‘Flying as a hobby is an expensive affair’

Gul Panag

Juggling multiple roles — of a wife, actor, mother, entrepreneur, activist, pilot — with finesse, the very idea of Gul Panag is a little intimidating and a lot inspiring. 

Her love for machines is also well-known, a fact proved by how garrulous she becomes when you mention flying. With Aero India 2019 here, Rajitha Menon of DH spoke to the former Miss India about her tryst with the skies. Excerpts.

When did you first dream of becoming a pilot?

It was when my cousin started flying; I was about 13 years old at that time and I thought it was a fascinating thing. However, I did not think of it as a profession.

About 4-5 years later, the army posted my father in Patiala. While going to college, I had to pass the flying school, the same one my cousin went to every day. The idea took hold of me again and I thought I should pursue it.

However, flying as a hobby is an expensive affair. The kind of ecosystem we are brought up in is such that you are not encouraged to have interests which don’t translate into a career. So I parked it on the side.

So how did the transition to licensed pilot happen?

The kind of a platform I got after being a Miss India and an actor allowed me to pursue a lot of my bucket list items, and one of these was flying.

I couldn’t do it in the initial phase of my career as I didn’t have the time. So I started to pursue flying only at the age of 32-33. However, I got busy again and there was a gap of 2-3 years, after which I hit it full throttle in 2015 and got my licence in 2016.

What is the process of obtaining a licence like?

You have to clear a bunch of exams and a certain number of solo flights, including a 2510 nautical mile solo cross-country. You get solo flights
pretty early and it gives you quite a rush. But to stay with it and finish it is an extraordinary commitment.

What are some essential skills for pilots?

Anybody who has good motor skills can be a pilot.

I hold a PPL (private pilot licence) and not a CPL (commercial pilot licence). A PPL is a lower category licence with less number of hours, and the minimum requirement for this is to have cleared class 10th.

As a commercial pilot, you are managing a $100 million machine and are responsible for everybody on it. So today modern commercial pilots are essentially aircraft managers and they should have the necessary skills for that too.

As a private pilot, can you fly at shows like Aero India?

If I have an acrobatics flying licence, I can fly at these shows, provided I am flying the aircraft I am rated to fly.

For every aircraft you are rated to fly, you must write and clear an exam. The pass mark is 70%.   

How do ratings work?

As a private pilot, you can have multiple ratings in a licence and fly these aircraft too.  However, even if a commercial pilot has multiple ratings, he/she can only fly one type of aircraft at a time since changing aircraft changes orientation. Since commercial pilots do it for a living and have people’s lives in your hands, they can fly only one aircraft.

Do you intend to get more ratings on your licence?

Yes. I also want to take my instrument rating. Currently, my license is VFR (Visual Flight Rule) which means you visually calibrate and position yourself while flying. So when we do these long cross-countries, I fly by map. I buy a physical paper map and look at the crosses and landmarks to stick to the route.

Very often on clear days, normally before monsoon and 2-3 months after the monsoon, the minimum requirement for a VFR approach is 5 nautical mile (5*1.8 km, which is approximately 9 km). A VFR licence means I can’t fly during monsoon.

Instrument rating means you can adopt the instrument landing system approach; I can fly with instruments, I don’t have to look and fly. 

So what do you do when you can’t fly?

My goal was to fly every alternate weekend but because of travel or the weather, it ends up becoming once a month or even once every six weeks.

During times like this, I use the simulator at home. I make sure I spend a lot of simulator time. There are people who use it as a game but for people who are trained, it is a very helpful tool as it helps you recalibrate your motor skills.

Why this fascination for flying? What do you take away from it?

It gives me immense peace and is an incredible stress-buster. When you are taking off or landing, there is no room for thinking or doing anything else.

The most important thing that getting qualified to fly has taught me is perspective and how to prioritise. Very often, when we are multi-tasking, it becomes difficult to decide what to do first. Flying teaches you how to decide what is to be done now and what can be done later.

The second thing that aviation taught me is anticipation. That comes in really handy as a working mom trying to do everything. When you are taking off, you are already anticipating what is going to happen immediately after take off. 

You have to file your alternates. Say if I am flying from Karwar to Bhopal, I need to file an alternate of Pune or Jabalpur. What if Bhopal is unavailable at the time I want to land, for whatever reasons? I must have enough fuel to make sure I can divert to other places if needed. This way I am trained to be prepared for emergencies.

Similarly, as a working mom, it’s not always easy to juggle roles but you can anticipate worst-case scenarios and prepare for that. 

What are your future plans now?

The immediate goal is to make it to Aero India. I like to go to air shows all over the world and I am hoping to go to Oshkosh, in America, which is the biggest air show in the world. It’s a way of ensuring my skills remain current.

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