01 Sep 2022
The Ninety-Nines, Inc. : Empowering Women Pilots Since 1929
I wanted to be an Airline Pilot since a very young age. In the late 1970s, I started gliding lessons after being refused admission to the Delhi Flying Club, as I was only 15 years old. One day while speaking to my neighbor, an Airline Pilot, he suggested I meet his friend and colleague, India's first Commercial female Pilot, Ms. Prem Mathur, who lived close by in New Delhi. I often rode my bicycle to her home, and she would regale me with stories of her flying days at Allahabad and Deccan Airways, always mesmerizing me.
After that, I was introduced to Indian Airlines' first woman Aircraft Maintenance Engineer, Miss Bhuvan Gupta, and also to Capt. Saudamini Deshmukh, who had recently joined Indian Airlines as a Pilot.
In 1965, a delegation of American women pilots, led by Isabelle Mcrae of ElCajon Valley Chapter, of The Ninety-Nines Inc., visited Bombay. This was the first time women in India met international women Pilots. The then International President, Lois Feigenbaum, helped form the India Section of the 99s in 1976. From Saudamini, I learned about The Ninety-Nines, Inc She had received a scholarship from them to complete her Commercial Pilots training in the US. I joined this organization in 1983 and have been associated with it since then.
The Ninety-Nines is an international organization of women pilots. It is named The Ninety-Nines because, in 1929, a group of 99 female pilots met in New York under the leadership of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. The objective was to create an organization supporting and nurturing women's interests in aviation while carrying forward the legacy of women aviators.
Roles And Responsibilities
The organization's ultimate goal is to uplift women in aviation and, more specifically, flying. This is accomplished through mutual support, sponsorships, mentorship, and scholarships. One highlight is the Professional Pilots Leadership Initiative (PPLI), where I have also been a mentor. In this leadership initiative, women pilots can apply to PPLI, and if selected, they will be matched to work closely with a mentor for a period of 6 months. The mentor will provide full support to the mentee in achieving the goals that she had set when applying to participate in this program.
Another important objective of The Ninety-Nines is to preserve the history of women pilots It owns two museums - the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum (AEBM) in Atchison, Kansas, and the Museum of Women Pilots (MWP) at our headquarters in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma The India Section will similarly undertake a project to preserve the rich history of our Indian women pilots.
Most of us would be unaware of the first Indian female Commercial pilot, Miss Prem Mathur, who started flying in the early 1930s and received her license in 1957. She, along with many others, is standing strong between us to tell their story. It is essential that we document it, or else we will lose this part of history, their struggles, and how their actions made Indian aviation into what it is today.
Joining the Movement
For women pilots who are already flying, I believe that it's time for them to pay it forward. Women pilots can share their stories of success, trials, tribulations, and how they achieved their dreams. Every Ninety-Nines member is a role model, ambassador, and face to reckon with; young girls and boys need to see these role models. Hence we are encouraging women who will bring aviation closer to home.
It's surprising that even today, many Indian families are misinformed about this profession. It is our duty as a community to eliminate these apprehensions, and hence we need women who are flying. Still, we need to dialogue and spread aviation awareness.
Women pilots in India will get to meet other women pilots across the globe and mutually benefit from each other's experiences All our members are pilots Glider pilots, Airline Pilots, Flying School Instructor Pilots, Helicopter Pilots, pilots from NASA, rocket commanders, F-16 pilots, military pilots, seaplane pilots, pilot grandmothers, and youngsters Ages 15 to 100 years, that's the range of our pilot members We are headquartered in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (US), but we all are connected through various mediums and have a friendship that will and has lasted a lifetime.
Sections, Chapters, and Work
The Ninety-Nines has a team of over 6700 women pilots from 44 different countries. Just like the world is divided into different sections geographically, the organization is also divided into different sections based on regions or countries. These sections are further divided into chapters, each with at least five members. The chapter works independently, under the leadership of the chapter chair, and collectively, the chapters in a region are led by a Section Governor.
Historically, sections outside of North America have not established chapters due to smaller membership numbers. Likewise, India doesn't have any branches. At the recently concluded annual conference in Charleston, South Carolina (US), it was suggested that the India section too could look into having different chapters, based on the location of its members, But I think. Still, at this juncture, we are better off as one section because chapters will divide the members, which won't be practical for our small 40-member team.
Our work is mainly spreading aviation education and awareness, and it's been like this since the time I joined the organization in 1983. I would go with my children to their school and speak to the students. This was explicitly important in those days, because, unlike the internet today, there was no way for the students to know about it till someone spoke with them. The Ninety-Nines believed "if you can see it, you can be it," which motivates us to meet and influence the young mind, to show them what possibilities may lie ahead of them.
The organization awards several scholarships annually through the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship Fund (AEMSF); some are open for international pilots. Most of them require the applicant to be a member for at least one year in a particular Ninety-Nines section/chapter and to demonstrate her contributions by attending meetings and participating in section/chapter activities.
These scholarships are for type ratings, meaning beneficiaries can go for an Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 endorsement, helicopter ratings, advanced ratings, seaplanes, emergency procedures, and various others. They can span from the first private pilot certificate through different ratings and certificates.
The last date to apply for the AEMSF scholarships is the section scholarship chair forwards December 31st. Shortlisted applications to the International AEMSF Trustees at the International level The AEMSF Trustees are assigned with the task of sifting through the hundreds of applications to determine who's in the most financial need of and best qualified for a scholarship Factors that determine the selection process are: What is the reason to receive a particular scholarship What does the applicant want to achieve What are her career goals?
