two long, exhausting months of training in Patiala, we spent all night trying to fall asleep. Because of all the tossing and turning, we finally managed to get out of the bed at 5am, rubbing the sleep from our eyes and rushing to get ready.
We had a pretty long schedule the previous day, with the Maharani of Patiala, the Jt Secretary of the MWCD and the whole WE! team (along with a whole host of reporters) flagging us off. With mixed emotions in my head, I brushed my teeth, washed my face and after a quick shower – I was ready to start my journey as a circumnavigator.
All prepared for our sortie, we dumped two months worth of clothes, shoes, books etc. in mum and dad’s room before we set off for Patiala airport from our hotel/home with two mini backpacks and one and a half collapsible bags filled with aircraft essentials in a tiny white/green cab. At the hangar, we met our cute little puppies, ever-present and ever-happy to welcome us with wagging tails.
And then we set to work, preparing our aircraft for today’s cross country to Kishangarh, Rajasthan. We lugged the canister, plugged in the pump and glugged in the fuel. Then we wiped down our beautiful little plane and we were almost ready to go.
With my grumbling tummy, mom handed me a couple of sandwiches – saviour I tell you, Keith will agree. Now we were really all set to leave. We said our final goodbyes to mumma, dada, uncle, aunty, Rahul sir, Deb, Vismay and the Patiala ground staff. Not to forget our tiny buddies, we were ready to take off. Started the engine with teary eyes and set a course to our first destination – Kishangarh.
After take-off, we waved goodbye to the Patiala ATC and CFI Capt. Malkeat sir, we continued to climb to our cruising flight level – F065. Contact with Ambala tower – Alpha Control – Delhi area – Jaipur tower – Kishangarh ATC, cruising at 065 above the clouds at 105 knots. I still could not believe that this is it. Chit chatting as always with my sister/friend/co-pilot Keith – we were now on our way.
The landscape changed from bright green to a dry brown landscape as we cruised west abeam Delhi and entered royal Rajasthan.
With fairly poor visibility with mostly hazy skies, there wasn’t much of a view to write about straight ahead of us. We contacted Kishangarh about 60 nm inbound, they told us to watch out for hilly terrain. As soon as we passed the terrain on the west abeam Jaipur, the smooth cruise turned into a bumpy ride. Fighting with our controls we initiated a straight in approach to touchdown at Kishangarh.
Securing our aircraft with mountaineering ropes, we made our way to the beautiful haveli/hotel – The Royal Heritage, lucky enough to get a room with a massive balcony and a fantastic view.
Unpacking our mini backpacks which will hold everything we need for 90 days on the road/in the skies, we changed into pyjamas, wolfed down some yummy dal rice and slammed ourselves into bed for a nap.
Mahi is a Sinus 912, a two-seat, ultra-light, high-wing, cantilever monoplane manufactured by Pipistrel Aviation based in Slovenia.
The development of the Sinus began in 1994 in close collaboration with the Slovenian firm Albastar Ltd. A year later, the Sinus was unveiled at AERO Friedrichshafen 1995, with first flight of the prototype taking place in 1996.
In 2001, Philippe Zen and Thomas Knowles flew a Sinus at the World Air Games in Spain and won first place in the two-seat category.
The Sinus 912 is eco-friendly, weighs less than a family of four, and is smaller than the average kitchen. It soars like a bird in glide mode, is exceptionally efficient, highly reliable and promises us unmatched views of the Earth.
With these qualities, the WE! Expedition has dubbed her Mahi (Great Planet Earth in Sanskrit) – a friend, a guide who is going to take us on a never before journey around the world.
As the leading lady of the WE! Expedition here are the 7 virtues of Mahi –
1. THE POWERTRAIN
An 80hp at 5800 rpm Rotax 912 UL2 4-stroke engine powers the Pipistrel VARIO – a variable-pitch propeller that can be feathered during unpowered flight. This means lower air-resistance, longer glide distances and therefore, greater fuel efficiency.
2. THE MILEAGE
Speaking of efficiency, Mahi only consumes about 10 litres of fuel per hour at a high cruise-speed of 200 kmph (110 kts). Combine that with 15-meter wings and a 1:28 glide ratio, with feathered propellers and what you get is an aircraft that can stay airborne for up to 1200 km. Clean aerodynamic lines and a perfect finish is what enables the Sinus to perform even better than a number of typical motorless gliders.
