Capt. Sonal Verma - Flying a Helicopter Is a Poetic Experience (First Female Commercial Helicopter Pilot From Madhya Pradesh)

Capt Sonal Verma

As a pilot, you should always aim to better yourself every day, but the day you think that you have become a GOOD pilot, you should stop flying.

1. Tell us about your journey?

My name is Capt Sonal Verma. I belong to a middle-class family in a small town called Jabalpur, MP.  I wanted to become a pilot for as long as I can remember. My mom tells me that even as a three-year-old, I would point out to the birds or jets flying in the sky and would want to fly like them.

My parents thought that as I will grow older, I will give up on these child-like fantasies but that never happened. In fact, with age, my belief in dreams only grew stronger. I would really invest myself in my studies, take care of my eyesight, and physical fitness.

There were two main problems in my becoming a pilot. Firstly, we lacked funds...
I visited almost all the banks asking them for education loans. After a long struggle, we could manage a part of it, the rest came from my Dad's PPF and my by selling my mother's jewelry.

And secondly, we had no guidance.

All we came to know about this field was through the trial and error method. From ground schools to medical exams to selecting a good flying school, we knew nothing and had no guidance. As a result, we ended up wasting a lot of time and money. The infamous recession in the year 2008 made things worse. 

After a lot of struggle, I started flying in Nov 2009, in the USA. I earned my FAA license in June 2010 and an Indian license in Nov 2011. Even after that, because of having no contacts, I had to start my career as an Operation Officer with Punjab Government. It was only after four years, I landed my first flying job in Mumbai in 2015. There has been no looking back since then.

2. What qualities make a good pilot and what should one know about this profession?

Gaining expertise comes with Steady Coaching, Much practice, and experience.
Having the ability to lead the whole team towards a safe flight is another important aspect.

In addition, the ability to be calm in distress and to be able to make quick decisions, having a thorough knowledge of the machine, route, and procedures, physical fitness, ability to multitask, having good situational awareness, and the ability to plan well ahead are important qualities to possess as a pilot.

Helicopter flying is way more demanding than most professions. There is no schedule, so you are always on duty.  Flying is mostly to more remote places where even basic facilities (like toilets) are not available. Each landing is different, as they are on random grounds or helipads with vivid terrain having different weather conditions and you have to judge all that yourself, without the support of ground staff or ATC. 

It demands your undivided attention. At the same time, flying a helicopter is a poetic experience. The aerial view of some of the least explored and most beautiful landscapes, flying in valleys, hills, sea coasts, the whole experience soothes you to the core.  In short, you have to have an undying love for flying and uncompromising skills to sustain yourself in this profession.

3. Where did you do your training from and which institute would you recommend?

I  did my flying training in the USA. Unfortunately, there is no Helicopter Flying School in India as of now. Out of all the other countries which provide helicopter pilot training, I would recommend the USA, because, the training has lesser formalities, completes in a shorter period of time and is more result-oriented and effective. Clouds 9, Florida was one of the best flying schools I have come across.

4. What's the best piece of flying advice given to you?

My Flight Instructor  would always say, "As a pilot, you should always aim to better yourself every day, but the day you think  that you have become a GOOD pilot, you should stop flying."

What he meant was, it's ok to be a little nervous about your flight and go through the available data, procedures, and other information over and over, even when ( and especially when) you're an experienced pilot since there is no scope of error and any mistake can have fatal results. 

5. What advice would you pass on to someone who wants to be a helicopter pilot?

You should have a Stubborn belief in your dreams. Because if you have that, no situation will be difficult enough, nobody could be discouraging enough to drag you out of the Flight of your Dreams.

6. What does success look like to you in this job?

I have flown most of the Who's who of the country, including Honorable Home Minister, Honorable Defence Minister, other Union Ministers, and Chief Ministers. I've also flown a lot of celebrities. The smile and satisfaction on their faces after the flight are enough to make my day.

Also, this job enables me to take care of my parents and siblings. I would count my success in terms of the satisfaction of my passengers and the pride and belief my family has in me.

7. Which is your favorite book and why?

My favorite book would be Bhagwat Gita, not because it's a religious text, but because it's a way of life. The book has always helped me in various situations, both personal and professional. Like a tree, the more strongly we are connected to our roots, the higher we can go in life.

8. How do you feel as being the First Female Commercial Helicopter Pilot from your state?

I had to beat a lot of odds to achieve the status I have today, including disbelief of society in a girl-child's ability to achieve something like this. My parents were always discouraged from investing their lifetime earnings in a girl-child. I was told, almost daily, that this profession is not for girls. 

But, becoming the First Female Commercial Helicopter Pilot, I got reassured, that if you are Stubborn enough about your aspirations and do not get let down by people's opinions of yourself, you will see the color of success, for sure.

Capt. Sonal Verma - First Female Commercial Helicopter Pilot from Madhya Pradesh

Interviewed By: Nishad Kinhikar