We grant between 20-30 scholarships per year. I recently spoke to a girl in Kathmandu, who received a scholarship for an Airbus 320 type rating. She can now enroll for the course, and the money will be wired directly to the organization conducting the type rating training.
How are we funded?
Internal and external donations fund our organization. After being a member for almost 40 years, I opted to purchase a life membership. The annual membership fee is US$ 44 for overseas pilots. To become a life member, we pay a more significant sum that is scaled, based on one's age. This amount could range from a few hundred dollars (older members) to a few thousand (younger members).
I can happily say that I have received a lot of friendships from this organization, I made the best of friends, and it's time for me to give back. When people like us contribute funds, the AEMSF invests them into a fixed deposit earning them a certain amount of interest. This interest is then used to pay for the awarded AEMSF scholarships.
We also organize an annual conference where we raise funds. We have a lot of generous donors, mainly from the US and Canada. With my appointment to the International Board of Directors, we have a platform in India, and I hope to see more donations from here.
In the past, we worked in tandem with the Indian Women Pilots Association, which has now diversified into various fields of aviation. The IWPA is a trust and a non-profit organization, and because of limited funds, they could only give out scholarship loans that need to be returned at a future date. With the formation of The Ninety-Nines as a separate entity in India, we are ready to work independently and form our own trust. Once the trust is created, it will help us set up our funds, and we will be able to receive donations from big firms. We also plan to collaborate with OEMs like Boeing and Airbus to support us in our endeavors.
International Board of Directors
The International Board of Directors has four officer positions – President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer – along with 4 Directors, plus the Immediate Past President. Being one of the 9 is a matter of massive achievement for me, and the Indian community. An Indian has been elected to the 99s International Board of Directors after 40 long years. As an International Director, I have been assigned 3-4 committees to work with, the first one being the AEMSF Trust. I have to attend at least three other meetings besides the India section, so I will often travel to the US and a couple of other destinations in the coming months. This shows that the International Board is interested in looking after the different Sections and understanding what they do. All this means a lot of responsibility and an opportunity for the Indian section to shine and lead the way.
Women In the Indian Aviation Scene
Women have been flying as airline pilots in India since 1966 (Capt. Durba Banerjee), and thankfully, the ecosystems have evolved to allow girls to slip into this role more efficiently. The one thing I'm most worried about is the mindset of the people. Some families still won't allow their children to be a pilot. Parents need to be counseled to let their children follow their dreams.
When I wanted to start flying in the late 1970s, my parents never questioned my belief. I was never told that this profession is for men. Because I didn't experience this 50 years back, it surprises me when I hear about it now. Our job is to educate our children so they can make sound, informed decisions. This way, the children learn to become independent, and the parents don't need to become overbearing.
In the last 40 years of my airline career, I have seen women break all stereotypes In Airlines; from single digits, now we are hundreds of women pilots in each airline, and growing The confidence of both the woman as a pilot and her male counterpart to accept her as a pilot has gone up by leaps and bounds Women are more confident and comfortable. Their colleagues are taking women more easily. Discrimination and harassment against women have declined. Earlier, we were sometimes called aggressive. Still, with time, this is slowly changing to being assertive Female pilots today are not just contented to be the Captain. Instead, we see them in more engaging roles of trainers, examiners, executive directors, and flight safety chiefs.
What Improvements can be made?
Our industry needs to have better maternity policies for women. When I joined the airline, there was no maternity policy or leave at all. The maternity policy was formulated in the early 1990s. Airlines may like to provide a facility for daycare centers and creches where young toddlers and children can be looked after. New pilot mothers can also be given ground jobs for some time after the baby's delivery to look after the infant. Some airlines have a good policy where they allow mothers to be on maternity leave for a few months, and they also assist with rostering them with short flights after that. These small and thoughtful steps go a long way in keeping these young mothers happy and contented.
Family support, especially from the spouse, is vital. Flying is quite a stressful profession, and when the family pitches in, it will go a long way toward a stable career.
An ultimate dream of mine is to see young girls and women join space organizations.
It's been a beautiful journey for me. I started very young and became the youngest woman pilot in the world to command a passenger jet aircraft at the age of 26. Throughout my career, with Indian Airlines and Air India, I got the opportunity to fly the best aircraft to every corner of the world. I was also privileged to be on the world's first All Women's Crew flight.
From Fokker Friendship F27 as a co-pilot, I transitioned to a captain on Boeing B737, Training Captain on Airbus A300 and A330, and Type Rated Instructor on Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
I joined as a trainee pilot in 1984 and superannuated as the Executive Director of Flight Safety & Chief of Flight Safety, Air India in 2021. And I take pride in the fact of having had an unblemished accident and incident-free safety record.
My heart fills with gratitude to see my children follow in my footsteps. They have seen their mother work hard, receive accolades, face difficult situations, struggle through life, and maintain a work-life balance.
From my mother, I learned to be resilient and persevering. My father taught me to be truthful, honest, and sincere. These are my strengths and have carried me through all the ups and downs of my life. Dedication, Determination, and Discipline – the 3 Ds help me cruise through life.
During my Airline career, I indulged in many sports and outdoor activities. I played Golf, swam extensively, learned photography, and practiced Iyengar Yoga. I enjoy hiking. I climbed Mt. Fuji and trekked in the Himalayas. Only being I have done wing-walking (walking on a Bi-plane's wing, while in flight), sky-diving, and I'm also a PADI-qualified deep sea diver. And I look forward to various adventures unfolding in my retired life.
This Article was first published in the September 2022 edition of the 100 Knots Magazine.