The flying bug bit me when I was in the seventh standard, studying at Don Bosco High School, Matunga, Mumbai.
My father, who had a short spell with the Indian Air Force, was instrumental in nurturing my interest. He gave me his old books to read -- they covered most aspects of elementary flying. Keeping my ultimate goal -- that of becoming a commercial pilot -- in mind, I opted for the science stream and pursued my 10 + 2 with physics and mathematics, which is the minimum educational qualification required to obtain a Commercial Pilot License (CPL).
I passed my HSC with a first class, and was looking forward to start my flying lessons. At this stage, my mother intervened. She was initially not too supportive of my career choice because of her phobia of flying (which she has now bravely overcome), and insisted I finish my graduation and obtain a BSc degree before I pursue pilot training.
On hindsight, I think this was a good move; I was quite young and jobs were extremely difficult to come by in those days. One needed a back-up degree in case things didn't work out in the right direction. I reluctantly pursued my studies, and graduated in 2000 as a physics major.
Now came the real issues.
The cost of obtaining a CPL was quite prohibitive. Even in 2001, it was upwards of Rs 8,50,000, not counting additional expenditures like boarding and lodging, books, tuition fees, the cost of medical exams, travelling and license fees. All this, along with a multi-engine endorsement, went upwards of Rs 12,00,000.
If you wanted to become a pilot, you needed strong financial backing, either from your parents or a wealthy relative. Otherwise, you needed to take a loan, which was very difficult to obtain then. Today, a trained pilot can easily find a job; back then, they were scarce. No one wanted to risk so much money funding someone whose chances of employment were so slim.
Then came the slog.
First, you cleared your Class II medicals with a Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) appointed local doctor. Then you had to obtain a Class I initial medical clearance from the Air Force Central Medical Establishment (AFCME) in Delhi, or the Institute of Aviation Medicine (IAM) Bangalore.
Choosing a good flying institute is of vital importance.
In 2001, when flying was least perceived as a career option that did not lead to a job easily, here I was searching for a good flying school in India to spread my wings. Choices were plenty; entry, easy. They wanted your money, and you wanted their co-operation and expertise.
I chose to enrol in the Madhya Pradesh Flying Club (MPFC), Indore. They had six aircraft -- five Cessna 152s and a Cessna 172 -- a chief flying instructor (CFI), a pilot instructor (PI), three assistant pilot instructors (APIs), and only 11 students. Flying was possible around the year as the weather was benevolent, though we had to battle extreme spells of heat and cold.
I obtained my Student Pilot License (SPL) and registered myself as a student at the MPFC, starting my training in January of 2001.
Nine months prior to my training, my dad had loaded our computer at home with the Flight Simulator 2000, a simulated flight gaming software. Though the simulator is just a virtual game, it exposes the wannabe flier who has never seen the inside of a cockpit to a lot of instruments and procedures, including getting used to R/T (radio transmissions), setting VORS (very high frequency omni directional range), intercepting radials, and learning about various approaches and let-down procedures. Though the Flight Simulator can never compare to the real thing, it gives good reference lessons to a beginner.
Coming back to the training at the flying club -- initially, it was slow. Till my first solo flight, that is -- a day no pilot, however senior, will ever forget. A treasured moment frozen in time. I took to the skies like a duck to water -- it was what I was born to do.
Then onwards, training moved faster but depended upon the availability of serviceable aircraft and the whims of the CFI.
Next came the clearing of my Private Pilot License (PPL) papers, after 60 hours of flying. Exams are conducted every three months by the DGCA on an all-India basis, covering various aviation subjects for all pilot licenses.
The next stage was completing another 200 hours of flying, which included cross-country flying, instrument flying, night flying, simulator training and simultaneously doing flight checks with the CFI.
The training became more gruelling -- flying under varied weather conditions, and appearing for CPL papers covering subjects such as aero engines, navigation, meteorology, air regulations, and technical specifics of the aircraft, all of which are rather vast and tough to clear.
In the midst of all this 9/11 happened, sending the aviation world into a spin and a slump. This also meant getting additional police clearances. Running to Delhi for FRTO (flight radio telephony operator), RTR (radio telephony restricted) and medical clearances are all part of the harrowing exercise towards obtaining a CPL.
Finally, after one year and six months, I completed my training and obtained my coveted CPL license in June of 2002.
Then I moved on to the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi (IGRUA) in Rae Bareilly to get a multi-engine endorsement on the King Air C-90 twin turbo-prop aircraft. This took another three months in gruelling heat to complete. Just 25 extra hours of flying here that cost me an additional Rs 2,45,000!
Fortunately, as soon as I was done with my twin-engine training, I got some additional experience flying as a stand-in co-pilot on the King Air C-90 for a corporate company whose co-pilot had gone on leave. I logged around 30 additional hours there. And then came the most daunting point in my career -- in a market where trained pilots were still looking for jobs at the ages of 40 and 45, I started my hunt for a permanent job.