Staying in an exclusive house full of large lizards doesn’t make Captain Shobhamani stand out. Flying 30-45 minutes on short routes over treacherous hills in the Northeast does.
Female pilots are no longer a rarity in India. What’s rare is someone who ferries passengers in her own nine-seater Cessna 208 to more than one destination everyday, touches base to run her firm – North East Shuttles – almost single-handedly and survives on simplistic food from the canteen of the armed personnel guarding Lengpui Airport nearby.
“This is nothing compared to conditions I operated in for six years in Nepal,” says Shobhamani. She had in 2003 co-launched Sita Air in Nepal, dealing with Maoists and flying tourists and pilgrims to the Himalayas. “Landing on poor airstrips without ATC (air traffic control) guidance almost became a habit there,” adds the 40-year-old pilot-entrepreneur. Her schedule also included flying for UN food projects.
But this economics graduate from Osmania University almost did not make it as a pilot, her dream to soar grounded before it could take wings.
In 1991, the Pegasus Flight Training School in Texas, US, declared itself bankrupt. And it took with it several thousand dollars Shobhamani had paid to fine-tune her flying skills and earn a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) license. She was no novice, having glided and flown at the Andhra Pradesh Flying Club since age 14.
Under US bankruptcy laws, a firm gone bankrupt is not obliged to return the money taken from clients, or in this case, students. Shobhamani did not want to approach her father – a Malayali wholesaler of dairy and poultry ingredients settled in Hyderabad – again. So she grabbed the work permit the US government gave all foreign students of that flying school to earn back the money they had invested.
“It was perhaps a blessing in disguise,” she says. She slogged at a Dallas branch of Bank of America, rising to head it in three years. She made money for the bank – and enough for herself to acquire a Federal Aviation Administration license from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Texas. She also acquired an Airframe Maintenance license, and still had something left to buy a stake in Sita Air.
Last year, she decided she had enough of partnering a flying business in a foreign land, sold off her stakes in Sita Air and invested in the $ 2.5 million Cessna to launch North East Shuttles earlier this year. “You need guts to start a flying business in a sector that isn’t lucrative,” says Aizawl-based entrepreneur Linda Chhakchhuak.
Shobhamani’s courage is partly fuelled by the Mizoram government, which provides her a subsidy of 50 per cent on seats that go vacant in a flight. Officials say this arrangement works out much, much cheaper than the ones with Alliance Air and Pawan Hans, entailing subsidies of Rs 37 crore and Rs 13 crore annually.
“I told the government it doesn’t have to shell out this much money. My arrangement is such that the government does not pay a dime when my flight is full. When it isn’t, it ends up paying Rs 1.7 crore at most a year,” she points out. “And the best part is, the government does not need to spend on infrastructure or runway upgrade for the kind of plane I operate.”
Shobhamani’s calculations have appealed to other governments in the Northeast too. Reason why she is set to have a fleet of four aircrafts – a Cessna and two 18-seater Dorniers – by this year-end to operate beyond the Aizawl-Agartala (Tripura), Aizawl-Imphal (Manipur) and Aizawl-Silchar (Assam) routes.
She knows expanding her business would mean more months away from US-based husband Chandan Banerjee and seven-year-old son Aakash, in Darjeeling boarding school. And, of course, a tough haul ahead.
But as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Or is it flying?(An abridged version of this story had appeared in the Hindustan Times)