Thank you and Goodbye Iceland!

Friday, May 3, 2019

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

~ Capt. Aarohi Pandit

Every Day is Women’s Day

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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.

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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.

~ Team WE!

A Princess among Queens

It was last minute but we are so glad we made it to Aero India 2019. Our tracking partner Elektroniklab made us feel extra special with a corner dedicated to the WE! Expedition at their stall. Aarohi was delighted to meet NBF Chairman, Tapan Nandi, as well as the ever-friendly and supportive Aritra Ganguly from Elektroniklab who has always gone out of his way to help the team with all tracking related queries. For two lone pilots travelling over distant oceans and mountains, you can well imagine how important this part of the expedition is, especially for those of us on the ground.

Aarohi was also invited to join the Indian Women Pilots’ Association (IWPA) contingent for the ‘Queens of the Skies’ celebrations where she met her sheroes – Harpreet A De Singh, President of the IWPA and Chief and ED of Flight Safety at Air India, Capt. Kshamta Bajpai, who piloted the first flight around the world with an all-women crew in a Boeing 777-200LR, and Navy Lt. Payal Gupta, who was part of Navika Sagar Parikrama, the 6-member all-woman crew circumnavigation of the globe by sea. All in all, it was two days well spent in the company of some brave and inspirational people. And the fantastic birds of steel on display were the icing on the cake!

~ Team WE!

 

Happy Birthday, Captain!

Team WE! came together and did ‘the wings’ for a double celebration – a birthday and an anniversary. For starters, our youngest team member, WE! Pilot Aarohi Pandit is back in Mumbai for a few days and has just turned all of 23! The second reason to celebrate is that our little plane Mahi got her Certificate of Airworthiness for another year.

With a pilot who’s ready to take to the skies and a plane that has her nose turned forward always, things are really starting to warm up for Phase 2 of the WE! Expedition.

Here’s celebrating the little girl who grew up to become a fearless pilot.
May you always look to the horizon and fly strong!

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“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

~ Team WE

Republic Day at the world’s Northernmost capital

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January 2019 has been packed with action – so many firsts and so many highs. We’re hoping it’s a sign of things to come during the rest of the year!

Aarohi and Mahi have been hard at work in Iceland, practicing their flying in all kinds of weather. Regardless of whether it was -15 degrees or if the sky was the colour of lead, whether it was solo or with her mentor Gummi, through rain or sun, but fly she did. Clearly, this soon to be 23 year old pilot and her trusted companion are both raring to get Phase 2 of the WE! Expedition started!

Aarohi also had the honour of meeting with Shri T Armstrong Changsan, Indian Ambassador to Iceland and Smt. Alka Sarkar, Head of Chancery, who are both extremely supportive of the WE! mission.

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A chance meeting with the World’s Strongest Man aka The Mountain from Game of Thrones, meant Aarohi was feeling rather ‘dwarfed’ next to Icelandic actor, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson.

 

~ Team WE

Layover in Kulusuk

Thursday, September 13 2018

 

 

The day after my unique flight from Reykjavik I woke up to a 4°C morning with a heavy head and my nose completely blocked. Colds are bad for flying as there is a danger of ear injury in climbs and descents. So I explained the situation to the team back home and requested a day off to recoup. After resting the whole morning, I decided to visit the doctor downtown.

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Chef Maki (left) and Jakob (centre) with Aarohi

My friend Jakob, who works at the hotel, graciously offered to drive me to the nearby village to look for a doctor. But when we got there I found out that there is just one nursing centre here with a single nurse working from 8 am to 2 pm. Thankfully we were on time and she asked me to try several home remedies – lots of gargling and steaming and told me to rest for the day.

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Hotel Kulusuk | Wikipedia

On our way back to the hotel, Jakob took me for a short drive around the village and showed me the local school, cemetery and post office. It was a charming little village with gorgeous people and extremely cute kids.

Back at the hotel, I opted for hot chicken soup and fries for lunch. Chicken soup is good for colds and also for the soul!

