Youngest woman to pilot the Boeing-777, First woman to command an all female cockpit crew, on the longest commercial flight, over the North Pole.
Zoya Agarwal has achieved what almost all girls dream of, and almost none achieve – to fly high in the sky. As an Air India Captain, Zoya became the youngest woman pilot in India to fly a Boeing-777 in the year 2013. And she scripted history yet again in January 2021, when she flew one of the world’s longest air routes between San Francisco and Bengaluru with an all-female cockpit crew, over the North Pole!
According to aviation experts, flying over the North Pole is extremely technical and requires skill and experience. Airline companies send their best and experienced pilots on this route. Which explains why Captain Zoya was the chosen one.
The magical story of Captain Zoya began years back when the eight-year-old Zoya used to sit on her terrace and stargaze for hours, every single night. “I used to sit on top and look upon the sky and the stars. Every once in a while, I would spot a jumbo jet and wonder, ‘Would I ever be able to fly one of them?’.”
Finally she gathered the courage to share her dream with her mother, who promptly burst into unhappy tears. “Her only dream for me was to get married, have children, and settle,” reveals Zoya.
Not one to give up on her dreams so easily, Zoya persevered with passion and determination, and found her way to the prestigious St. Stephen’s college. Seeing her zeal, her parents allowed her to simultaneously pursue aviation studies in the evening. “I burned the midnight oil, shuttling between college studies and aviation studies. Sometimes due to lack of electricity at home, I would complete my studies under the streetlights,” recalls Zoya.
She completed her studies in 2004 when the plethora of low-cost airlines hadn’t entered the market and Air India was the only one flying international. Unbeatable Zoya cleared the pilot entrance exam and earned one of the top 10 vacancies in Air India, wherein more than 2000 had applied. And she has been breaking and setting records ever since.
In 2013, she became the youngest woman to fly the mighty Boeing-777. In 2020, she led the Indian government’s Vande Bharat Mission and brought back 14,000 Indians stranded abroad during the Covid-19 outbreak. And in 2021, she commanded the 16,000 kms flight over the North Pole with 250 passengers on board.
“Being a woman, there were many who doubted my capabilities to triumph in the aviation industry. I’ve converted their ‘impossible’ to ‘I AM POSSIBLE’,” says Zoya.
The flight Zoya commanded had an all female cockpit crew. Speaking about sharing the triumph with other women, she says, “Success speaks louder than gender. It is imperative that as women, we uplift one another and show support because together we are making history, breaking barriers, and creating opportunities for more women to rise in industries such as aviation.”
Ask her peers, and they’ll be quick to tell you that Zoya is a compassionate leader. “My ‘me time’ is giving time to others. This can be in volunteering my time to help support a cause, or providing support in any way I can. Helping others helps me stay positive, and brings me happiness,” shares Zoya.
What else brings her happiness? Working out, she says without a blink. “It’s a win-win. I enjoy my time at the gym, and that in turn keeps me strong and healthy. I also enjoy playing the piano, driving, listening to music and eating – I’m a foodie at heart,” says Zoya.
One look at the lovely Zoya and we disbelieve her love for food right away. With an uncertain schedule, how does she remain on top of her game? She says the secret is to follow a healthy lifestyle on and off the plane: “I make sure that wherever I may be, I feed my mind, body, and soul. I feed my mind with morning meditation, reflexions, and positivity. I feed my body with healthy nutrients, exercise and travel. And I feed my soul by going to the temple. Making sure I fill my spiritual bucket helps me stay grounded and humble.”
In an occupation such as aviation, there are times when sacrifices have to be made, both personally and professionally. Accepting this universal truth, Zoya adds, “Yes I’ve made sacrifices but for me, sacrifice is a word which is very relative. If sacrificing means I get to inspire and change the future of this world, it’s not a sacrifice but a life spent well”.
Zoya’s extraordinary journey is the stuff of dreams, or at least a movie. An inspiration for generations to come, she counts Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Kamala Harris as her inspirations. What inspires a go-getter like her, we wonder? “In my moments of weakness, I look to those who follow my journey. The messages I receive on a daily basis help me go on,” sums up Zoya.