3. THE FUSELAGE
*For representational purpose only
In terms of geometry, Mahi is equipped with positive and negative flaperons, airbrakes and nosewheel. It is manufactured from hi-tech epoxy resin, fibre glass, carbon and Kevlar composites, making it lightweight, yet sturdy and incredibly safe.
4. THE COCKPIT
Let’s move on to the cabin. With 44” of space, the cockpit can comfortably seat two people side-by-side. All controls are easy to use and reachable from both seats, but the dual controls have been disabled, which means Mahi can be flown only by the pilot-in-command.
5. THE COMFORTS
*For representational purpose only
Mahi’s cabin is properly insulated from noise (noise levels have been measured at <60db) and very comfortable, which is extremely important given the length and duration of flights our pilots will have to endure. The seats are also ergonomically designed with an adjustable headrest. Both the pilot and passenger pedals have differential toe brakes fitted. The pedals are adjustable forward and aft in flight and are manufactured from stainless steel.
6. THE INVULNERABILITY
*For representational purpose only
Safety always comes first. Which is why the entire cabin area is encased with energy absorbing structures made from Kevlar fibre, an amazing material which maintains the integrity of the cabin and makes it safe in case of stronger impacts. Together with a special Safety Cockpit Concept, Mahi is equipped with a ballistic parachute rescue system, which saves the complete aircraft together with the crew in case of extreme emergencies.
7. THE FORTITUDE
What makes Mahi especially suitable for a trip around-the-globe is her ability to land almost anywhere thanks to her highly efficient airbrakes and excellent slow flying characteristics. When it comes to take-off, all this wonderful plane needs is approximately 100m of runway. This makes even the smallest and most remote airfields accessible for the occasional pit-stop.
Combine all these and what you get is a well-equipped globetrotter.
To find out more about WE! and Mahi’s upcoming circumnavigation attempt – the first ever by a woman and the first ever by India, in a motorglider, visit wefly.org.in
Circumnavigation essentially means to travel all the way around the planet, continent or island.
What fascinates us more, of course, is the circumnavigation of our planet Earth. The desire to explore is intrinsic to human nature. Effervescent curiosity, combined with a sense of adventure and accomplishment is what inspired Ferdinand Magellan to be the first person to circumnavigate the world.
CIRCUMNAVIGATIONS – BY SEA
His nautical expedition set out from Seville, Spain, in 1819, traversed the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean before returning in 1822 – albeit without Magellan who sadly passed away on the journey. His ship, the Nao Victoria, became the first vessel to sail all the way around the globe. The Magellan-Elcano expedition has since inspired the more intrepid amongst us to recreate it in different ways.
The HMS Driver, a Driver-class wooden paddle sloop of the Royal British Navy became the first steamship to circumnavigate the globe in 1847, after completing her nearly 2-year voyage.
In 1960, the submarine USS Triton completed the first-ever submerged circumnavigation.
We have come a long way in terms of nautical ability. While Magellan’s voyage took approximately 3 years, the current world record for nautical circumnavigation stands at just under 41 days and is held by IDEC Sport, a wind-powered vessel.
The maxi trimaran Idec Sport set a new record time for the Jules Verne Trophy, the outright round the world sailing record when the team crossed the finish line off Ushant at 0749 (UTC) on Thursday, January 26, 2017, having sailed the 22,000-mile theoretical round the world course in 40d 23h 30m and 30s. On the water, they actually sailed 26,412 miles at a blistering average speed of 26.85 knots.
They shattered the previous record set by Loïck Peyron and the crew of the maxi trimaran Banque Populaire V in 2012 by 4d 14h 12m and 23s.
In 2007, the Swiss boat Planet Solar earned the distinction of becoming the first ever solar-electric vehicle to circumnavigate the globe.
On April 6, 2013, Indian Navy’s Lt Cdr Abhilash Tomy wrote a new chapter in India’s rich Maritime history by becoming the first Indian to Circumnavigate the Earth under sails – solo, nonstop and unassisted.
