Air India’s Captain Zoya has an impressive reputation. Despite humble beginnings, she managed to overcome many obstacles and pursue her childhood dream of becoming a pilot. Today, she becomes the latest recipient of the AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award for her dedication to duty, her inspirational approach and her support for the next generation of dreamers.
“A story started with eight-year old Zoya pushing me, she’d tell me you can do it, all you’ve got to do is dream it, and I’m so glad that she kept on pushing me, because eight-year old Zoya wanted to go and touch the stars.”
During her remarkable career, Captain Zoya accumulated upwards of 10,000 flying hours and became the youngest woman commander in India to fly a Boeing 777.
On January 9, 2021, Zoya made aviation history and flew one of the world’s longest air routes between San Francisco and Bengaluru with an all-female flight crew. Since then, she has made it her mission to inspire women and young girls who aspire to work in aviation.
“I came from a moderate family where we did not see a lot of money growing up,” she says. “I was an only child growing up in an era where, being a girl, you were expected to focus on your studies, get married, have children and look after your family. That’s what was expected of me.
As early as eight years old, Zoya was fond of stargazing and spent most of her time on the terrace of her house. But young Zoya harbored big dreams.
“I was obsessed with stars. I would see those tiny jumbo jets flying among them and I used to trace their strobe lights. I’d wonder to myself: ‘Zoya, could you ever fly one of those beautiful machines?’. This inner voice was powerful. It wanted to do everything.
“She wanted to go out there and conquer the world. That eight-year-old Zoya was pushing me. She’d say, ‘you can do it. All you have to do is dream it’. That’s where the story started.”
She continues: “I’m so glad that eight-year-old Zoya kept on pushing me because she wanted to touch the stars.”
However, this journey to the stars was an uphill battle, which caused Zoya to confront family stereotypes. Traditionally, young girls in India were expected to assume the role of caretaker and stay-at-home wife and mother. Unfortunately, Zoya also experienced resistance from her teachers, who, despite believing they had the best intentions towards the schoolgirl, did little to nurture her passion for aviation.
To meet the educational requirements needed to become a pilot, Zoya needed to study science in both her 11th and 12th grade classes. Despite being academically minded, Zoya’s teachers still had their reservations – and weren’t shy about expressing them.
As a result, Zoya was urged to focus on arts-based subjects and science was deemed a waste of her time. Zoya’s teachers told her that she was likely to “lead a domestic life” and that she was “unlikely to make it as a pilot” because of her background.
The lack of support from her teachers alongside their attempts to dissuade her from following her dreams, was a distressing experience for Zoya. She felt that the entire system was trying to dictate her fate and define her.
But, as she sat on her terrace and shed a few tears, she experienced a moment of realization.
“I remember listening to the song, Hero, by American singer, Mariah Carey – ‘And then a hero comes along, with the strength to carry on’ – and I realized that same day that I’m going to hear a lot of things in this world, but I have to filter it out. I don’t have to [internalize] every single thing that comes my way. Because if I start doing that, I’ll never be able to achieve my goal.”
This strength of character has since allowed Zoya to overcome her fears and challenge collective stereotypes. Her determination has been integral to her success, leading Zoya to join Air India as the youngest of the first five female pilots employed by the airline.
Zoya reveals: “When I first joined Air India, the percentage of female pilots in India was low. Just 0.0001% were female.”
Globally, just over 5% of pilots are female, according to the Air Line Pilots Association International, whereas in India the figure is 12.4%.
Zoya adds: “Global stats are still far off, and we still have a long way to go, but we want to work together to increase the global satisfaction. Due to the pilot shortage, we’re going to experience a huge demand for pilots over the next few years.”
Unfortunately, many female pilots encounter difficulties when entering the aviation industry.
“Places for female pilots weren’t easily available,” explains Zoya. “As late as 2016, many airlines wouldn’t have considered hiring female pilots. These were leading carriers in the global market. But I think it’s changing now.”
She continues: “Women play a dual role [in society]. We have a profession, yet we also have to manage our homelife with respect to having children. So, when you’re playing the dual role, if we have to go on maternity leave, you are off your work for an extended period of time. And because being a pilot is not like a normal profession where you can work from home or if you go back to work after a long time off, you’re good to go. It’s not a textbook profession. It’s a critical profession where there is no room for error.”
“You’re talking about jets, which cost $375 million. So, for that, to get training and to get recurrent, as far as the training is concerned, it’s expensive for an airline to support a female pilot time and time again. This is why airlines weren’t very welcoming to the idea of employing female pilots to begin with.”
Zoya believes that, unlike many other countries across the world, which did not initially accept female pilots, India was more progressive when it came to equal opportunities for women. But the percentages still remain low because of the family systems and structures in place.
She adds: “A lot of other women also belong to similar cultures where the family support system wasn’t such that would promote their daughters to become a pilot,” explains Zoya. “But, even back then, an airline like Air India was an equal opportunity employer. I’m talking about 17 years back, which is huge.”
“There was a fair amount of sexism, but I think things are changing now. So, I’m really happy about that.”
Becoming a pilot is a huge undertaking. It’s a profession that comes with enormous responsibility and Captain Zoya is keen to point out that roles in the cockpit rely on skill, proficiency and knowledge and have nothing to do with gender of the person occupying the position.
“When you are in the position of a commander or first officer, the chair, the seat does not know who is flying it,” says Zoya. “Whether it’s a boy or whether it’s a girl, it’s a responsibility. It’s a profession and it’s a position that you have to rise to through hard work and dedication. You have to prove yourself because it’s a skill-based profession.”
She adds: “I want our women to come out on top because the statistics right now, what we’re talking about globally is 5 %, we only have 5% of girls across the world who are in aviation as pilots. And out of that number, only 1.24% are captains. This statistic needs to change.”
“We have to all work together as a team. There’s a huge demand in the aviation industry [to attract more pilots by] 2038. To cater to this demand, we need to prepare our future dreamers now.”
AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award
In recognition of her commitment, determination, for her contribution to promoting diversity, equality and inclusion across aviation and for encouraging the next generation of aviators, the AeroTime CEO, Richard Stephenson OBE, was delighted to present Captain Zoya with a coveted AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award. Zoya became the 17th recipient of this award and joins the ranks of other aviation professionals from around the world being recognized for their outstanding and inspirational work.
Stephenson said: “This was one of the easiest decisions our Global Executive has been asked to make and we were fast and unanimous in agreeing to bestow this award. I really do want to congratulate both 8-year old Zoya and the Zoya we all see and admire today, because I think both of them have an awful lot to be proud of and we all have an awful lot to be thankful for. I look forward to seeing what Zoya does next and I know that she will continue to inspire young women, and many others too, as she continues her work with the energy, commitment and enthusiasm that very few people are able to muster. I think we are only just beginning to see the true impact of Captain Zoya and only time will show us the full potential and impact of Captain Zoya.”
Zoya Said “Thank you so much for this! I was not expecting this at all. It’s very heartwarming for me. It’s my pleasure to be able to be on a platform to encourage my future dreamers. I think even if you change one life in this world, you’re doing your part on this planet. We change one life at a time and now I’m so happy to be able to work together with AeroTime to be able to change it more impactfully and to further our reach, because that’s what life is all about, making an impact. To leaving footprints in the sands of time when we are gone. I’m just so touched to receive this award.”