Having rested for the entire afternoon I was completely bored, so I went to the reception and spoke to Keithair who was on her way back from her birthday trip to the Niagara Falls. I also attended to a few guests at the hotel reception as Jakob was busy dropping his other guests to the airport and picking up some groceries.

Keithair jokingly congratulated me on my new job and said that she will come and join me in Greenland if I promise to hire her as a housekeeping trainee at the hotel.
Laughter is good for the soul too. 🙂

After I finished my dinner, I went back to my room and started preparing for my flight the next day. I looked up the weather and studied the airport I was going to land at. Around 8 pm I heard Jakob screaming my name from the reception. I ran outside and he told me that the Northern Lights were going to appear tonight. I covered myself up as best as I could, because it was a really cold night, wearing extra socks, two jackets, mittens and a muffler and quickly rushed outside the hotel to wait for the lights.

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Aurora borealis over Kulusuk, Greenland | Wikipedia

What a breathtaking sight. I managed to capture some pictures on my iPhone but mostly I just stood there gaping at the fluorescent spectacle in the sky. I spent 30 minutes like that, watching those beautiful green lights, shivering outside as the temperature was almost 3° now.

What a magical place Greenland is. But it was time to go to bed. I fell asleep with a smile on my face. I had witnessed something spectacular and now it was time to move on. It was going to be a long flight tomorrow.

~ Capt. Aarohi Pandit

Flight of Fortitude – Iceland to Greenland

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

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After spending 2 days in Reykjavík, I finally got to see a sunny bright morning that day. The expedition team in India had also advised me that the weather was suitable for me to fly out and filed a flight plan for the leg to Greenland. After carefully studying the weather map and the map of Kulusuk airport, I left my guest house at 7am.

At the airport, I packed my belongings into Mahi and prepared her for her flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

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Since it was going to take a few more hours for the weather to clear, I made myself comfortable in the crew lounge, cradling a cup of coffee, ready to wait it out. As it so happens, Reykjavík is a popular stop for people flying in from Europe, heading towards North America as it lies along the great circle track.

This where I met quite a few pilots who briefed me about their flights and the weather they experienced. After having my 8th cup of coffee I finally got a small window to take off.

After my briefing with Capt. Monga, I asked the NEXUS team to file a flight plan for 14:30 hrs. I was already well prepared for the flight as it was supposed to be good flying weather. Also, I was really looking forward to flying over the Atlantic ocean for the second time around.

Rolling out right into the ocean, it wasn’t as good as I expected it to be.

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Skirting through clouds for almost an hour, I figured there was quite a bit of clouding at my altitude ahead, so I descended to 2000 ft.

After almost 30 minutes, there were black clouds forming all around me. I was orbiting in my current position just to see if I could skirt this weather somehow.

 

I decided that I would turn back, but it was impossible since the weather was all packed up behind me. So I resumed flying on my flight path to Kulusuk Airport.

 

A few minutes later the cloud base started lowering and to avoid it,  I had to descend to 1000 ft, so close to the ocean. It was little scary but I had no option as the clouding was up till 5000 ft which I could not climb due to the extremely low temperature up there of -2°C, which could cause icing.

Somewhere here, at just 1000 ft above the ocean, I saw something break through the water. My heart skipped a beat and for a split second, I imagined that I saw a sea monster.

I realised then that I had just seen a whale tail breaking through the surface of the water! My first ever whale sighting ever!

 

Thereafter it was a continuous struggle with rain, clouds and gusty winds till Kulusuk.

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Image Credit: Mariusz Kluzniak | Flickr

Kulusuk has a gravel runway and a tight approach due to nearby terrain. I made my first attempt at landing but had to go around due to the wind gusts not letting little Mahi settle down. I tried again and my next approach was spot on. I had successfully reached Greenland!

This was probably one of the most challenging flights for me so far. But that’s what an expedition is all about right.

~ Capt. Aarohi Pandit | Pictures clicked by Aarohi on iPhone 7

 

Mahi’s Homecoming

Wednesday, 22nd August 2018

We were staying in a tiny Bed & Breakfast in Ljubljana. We asked the landlady if she could get our breakfast ready by 5.30 in the morning so we could head out by 6 am and fly out latest by 7am. The weather was perfect as Ljubljana is nestled in the mountains, but we could expect it to deteriorate by afternoon.

