The Early Flight

Five decades ago,while most other women were conforming to the norms of society,Rabia Futehally chose a different path.

Written by Zaira Arslan | New Delhi | Published: August 19, 2012 1:25:30 am

Five decades ago,while most other women were conforming to the norms of society,Rabia Futehally chose a different path.

Five decades ago,while most other women were conforming to the norms of society,Rabia Futehally chose a different path. Spurred on by the fact that her two brothers were learning how to fly,she asked her father to enroll her into the Bombay Flying Club (BFC).

“One day,all the men in my family got together and decided to learn to fly,my brothers,my father,and my husband,” says the 77-year-old. “I started to feel left out because my brothers and I would always do things together. Once they started,they would talk of nothing but flying,so I asked my father if I could fly too.” Even though she had a young baby to look after,Futehally enrolled at the Bombay Flying Club (now at the Juhu Aerodrome) and began flying with her husband and brothers. “I used to give my nine-month-old daughter to my mother to burp and rush out to keep my appointment at the Flying Club,” she says with a laugh.

But not everyone was as supportive as her immediate family. Other members of the family,for instance,called it madness and would question why she felt the need to fly. If she lost her life in an accident,who would bring up the baby,they would ask. “You have a baby,you should be responsible,they told me,” she says. Her husband defended her staunchly. As for the questions of safety,her father was there to answer them. “My father was an engineer and a very competent one at that,” she says. “He told us that the engineering department at the Bombay Flying Club was excellent and you wouldn’t find one with a better safety record.” Thus began her flying career.

As a tribute to this illustrious career,she was recently inducted into the International Forest of Friendship,an organisation that was formed in 1976 in Atchison,Kansas,US,and is described as “a living,growing memorial to the world history of aviation and aerospace”. Futehally was recognised for her contributions to international women’s aviation and civil aviation in India.

Back in the day,contrary to what one might think,the men at the Bombay Flying Club were never concerned about having a woman in their midst and the instructors were helpful. “About 20 years later,I met a man who was apparently at the Club when I was there,but we didn’t know each other back then. He told me that because I was able to do my solo in about 11 hours while most of the men took about 20-25,it became a big burn for some of them. Despite that,there was never any malice,” she says with a smile.

Interestingly,Futehally,and the rest of her family,never flew for remuneration. Flying was never Futehally’s profession. After her father introduced her to the Bombay Flying Club in 1962,she was given an orientation flight,as was the norm. She completed her medical test and began training in a twin-seater aircraft,the Piper PA-18. She got her A license — and a year later,she got a Private Pilot’s License (PPL) — allowing her to do everything anyone with a Commercial Pilots License (CPL) could do,except fly for remuneration. So,from 1962 to 1965,she shuttled between her home and the Club,flying for an hour or two now and then.

In 1965,things began to change. An American woman,Isabelle McCrae,paid a visit to the BFC. At that time,besides Futehally,there were two other women members of the BFC,but none knew that the other existed. McCrae spotted Futehally flying in a sari and struck up a conversation with her. “Isabelle McCrae came up to me and started talking to me,” says Futehally. “She told me about an organisation in America called the Ninety-Nines,which was inaugurated in 1929.” Founded in New York for women pilots,the organisation had originally invited all 117 women licensed pilots in the United States to join,but only 99 turned up and the organisation was then named the Ninety-Nines.

McCrae’s visit finally brought together Chanda Budhabhatti,Mohini Shroff and Futehally,all the women pilots of the BFC. “In 1962,there was no way of sitting down and chatting with boys so we used to do our jobs and run home,” says Futehally,explaining why the three women had never met before that. After that,however,they kept in touch and,in 1967,they founded the Indian Women Pilots’ Association (IWPA),which has since served as a backbone for women pilots in the country. The employment of Captain Saudamini Deshmukh,who was hired by Indian Airlines in 1980 was because of the IWPA,which pushed for her to be accepted on the grounds that a competent pilot could not be discriminated against because of gender.

In the 45 years since its formation,the IWPA has been instrumental in not only helping women pilots find jobs as in the case of Deshmukh,but also in introducing women pilots from around the world to each other,thereby forming a strong global association. In 1999,Futehally and a colleague from the IWPA travelled to America and were hosted by members of the Ninety-Nines —— with whom the IWPA has always worked closely — who took them around and gave them the opportunity to fly across the country.

Although Futehally was not the first woman pilot in India (JRD Tata’s two sisters,Lady Dinshaw Petit and Rodahben Sawhney,flew with him back in 1928),she was a pioneer who has inspired many after her. “It’s very thrilling to meet younger pilots who tell you that you have been an inspiration to them,” she says. “In those days,even though flying was my passion,I would question whether I should be doing something else like singing or dancing,so now when people say that I have helped,it feels very good indeed,” says Futehally,who is also an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Kathakali dancer.

It has now been close to 15 years since Futehally stopped flying,but her involvement with aviation continues. Although the three founding members of the IWPA are no longer office bearers in the organisation,they continue to be on the committee and attend meetings. In addition,Futehally is also on the managing committee of the Bombay Flying Club and often attends their meetings.

Her three daughters have also dabbled to different extents in flying,but Futehally says,“They love to fly,but don’t want to do it as a career because they’re more interested in other things.” But for Futehally,the memories of the sky still hold strong.

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