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Spotlight: Flying without Fear

November 2006
Spotlight: Flying without Fear

While growing up in India back in the ‘50s, Raj Nayar (n�e Mitroo) learned to drive a car by the age of 17. It was a striking achievement for a middle class girl who was born into an orthodox family in pre-independent India. What's truly remarkable, though, is that Mrs. Nayar learned to fly even before she could drive! "With my devotion, at the age of 16, I became the first and youngest girl to go solo in the shortest period of time," she notes.

Her saga as a pioneering female aviator began in Delhi, where her brother-in-law was a senior meteorologist at Safdarjung Airport. While spending weekends and holidays with his family, she would watch Pushpak and Tiger Moth single-engine planes soaring above their house. When she expressed a desire to learn flying, he introduced her to an instructor at the Delhi Flying Club, Captain Jamwal, who in turn suggested that she first learn gliding to get a feel for the controls of a plane. With the captain's timely encouragement—his response was "why not" when asked if women could also learn to fly—she set off on an inspiring journey that took her to high places and distant destinations.

"I used to watch birds fluttering their wings," Mrs. Nayar reminisces. "They became my friends while I soared. In fact when you are up in the air, the glider seems to be a part of you, and high above the earth you feel as if you are away from all worldly worries."

It was the start of a spectacular ride that brought her much recognition, if not riches, and gave her a lot of personal satisfaction. All these years later, it's that sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that she treasures the most. "What you do and where you come from don't matter when it comes to flying," Mrs. Nayar says. "So long as you have the passion to soar like a bird, you can learn to fly."

Mrs. Nayar, who became the youngest Indian woman to go solo, needed only 50 flights to achieve this milestone. Her expertise in gliding won her a scholarship from the Indian government to fly single-engine planes. Between the ages of 25 and 27, some years after she earned an "A" license for flying, Mrs. Nayar set a record for the longest sustained flight in a glider by an Indian woman. Traveling at an altitude of 12,000 feet, she covered a distance of almost 57 miles (Delhi to Panipat, Haryana) in five and a half hours. When she landed on a sports field at a high school for girls, astonished villagers approached her and asked if she was okay. Some wondered if she had run out of "petrol." On hearing that she'd set a record, they congratulated Mrs. Nayar and offered the help she needed to contact her club. "In those days, the cost of one launch in a glider was one rupee (barely a penny), and forty-five rupees (about $1) per hour for power planes," Mrs. Nayar says. "Since I did not want to burden my father financially, I continued gliding as a hobby." Besides being her first love, she could easily afford the one-rupee fee from her own earnings.

Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, was just one of the many celebrated people she met in those days. He had come to India to inaugurate the nation's first hot air ballooning club. Ever ready to take on new challenges, she went up in a balloon with Armstrong and also took him for a ride in her glider. After moving to the U.S. in the ‘90s, Mrs. Nayar adds, she had the pleasure of recalling these events with him. Among others, she met the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to enter space, and Hanna Reitch, a First World War aviator from Germany.

There were more successes for this ace flyer. At the Delhi Gliding Club's annual air display, Mrs. Nayar won trophies from Indian leaders, most notably from Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. In 1965, at the age of 24, she was the only Indian woman to participate in the World Gliding Championships. Earlier this year, she was honored as the first Indian woman glider pilot to hold the records in height, duration, and distance over the last 40 years in India. Fittingly, now that Mrs. Nayar is a U.S. resident, she received the award at the International Forest of Friendship (IFOF) in Atchison, Kansas. It is, after all, the birthplace of Amelia Earhart, America's most famous female aviator. Mrs. Nayar's name is engraved on the memory lane of IFOF. The Wright Brothers, Chuck and Jeana Yeager, Charles Lindberg, Kalpana Chawla, Sally Ride, and Rajiv Gandhi are some of the other names included there.

Despite her achievements, it wasn't just flying that defined Mrs. Nayar's life. "Marriage and two handsome sons made my gliding competition days a thing of the past," she remarks. "The days were filled with being a mother and housewife. I also worked in the audiovisual department of the USIS (United States Information Service) in Delhi. My husband died very young. By virtue of my length of service with the American Embassy, my sons and I were granted special immigration visas." They moved to the U.S. in 1995 and, interestingly, continued to pursue the family tradition in aviation. Viresh and Rakesh, her sons, work at Delta Airlines in Atlanta, and Mrs. Nayar herself had been employed as a senior administrative assistant at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

"In the olden days, women were not considered fit for flying," Mrs. Nayar notes. "But in the modern age, because of the devotion of many women, flying has emerged as a viable profession. If you are motivated and determined, you can succeed. It's great fun to be a flier. You are the master of yourself."

The novelist Erica Jong once wrote a sensational bestseller called Fear of Flying, a title that could act as an inspiration if Mrs. Nayar ever wanted to pen her memoirs. Except, of course, Mrs. Nayar's book would be titled No Fear of Flying or—even better—Flying without Fear.

By Murali Kamma

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