Thamarakulam is a sleepy village in the Onattukara region in Alappuzha district of south Kerala. Finding her way through the large paddy fields and playing around the numerous coconut trees, it was in this village that Gargi Antharjanam, the first women pilot from the Namboothiri community, grew up.
Gargi is the only daughter of Harikrishnan Namboothiri, a temple priest, and Sreelatha. By tradition, Namboothiri girls stay away from adventurous jobs like being a pilot. Usually, they are encouraged to become doctors or engineers. But right from the time she was in school, Gargi was interested in flying. “During my plus two course, two of my close friends had described a plane journey they had undertaken,” she says. “They teased about whether I would ever get inside a plane. Later, they urged me to become a pilot.” After her higher secondary examinations, suggestions started pouring in from parents, relatives, teachers and friends about her career. “Many suggested that I become a doctor,” she says. “But I had made my mind. I wanted to become a pilot. I had to work hard very hard to convince my parents and relatives about it. Finally, they gave the permission.”
At that time Gargi was unaware about the process to get admission. Through the Internet she came to know that the Pilot Aptitude Battery Test (PABT) was the entrance examination for the Rajiv Gandhi Aviation Technology (RGAT) course in Thiruvananthapuram. “For the PTBT, I underwent coaching classes at Presidency College, Charumoodu, near my native place,” she says. “I sat for the exam in 2008 and achieved the 23rd rank. But admission was given only for the first 20 ranks.”
One of Gargi’s friends, Geetha, who was working at RGAT, told her she could join the Rajiv Gandhi Aviation Academy (RGAA) in Hyderabad. “I joined RGAA and trained as a student pilot from 2008-10,” says Gargi. It was there that she met Captain Shane, a Malayali, who was a flying instructor, and would play a role later in her life.
Gargi faced a lot of difficulties at RGAA. “Apart from the tough syllabus, I had to face hardships in the form of physical training and ragging,” she says. “At the same time the language was also a problem. I was fluent in Malayalam, while the theory classes were conducted in Telugu and Hindi.” During the 18 month course, she had to complete 200 hours of flying, but managed only 40 hours because of bad weather and other factors. “That shattered my dream and I returned home,” she says. Gargi spent six months at home. Then Captain Shane called her and told about the Asian Academy of Aeronautics in Maldives. “Once again, my dreams of becoming a pilot blossomed,” she says. “After seeing the facilities in the school, I joined it to continue my pilot training. I started attending theory classes and flying lessons for obtaining a Private Pilot License.” The most eventful day in Gargi’s life was when she flew her first solo. This is a major event in the career of a pilot. The pilot gets to fly the aircraft on his own without the instructor by his or her side. “During my first flight, one of the pilots of the Maldivian airlines appreciated my smooth landing through the aircraft radio,” she says. In due course, Gargi obtained her Private Pilot License (PPL). “I had the honour of undergoing the flight test under Head of Training, Captain Surenjan De Silva, an experienced professional pilot,” she says. “With this license, I can carry passengers for leisure, but not for money.” Right now Gargi is doing the Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL). “On obtaining this, I will be eligible to be a Captain or Commander of an aircraft provided I complete 1,500 hours of flying,” she says.