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Shattering boundaries and stereotypes in aviation and motor racing, Sneha Sharma’s extraordinary background was informed by a fascination with speed. Going against the odds, Sharma has carved out an impressive career in India, a country that boasts the highest number of female pilots in the world.

Sneha Sharma is fanatical about speed. It’s a passion that began at the young age of 14 and has played an integral role in shaping her career. Sharma now works as a captain at low-cost airline IndiGo, which is the largest airline in India by passengers carried and fleet size. Impressively, she has also amassed over 5000 flying hours. 

But Sharma’s achievements don’t stop at aviation. She is also a racing driver who competes in the Formula 4 National Racing Championship and the first Indian woman to win an international racing championship, with 40 race appearances under her belt before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the sport to pause.

Sharma’s background is demonstrative of a love for machinery. But it may be surprising to learn that her interest in aviation was born at sea, rather than in the sky. As a young girl, Sharma spent a great deal of time sailing on a ship with her father who serves as a captain in the Merchant Navy.

“Ever since I was young, I’ve loved machines,” she says. “I was inspired by equipment such as radars, maps, charts and also just traveling in general. When sailing, I would just look up at the sky and, when you're in the middle of the sea, you don't see much. But among the stars there’d be one light that would be moving and that was an aircraft. It was then that I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to fly an airplane.”

It wasn’t long before Sharma boarded her first flight and fell in love with the adrenaline rush that accompanies a takeoff. Soon, her passion for aviation was sealed but the path to securing her dream career was filled with obstacles. However, these setbacks simply served as more fuel for the fire and instilled Sharma with a fierce determination.

“Hardships just make you want something more,” she says. “When someone is deprived of the chance to reach a goal, they want it even more. That was how it was for me.”

Facing criticism and finding balance

In the early stages of her aviation and racing career, Sharma was faced with opposition from those who didn’t support her ‘unconventional’ choice of profession.

“My family was pro-flying, but they were not so pro-racing,” says Sharma, which was an opinion that extended to her community who also believed that because she was a girl, it was unwise for her family to invest in her dream and send her to flight school.

Despite these setbacks, Sharma forged ahead and used the opposition she faced as an incentive to reach her goal. As someone who believes that pressure helps her to perform better, Sharma balanced her pilot studies in the US with racing and made sure to utilize every second of the day.

She adds: “I would carry my books on the racetrack and study between sessions. “

At times, Sharma’s determination and commitment to aviation and racing was tested. She had to deal with societal expectation and issues when living with multiple people alongside the added pressure of funding her pilot training. However, out of all these challenges, her own health posed the biggest threat to her career.

“There were difficulties,” she admits. “I experienced injuries while racing and flying.”

Sharma also describes the unique effects of pressurization on the human body and how, ultimately, this pushed her to the brink.

“When we fly, we have pressurization cycles, which your body goes through,” she explains. “If you do up to four sectors a day, then your organs and muscles become exhausted.

“If you go to the gym and try to work out, you become extremely strained. So, there were times when I thought: ‘yes, I don't think I'll be able to do these two together and I should probably give up’. I think that you just feel that way sometimes. But when you wake up the next morning, you're at it all over again.”

She adds: “Initially, there wasn’t a lot of support for my racing. But, later on, more people came on board, including my airline, IndiGo, who became sponsors and, eventually, it all worked out.”  

 
 

Changing stereotypes and building what you love

Unfortunately, we live in a society dominated by male opinion and constructs around gender can often be a barrier for women and girls when picking a profession. But Sharma believes that such restrictions shouldn’t exist, and that gender shouldn’t play a role in deciding your future. Instead, it should simply be a case of choosing what you love to do and then carving out your own path in the field.

“That's what I try to do with racing and flying,” she says. “There are a lot more women in aviation today. Recently, I was glad to find out that India currently has the highest number of women pilots in the world.

“But there is a quite a bit of sexism because there are some major airlines in the country that do not recruit women pilots.”

However, despite these social barriers, Sharma believes that women are beginning to grow in confidence and take on more leadership roles.

“Today, I see a great improvement, especially in aviation where we find that there are more and more women taking on the roles of captain, first officer and there’s even an all-female cabin crew.”

Sharma also highlights that female success is often achieved against the odds. So, does she believe that success demands far more from women than their male counterparts?

“I agree that it takes more from a woman mentally and sometimes physically. For example, increasing your physical strength,” says Sharma. “But this motivates me to work extra hard on my fitness.”

She continues: “When I started racing, I would most often be the only girl on the track, and this is one of the few sports in the world that allows men and women to compete on the same platform. Some drivers don’t like losing to a girl, so they would try to hit my car and push me off track. I’d also receive some hateful comments.

“But while my helmet is on, I try to tell myself that I'm not a man or a woman. I'm a racing driver. I also try to have that attitude when I fly.”

 
 

A need for speed

Sharma’s flying experience also helps her to prepare for a race. The international motor racing champion and IndiGo captain reveals that she is inspired by movies such as the 2013 biographical sports film, Rush, which centers on the Hunt–Lauda rivalry between two Formula One drivers, the British James Hunt and the Austrian Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula 1 motor-racing season. Lauda takes up flying at the end of the movie and reveals that its disciplines helped him in his career as a racing driver.  

“Possessing good knowledge of a machine is essential for a pilot. It’s the same thing that helps me with racing knowledge discipline,” explains Sharma. “You need to know all the rules, ensure that safety comes first and not be reckless on the racetrack. This mindset helped me in racing, where I have to make quick decisions and employ quick reflexes, and it also helped me when it came to flying. Both are similar in the way that there are powerful machines.

“However, they do differ. With flying, you are ensuring that a powerful machine stays within its limits. But in racing, I'm pushing that powerful machine to, and sometimes beyond - sometimes even to the point of smoking up my tires.”

So, does Sharma believe she has a need for speed? 

“I would agree that I might be called a speed demon,” she says. “Before I got into racing and go-karting, I was into cycling, I began with a sport cycle and I would ride really fast on the streets. Speed was just inherent and, somehow, this led me to start racing and flying. The racing came first, and the flying followed. But I love both.”

As an IndiGo pilot, Sharma operates routes to the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Istanbul from India on the Airbus A320. However, she’s also set her sights on getting in the pilot seat of a fighter jet and would also like to become a trainer for the Airbus.

 
 

“I hope to become a trainer,” she says. “I already have a total of approximately 5000 hours, and I need another 500 to become an Airbus trainer. I also hope to race the F3 once the borders reopen. I've already driven the F3 simulator.”

She adds: “I'm also creating some standard videos and performance guides for car companies as well as being involved in a few talks. And, hopefully, I’ll be able to travel more.”

You can follow her racing and flying careers on her Instagram: @snehasharma52