Sandya Narayanswami’s life is nothing short of interesting. Breaking expectations and norms, she is living life on her own rules. At the age of 60, Narayanswami got her pilot‘s license. She had two postdocs and a PhD to her name already. In an interview with SheThePeople.TV, Narayanswami speaks on battling criticism to pursue her dreams and how flying helped her to cast self-doubt aside.

You got your pilot’s license at the age of 60. What inspired you to take the decision to learn flying at this stage in your life?

It was accidental. I had been at Caltech several years when a friend, also a pilot, told me that the Institute has a Flying Club. It struck me that an opportunity like this doesn’t come one’s way every day and I mailed the club the very next day. I was worried I was too old, but they told me they train people older than me all the time. So I decided to give it a try.

What were you doing prior to this? What has your journey been like?

I was born in Mumbai in 1955, but my family moved to the UK when I was three months old.  So I grew up in the Indian community in Southall, Middlesex. We are from Kerala. I was told I would have an arranged marriage, to some boy from the village. However, I didn’t want that. I wanted a career. So I made a plan very early on to work hard and go to university. I was the first Indian woman to be on University Challenge and Mastermind. I suffered a great deal of racism at my grammar school, Drayton Manor in Hanwell, Middlesex.  My parents, to give them their due, finally gave in and my mother promised they would not look for a groom until I finished my education.

Also Read: How Pilot Priya Adhikari Is Flying Beyond Sexism To Scale New Heights

So, I extended my education indefinitely….. a degree, a PhD, postdoc number one and two, each move taking me further and further away until I ended up in Southern California. I have never married or had children.  However, I have had an interesting career, first as a research scientist on the faculty at The Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine, then as a fundraiser specialising in scientific research, most recently at Caltech, where I was Director of Corporate Foundation Relations for several years.  I now run my own consultancy in foundation work.  At 64, I have significant accomplishments.

I was told I would have an arranged marriage, to some boy from the village. However, I didn’t want that. I wanted a career. So I made a plan very early on to work hard and go to university.

However, it has often been a hard and lonely road, with little or no understanding from anyone, and a lot of criticism. Indian girls from Southall simply did not do anything like this in 1970.  It was unusual for them to even going to University.  The perspective of middle age has provided some understanding of just how unusual what I did was, but I wish I had had some more support and mentoring when I was going through it.

 Was flying something you always wanted to do?

Yes, I always wanted to fly. As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. I had forgotten this ambition in the intervening years. While it is probably too late to be an astronaut, I learned to fly. I’ve flown commercial since I was three months old, and both my parents were in aviation-related careers, so I have always been interested in the field and known a lot about it.

How did your family and friends react when they found out that you wanted to learn flying?

At first, there was some surprise, if not incredulity, since flying a plane is very different from my other hobbies. However, overall very positive and encouraging.

Also Read: Sunita Kumari, Mum Of Two, Quits Teaching To Fly Chopper Plane 

 Can you take us through the training process?

You start flying with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI). I flew twice a month, which is probably the minimum. Training planes have two sets of controls and can be flown from both the “right seat” and the “left seat”. While you fly from the left seat, the CFI watches you and provides guidance from the right seat. He/she can take the controls if needed and correct mistakes. There are several important training milestones: Solo, short- and long- cross-country flights (cross-country is defined as over 50 miles) for navigation training.

They expect you to fly regularly to build self-confidence. A basic license also requires 10 (supervised) night landings, air work to practice specific maneuvers, and three hours of supervised “hood work” or instrument flying. Once you feel ready and the CFI approves, you take a written test, followed by a final exam or Checkride, which has two parts – an oral exam and a practical portion flown with a Checkride Examiner. If you pass the Checkride, the FAA issues your license. If you fail, you can generally repeat the failed portion.

What are a few things that the training process taught you?

Flying a plane is above all a test of character. To fly safe and well, you must be your best self. Also, flying requires intense multi-tasking. I tend to focus on one thing deeply, so my ability to multi-task is much improved. By repeating an action many times, you become better at it.  It is important not to panic when something unexpected happens. It’ll happen every time you fly and you learn to deal with the unexpected, request assistance from ATC, solve the issue in question, and get home okay without “breaking the plane”. Also, to be adaptable and flexible, dealing with changing circumstances.

Flying a plane is above all a test of character. To fly safe and well, you must be your best self. Also, flying requires intense multi-tasking. I tend to focus on one thing deeply, so my ability to multi-task is much improved.

It has also taught me to think quickly and make a decision. I was once on takeoff roll when a coyote walked across the runway in front of me. My choices were to keep rolling or take off early. I took off in order to avoid hitting the coyote and all was well.

Did you face any challenges while you were learning? What were the most difficult aspects of your journey?

Yes. For me, the most challenging part of the process was dealing with my own self-confidence issues. Due to bad experiences growing up, I have poor self-confidence. Negative feedback causes me to react with extreme self-doubt. I know I am smart and capable. I had to learn to set the self-doubt aside.

Also Read: Meet Sarla Thakar – India’s First Woman To Fly A Plane 

What would you say to women who are in the same stage of life as you and want to do something new, exciting and unconventional?

Some opportunities come your way only once in a lifetime. If you don’t pay attention, they will disappear. So take the opportunity, not in a foolhardy way, but after investigating to see if it is practical, and at least give it a try. Flying has opened many doors for me and new activities and interests will do that for you as well.

Women, especially the older they get, often have to give up on their dreams to take care of their families. What advice would you give to them?

Stand up for your right to learn new things and grow. I am unmarried and neither do I have kids. So I look after myself. Nobody is “taking care” of me. Most people can stand on their own two feet if required so don’t give in to the unfair pressure of other people’s needs. There is a balance. We all need both care and independence, but the responsibility of caring is too often entirely on the backs of women. They pay the price and feel depleted and drained. Gaining a new interest can be incredibly refreshing and rejuvenating for everyone!

Prapti is an intern at SheThePeople.TV

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