I had my usual cornflakes with milk while Aarohi ordered a fried egg, which to her horror had a runny yolk! And Aarohi hates runny yolk. We somehow finished our breakfast in under 10 minutes and left for the airport.

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Our aircraft was already prepared and after loading our bags and completing all preflight checks, we were good to go. The sortie today was just for 20 minutes and we were to going to cover 31 nm to Ajdovščina. This was the most important and significant leg for Mahi as she was going back to her birthplace and was soon going to enjoy a well-deserved spa-like servicing.

The Chairman of NBF, Tapan Nandi sir, travelled from Bengaluru to Amsterdam to Ljubljana and then drove down to Ajdovščina to meet us. The airfield here is located at the foothills of the range and was immediately visible when we crossed the final mountain.  We orbited overhead to descend to circuit altitude. For the first time ever there was no controller to guide us and we were absolutely on our own.  We monitored the pilot frequency of 123.500 and announced our joining right circuit for runway 08. The winds blowing down the mountains were terribly strong and nothing like we have ever experienced before. We somehow managed to turn for finals and went full idle to settle down.

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The landing was just fine and we taxied out to alpha to approach the hangar where Tapan sir and Matija from Pipistrel were awaiting us. We parked the aircraft and got down to greet everybody. Ever since we left India, this was the first place where we were meeting someone from our own team and were really looking forward to this.

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As we unloaded our stuff from the aircraft, Matija and his team made a thorough inspection of the aircraft to compile a list of things that needed to be checked and what had to be serviced. Mahi was ready to undergo a complete checkup and service. We met Tadej Hozic and Leon who is head of their technical department and Ivo Boscorol, the owner of Pipistrel.

We handed Mahi over into the careful hands of Matija and his maintenance team and set off to Hotel Gold and Casino where we were booked. My phone had been giving me quite a lot of trouble for a while and my Dadda had sent a new phone with Tapan sir. So my excitement knew no bounds when he gave it to me along with the ‘care’ package (which included banana chips!!) sent by the team in India.

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Every single flight makes us hungry so we dumped our luggage and rushed down to the restaurant for a second breakfast.

After eating to our heart’s content we returned to our rooms to rest for a while and freshen up. With no flying planned for the next day, we were going to head out to the city and were really hoping to try some local dishes for lunch. As it so happened, all we got was some shrimp pizza (which was a little too raw for our liking) as everything was shut except for the pizzerias. Dinner was also fairly ‘continental’ as it consisted of pasta and salad at the hotel restaurant.

But our bellies were full and we had a lot of work to do the next day so we decided to pack in some good sleep to deal with it all.

 

~ Capt. Keithair Misquitta

Circumnavigators Rendezvous in Ajdovščina

Sunday, 23rd August 2018

We reached the Pipistrel facility at about 8.30 am after a delicious breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs and cornflakes (no surprises there!). Mahi was completely disassembled by now and many of her components were already serviced and cleaned. There was bad news though. We were informed that there was a cold front approaching from the northwest and it was going to bring some pretty bad weather which would last over the weekend. Which meant that if the service wasn’t complete by Friday we would have to wait back until Monday or Tuesday for the weather to clear.

But we couldn’t dwell on this bit of news for too long because we were really excited about our meeting with Matevž Lenarčič, a veteran circumnavigator who has flown around the world thrice already!  In fact, he flew the Sinus 912 on his very first trip and was the one who had recommended this plane for our circumnavigation attempt. He was accompanied by fellow pilot Domen Grauf, who flies microlights and has participated in many Air Championships across Europe.

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We had a whole bunch of questions ready for Matevž and he was more than happy to oblige us! In fact he gave us some pretty great tips about the upcoming Atlantic crossing and warned us about the weather there. After a quick photo shoot with him and his Dynamic WT 9, we all drove back to our hotel for lunch and more questions about flying around the world. Lunch was fantastic – we had gnocchi, some fantastic cheesy risotto (which is apparently a local favourite) and salad followed by coffee.

