Hyderabad: For Captain Syeda Salva Fatima, the only woman pilot from Hyderabad’s Old City and among the very few Muslim women to achieve the distinction of having a commercial pilot license, it was not an easy journey to reach the exalted status she presently is in.
Determination, perseverance, diligence and the unwavering zeal to go about her ambition helped her conquer the skies and emerge as a role-model for the next generation of girls to soar high.
Captain Syeda grew up in an economically less stable family being the daughter of a counter salesman in a bakery.
“When I was in the ninth standard, I came across a newspaper report, which stated that in India there were only three women pilots. From that day onwards, I began reading and collecting newspaper articles pertaining to the exciting aviation sector. An inner calling was on why I could not join the league of those three extraordinary women. Seeking divine help, I nurtured ambitions about becoming a pilot.”
Endowed with a gutsy spirit, she survived the roller-coaster ride braving obstacles one too many, to eventually reach a status where she is reverentially addressed as Capt Syeda Fatima, a major conquest for one who began her education in Neo School Aizza in Malakpet and Intermediate (Science) at St. Ann’s Junior College.
Reflecting on the turbulent days and the ups and downs she weathered, she says that when she enrolled in a free Engineering and Medicine coaching institute, she met eminent Urdu editor from the Siasat Group, Mr Zahid Ali Khan. The chance meeting was to change and shape her entire life as it brought her closer to her ambition of flying high. On being asked by the man of erudition about her future plans, her prompt reply was “to be a pilot”.
Impressed by her determination, he began supporting her for which she remains indebted to him. In 2007, Syeda flew for the first time after joining Andhra Pradesh Aviation Academy, now rechristened as TSSA.
The maiden flight
“My maiden flight sitting in the cockpit was an amazing experience. Come to think of it, I had never even boarded an aircraft as a passenger. That added to the thrill, so to say.”
By 2013 Syeda completed her training logging 200 hours on Cessna 152 and 172, including 120 hours of solo flying.
“I had to reckon with critics and their barbs, all along my initial journey. Many said that I was taking on too much and would not make the grade. There were others who told me that being a woman, I had to get married and become homemaker. In short, the prophets of doom predicted that my ambition would never take-off. But it was thanks to the generosity of Khan Sir and his sponsorship that I was able to pay the entire Rs 18 lakh fee.”
Her ambition bore fruit on a momentous day in March 2013, when all of 24 years, Syeda received her pilot licence. Making it doubly delightful was that she got married in the same year. But providence had other things in store for her. She had to stay at home for around two to three years.
“To complete an aviation course in India, one needs at least Rs 1.2 crore,” says Syeda.
In what was a stroke of good fortune, when she was expecting a baby in 2016, the Telangana government learnt about her plight from a newspaper article and how it was affecting her dream. It came forward with a scholarship.
“I got through all the required training by November 2017 and was selected by Indigo in June 2018. I am now working as a junior first officer. When I did multi-engine rating from New Zealand, I took my daughter along with me to be near her as she was only one-year-old. I came of age on Airbus 320 to Bahrain where I took both my daughter and mother. “
Syeda has been appointed as a brand ambassador for a woman empowerment organisation based in Mumbai. She is constantly called to deliver talks in order to motivate young girls.
On stereotypes and sexism in aviation industry and society in general, Syeda said, “Now there is a lot of change in the aviation industry when compared to the initial days. I have four women colleagues from Telangana itself. Today, women pilots account for 13 per cent overall, which, incidentally, is the highest in the world.”
However, she laments the societal take on women in aviation.
“In our culture, there is a belief that you need to be a male to operate an aircraft. Since my parents believed and trusted me, I dared to enter. I told myself that I am not doing anything that I am not supposed to do. The aircraft does not know who is in the cockpit. I personally believe that there should not be any gender discrimination in education, which is the only field where there are only pros and not even a single con.”