Captain Shivani Kalra became a household name when she flew a plane with 249 students stuck in war hit Ukraine back to the safety of their homes in India. The poster girl of ‘Operation Ganga’, Captain Kalra became a Global inspiration for girls ‘who dared to dream’.
“We landed to deafening cheers and claps from the students and their families, the loudest being my parents!” she recalls fondly. It was Shivani’s parents who steered her course in life. “After school, most kids look forward to college life. But I was different in the sense that while I cherished my school life, I was now ready for the outside world. I wanted to do something exceptional. I thus asked my parents for suggestions for they know me best.”
At a time when women pilots were a rarity, Shivani’s father showed her an article on aviation as a career option. Next thing he knew, she was enrolled at the Delhi Flying Club! Forever grateful to her parents for letting her fly, literally and figuratively, she says, “Parents play a great role in making us who we are. It is only our family who loves us without expectations.”
Young and raring to go, Shivani soon obtained her commercial pilot license (CPL). However, her dream of flying crashed in the global economic recession. In what turned out to be a very challenging time for aviation – business dwindled, pilots lost their jobs, and the sector suffered huge losses. Not one to surrender and give up hope, Shivani dabbled in whatever work came her way – anchoring, events, stage management, etc. It didn’t take long for the naysayers to turn up and say, ‘Aviation to ab choot gaya’, ‘You should get married’.
“Once you start flying, it is difficult to settle on the ground. Flying changes you as a person and broadens your horizon,” exclaims Shivani. Once the market regained and aviation started opening up, she did not waste any time studying and preparing to reach for the skies.
It’s been more than four years now that Shivani has been flying high with Air India. Instead of a damsel in distress, she has been the Queen of Evacuation during the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. In what will go down in history, Shivani’s family was preparing for her brother’s wedding when she received the call for evacuation. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said yes, and brought back 249 Indian students who had made their way from Ukraine to Romania and Hungary. “I was overwhelmed,” she says of the experience. What kept her going, we ask her? “Belief in myself. Once my heart is set on something, I achieve it without ever giving up,” she answers.
Ask her about being a woman pilot in a man’s world, and she’s quick to shoot you down. “It is so cliched that your achievement is looked upon with shock just because you’re a woman. Aviation was once a male dominated field, but the percentage of women in global aviation has risen to 12% and in India, 15%. It is not that we have not been let in, we just haven’t tried enough. The world has changed completely! Women have made a mark in every field. I want to say to women everywhere – push yourself and dream bigger.”
An inspiration and motivational speaker, Shivani credits her success to heredity and all the strong women in her family, especially her mother. “Honestly, being a pilot is not easy. There is no set clock. Yet, we have to be fit – eat healthy, workout, have strong mental health, and clear the yearly medical exams. I have missed so many family celebrations. My entire family has to adjust to my profession, and this wouldn’t be possible without my parents who are on hand every hour of the day.”
Summing up her passion, Shivani says, “Honestly, I didn’t even know I could dream so big. But I’ve realised that when you really want something, you will find a way, no matter the cost. My true passion is – setting a goal, achieving it, and then giving myself a bigger goal. This is only the beginning of what you will see of me, there is a lot more coming up. My desire for achievement will never stop.”