Female Pilots Challenge Aviation, Social Norms in Nepal


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KATHMANDU NEPAL – “The sound of the Indian jet plane taking off enveloped me, and I felt the rattling vibrations creep up to my feet,” says Anusha Udas, 22. “As I watched the jet plane ascend in the clear, blue sky with a kind of speed that I had never witnessed before, I knew I was destined to fly. My heart started beating faster, and that for me was the sign – a dream I had to follow.”

Udas was just 15 when she realized she wanted to be a pilot. She was studying in a boarding school in West Bengal, India, when she first saw that jet fly.

Udas is now a co-pilot at Fishtail Air, a local company. But she says she didn’t realize that achieving this dream would require breaking many social barriers and challenging Nepal’s patriarchal social structure.

Udas’ parents wanted her to be a doctor, which she says is a common dream among Nepali parents for their children. They pressured her to enroll in a premedical course before starting an undergraduate program.

Obediently, she did as she was told. But within a week, she says she knew that she did not belong there.

“I knew I would do well as a medical student, but that is not what I wanted,” she says.

She asserted herself and persuaded her father to enroll her in a pilot training school in South Africa. Finally, she was able to pursue her dream.

Men have long dominated the aviation industry in Nepal. Observers attribute this to gender roles embedded into Nepali social structure in which parents prioritize their sons’ educations because they depend on them to take care of them in their old age. The high cost of attending flight school and competition to attain a job make becoming a pilot an even loftier goal. But a growing number of women say they are determined to fly, and men in the industry acknowledge that women are just as capable.

Aviation in Nepal started in the 1950s and was a domain only for men, says Y.K. Bhattarai, a senior captain for Nepal Airlines and president of the Nepal Airlines Pilots Association. While the profession is no longer reserved for men, the numbers still reflect a gender disparity.

Women hold just four of the 205 airport transport pilot licenses that have been issued in Nepal, says Tri Ratna Manandhar, director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, the regulatory body under the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation. Out of the 214 commercial pilot licenses issued by the authority, just 24 belong to female pilots.

Bhattarai says that Prabha Vaidya was Nepal’s first female air traffic controller. He says she also tried to become the nation’s first female pilot but was denied the opportunity because of her sex.

In 1979, a Canadian government agency provided scholarships for 24 Nepali candidates to receive pilot training in Canada. Nepali pilots still must seek training abroad because of the lack of flight schools in Nepal. Vaidya was the lone woman who applied for this scholarship. All 24 candidates selected for the scholarship were men.

“‘We did want Vaidya, but as the only woman in the team, there would have been problems with logistics,’” Bhattarai says the scholarship program coordinator told him informally. "‘Hence, it was not feasible to have her on the team.’"

Vaidya says she would have been just as capable as the male candidates.

“I don’t believe that a woman is inferior to a man,” she says. “If a man can do something, so can a woman.”

Vaidya never went to flight school. Now retired, she serves as an aviation expert for Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation.

Sony Rana became the first woman to get her pilot’s license in Nepal in 1991, Manandhar says. 

“Flying was considered a solo domain of the males ’til the 1990s, when one of the women pilots emerged to challenge the male-dominated cockpit and started flying the Twin Otter of the then Royal Nepal Airlines,” Manandhar says. 

Since then, women have been boldly venturing into the industry. More women are obtaining their pilot’s licenses, and all-female crews sometimes operate domestic flights.

“It was a rare sight to see a woman in a cockpit in earlier times, but now it has become a common sight,” Bhattarai says.

Bhattarai has flown a Boeing 757 alongside Rana, who now has her airport transport pilot license. He says she is a good pilot.

Manandhar says that female pilots can even be better than male pilots.

“Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal has employed two women pilots, who were selected from among more than 100 pilots through open competition,” he says. “It proves that women pilots are not inferior to their male counterparts. In some cases, they are even better.”

Still, Bhattarai acknowledges that there are remnants of gender bias in the aviation industry. He says the word “cockpit” suggests a territory for men.

Many attribute men’s domination of the aviation sector to Nepal’s patriarchal society and deeply ingrained gender roles.

“It is the national culture that encourages women in less adventurous jobs like teaching, banking and the likes, which are considered to be easy and comfortable,” Manandhar says.

The difference in socialization starts at a young age, he says. Girls are groomed to take up household chores and less challenging jobs, while boys are encouraged to take up challenging and demanding professions.

As such, parents are more willing to invest in their sons’ educations.

“Parents are happy and willing to spend money in their daughters’ marriage rather than their education,” says Sabina Shrestha, a captain at Yeti Airlines.

Professor Yagya Prasad Adhikari, executive director of Tribhuvan University’s Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies, attributes this to the social structure in which daughters leaves their homes after marriage but sons remain to take care of their parents.

“Parents expect the son to take care of them at old age,” he says. “This automatically gives more privileges to sons. We are entangled by our own social structure, and the problem is rooted in our society. This has to change.”

Other challenges to becoming a pilot include the cost of education and competition to secure employment in the industry.

Training to become a pilot is expensive, so not many Nepalis can afford it. The program costs approximately $58,000, Udas and Bhattarai say. Yet nearly 70 percent of Nepalis were living on less than $2 a day as of 2010, according to the World Bank.

“Banks do not fund and invest in pilot trainings, and there are no existing scholarships available for pilot training,” Bhattarai says. “Thus, it is only the upper, privileged class who can afford this program.”

Nepal also does not have any pilot training schools because of the high cost of maintaining them. Such facilities need infrastructure and resources, such as aircrafts, navigation systems, flight instructors, ground instructors and fuel.

“We had witnessed a flying training school in Bharatpur, but it had to close down owing to lack of aircrafts and navigation system,” Manandhar says.

Pilots therefore must venture to other countries for training, adding to the cost. Popular destinations for Nepalis to receive training are the Phillippines, South Africa and the United States.

Job security is another challenge in the industry. There are currently 300 unemployed pilots in the country, say Bhattarai, Manandhar and Udas.

Udas says she was unemployed for nine months after returning to Nepal from her pilot training in South Africa in 2009.

“I searched for a job, and it was a very difficult task,” she says. “I even visited some airlines twice. Some said it was not a job for a woman, while others warned me that it was a rough job.”

But these obstacles did not hinder Udas’ ambitions. She is currently a co-pilot at Fishtail Air and has so far completed 140 hours of flying in Nepal.

She is also pursuing a new dream – to become a captain. Her current endeavor is to complete the 1,000 hours of flying required by Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal standards to achieve this goal.