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After lunch we headed back to the airport where Matevž and Domen bid adieu to us as they started up their Dynamic and rolled down the runway and up into the skies. What a wonderful experience and so humbling to have him fly across just to spend some time with us.

But our day was far from done! Next up was our meeting with His Excellency, the Ambassador of India, Mr Param Jit Mann. Pipistrel had organised a press conference and the media had gathered. After answering various questions about the mission we were on we were we headed outside for another photo shoot. Mr Ravi Jain, who was accompanying the Ambassador, gave us a To-Do list for our stay in Ljubljana, which included dinner at the only Indian restaurant here called Namaste.

Once the photos were done, we were escorted out to a dinner planned by Mr Ivo Boscorol by the side of a spring. We were joined by Tapan Sir, Tadej and Ingrid from Pipistrel.

The restaurant was a little shack on a porch over a small pond. The meal was three-course fare mainly revolving around the freshwater fish from the locality. We started with a bruschetta appetizer, followed by salmon fillet and pasta stuffed with trout. Slovenia is known for its wine and we tasted about five different wines during the evening. To end the meal, we had three different varieties of heavenly Pannacotta. All in a day’s work!

~ The WE! Pilots

Meeting the Queen of Caves, Postojna

Saturday, 25th August 2018

It was Keithair’s youngest sister’s birthday today and both of us were up early to wish her. Bad weather meant there was going to be no flying today, so Mr. Ivo Boscarol, the founder of Pipistrel very graciously arranged a bit of sightseeing for us with his good friend Janja, who happily offered to show us around Ajdovščina. It was 9 am when she arrived at the lobby to pick us up. We headed downstairs where we met Tapan Nandi who was also joining us on the tour.

We were going to visit one of the largest caves in Slovenia which is spread over an area of about 24000 km called Postonja Jama. The drive to the cave was about an hour long and it took us through some beautiful mountains and valleys. We saw all we could of the Slovenian countryside through a heavy downpour.

On reaching the place we realised that we were ill-equipped for this kind of rain so we stopped to buy ourselves some rain jackets.

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The climb from the lower part of the hill to the entrance of the cave was about 15 minutes. We had booked the English version of the Cave Tour which was scheduled to start at 11 am and as we had reached quite early we decided to get some piping hot coffee at the cafe.

Also, since the rains had picked up, the coffee was much needed to set the mood.

We reached the counter a good 10 minutes before the show was about to begin. Talk about being enthusiastic tourists! We were lead to a mini train terminal where we boarded an underground train which took us deep down into the inner chambers of the cave which was roughly 5 km from our present position.


As the train descended further down, the temperature started dropping even more. We started from the highest point of the cave which was 60 m below the surface and were going towards the lowest part which was 120 m further down.

Strange thing is though, according to the tour guide, the temperature inside the cave stays at a constant 10°C throughout.

The cave is roughly three million years old and has three levels, the top level which we started from, the second level where we were going to and then the third level which is not open to the public as the river flows through it and is still carving out passages from walls of the cave.

The best part of the tour were the vibrant colours of the stone structures formed by various mineral deposits over the years. We saw stalagmites and stalactites, many of which have fused over the years to form columns. We saw the red chamber, the white chamber and a man-made chamber before heading up towards the exit, and warmth!


We drove back to Ljubljana for a much anticipated meal at an Indian restaurant called Namaste, as advised by Mr. Jain.


The rains had not yet stopped or even reduced and the temperature had dropped even more. But the only Indian restaurant in Ljubljana was warm and the decor and music transported us back home, especially the beautiful silver Ganpati that welcomed us in.

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We tucked into a delicious lunch which consisted of rice, Dal Tadka, Kadhai Paneer, Chicken Tikka and Garlic Naan. Poor Janja couldn’t handle the spicy Indian food and had a rather tough time with all the heat, while we happily dug into our meal. We ordered some curd rice for her which cooled her down a bit. We topped off our meal with gulab jamun and ice cream!

After a very long time, this was the first time we ate to our heart’s content since we left home.

The rains still showed no signs of stopping, so we aborted all other plans and headed back to our hotel. But we weren’t complaining. It had been a good day.

~ WE! Pilots