He had set sail out of Mumbai on November 1, 2012 in the sail boat INSV Mhadei to undertake a voyage no Indian had attempted before and few had dreamt of. In fact, so far, less than 80 people in the world have successfully completed such a voyage.
CIRCUMNAVIGATIONS – BY AIR
The Aviation Age brought with it the first aerial circumnavigation, which was carried out by the United States Army Air Service in four Douglas World Cruiser biplanes in 1924.
In 1929, the airship Graf Zeppelin became the first lighter-than-air aircraft to complete the feat under its own power.
Fast forward to 2002, when Steve Fossett became the first person to fly around the world alone, non-stop in any kind of aircraft, namely, a hot air balloon. He left in the 10-story high balloon Spirit of Freedom from Northam, Western Australia on June 19, 2002 and returned to Australia on July 3, 2002, landing in Queensland.
In 2016, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg completed the first ever solar-powered aircraft circumnavigation of the world in their plane, the Solar Impulse 2.
Circumnavigation has been a badge of honour for adventurers for centuries. Now, the enthusiasm to achieve it shows no sign of waning. In fact, today it is more fervent than ever, with people looking to achieve the feat in new and innovative ways.
The WE! Expedition is looking to join this illustrious list and go down in history by completing India’s first civilian circumnavigation of the globe in a Light Sport Aircraft by an All-woman team.
You can follow the WE! Expedition as we go around the world via our website: http://wefly.org.in
There are women who fly!
There are women who fly higher!
Then, there are women who make the Indian Tricolour fly higher than ever before!
Here is an interesting story about how it all began…
The year is 1966.
A member of the Ninety-Nines, the American chapter of the Women Pilots Association, is passing by the Bombay Flying Club at the Juhu Aerodrome, Mumbai. Her name is Isabelle McCray-Hale and she is a flying nurse from the United States.
She observes some women huddled around a small aircraft. She wonders why there are these Indian women dressed in sarees at this Aerodrome! On touch down, she discovers that these are no ordinary women, but each one of them is an Aircraft Pilot.
This little encounter led to a new era in the history of Indian aviation for women. Isabelle McCray went on to befriend and invite these Indian women to become members of the International Women Pilots Association also known as The Ninety-Nines (99s) and within a year, the Indian Women Pilots Association (IWPA) and the 99s’ India chapter came into being.
That was the birth of a new generation of gallant women pioneers who put India on the World Aviation Map. Here is a list of our aviation heroes – pilots who are beacons of inspiration for young girls and women in India.
Chanda Budhabhatti was one of the first women to set a speed record for a single-engine plane when she piloted a Piper aircraft in the US – a record she chose to set in Women’s History Month.
Rabia Futehally was a 25-year-old, mother to a nine-month-old when she first climbed into the high cockpit of her favourite Piper PA-18 aircraft. She was the first woman pilot in the country to receive a private pilot license (PPL).
Mohini Shroff is the first lady to participate in Air Race – India, organised by the Aeronautical Society of India, in 2003. She holds a current Private Pilot’s license No.: 158 till date and is a Hobby Flyer.
Late. Capt. Durba Banerjee was the first lady pilot of Indian Airlines back in 1956 and the first Indian woman commercial pilot. She was the first woman of her times to break stereotypes and make a career in this field.
Capt. Saudamani Deshmukh was the first woman in Asia to become a Check-Pilot on F-27 in March 1987, the first woman commander of a Boeing-737 in July 1988 and also commanded the first All-Women-Crew Flight on a Boeing 737 in September ’89 and on an Airbus A-320 in June ’95.
The Indian Women’s Pilot Association has come a long way since these plucky women paved the runway for the next generation of Women Aviators. Today it is over 50 years old and it is no meagre achievement that India has more women pilots than the rest of the world, making up 11% of the workforce compared to an estimated 3% globally.
And just like these pathbreakers, two young Indian woman pilots are ready to take on the world with the WE! Expedition – a heroic task to circumnavigate the earth in a motorglider – the first of its kind undertaken by an All-woman team. This expedition epitomizes heroism more than ever – it is noble in nature – a bold statement to the entire world that…
When You Give A Woman Wings, The Whole Flock Flies.
Follow our blog to stay updated on the adventures of our two pilots on the WE! Expedition.