Up in the air, with the Ninety Nines
Last month, Rabia Futehally, India's first woman to get a private pilot's license, was inducted into a prestigious circle of aviators created by the Ninety Nines, the world's first women's aviation club co-founded by Amelia Earhart. Sanjiv Nair meets the lady and finds that she's had one hell of a joyride
New York, November 2, 1929. Amelia Earhart, along with several other female pilots, formed the first women’s aviation club. The Ninety Nines, they called themselves, inspired by the tally of attendants in their first meeting. In 1966, during her travels to India, Isabelle MacRae, a member of the same club, spied on a sari-clad woman pilot exiting hurriedly from the cockpit of her Piper PA 18 monoplane. Curious, MacRae invited her over for a chat. Little did she know that in 2012, more than three decades later, the same girl would be inducted in the most hallowed circle of aviators that the Ninety Nines had ever created — as a member of the International Forest of Friendship (IFF) where she would join the likes of Charles Lindbergh, the Wright Brothers, Rajiv Gandhi and Amelia Earhart herself. The girl’s name was Rabia Futehally.
Born in 1935 to a nationalist family, Futehally grew up surrounded by powerful male archetypes. In many ways, it set the mould for the person she would shape into. “While growing up, I was a complete tomboy,” she reminisces, “Since my brother and I were of a similar age, I would tag along with him for everything he did. We did swimming, hiking, horse riding and even played games like cricket.”
Futehally’s foray into the world of aviation was also triggered by the allure of ‘fun’. “My brother, my father and even my husband loved flying. Once they joined flying classes, that is all that they would talk about, especially since the flying club was right next door. I felt like I was missing out on all the fun and I asked them whether I could take up classes as well, and my father agreed.”
The casual nature of Futehally’s recollection, however, does little justice to how progressive her father’s decision was. It was the ’60s. Rabia was the mother of a nine-month old baby and not many women had set the precedent of being avid aviators in a country still trying to come to terms with its Independence. Surprisingly enough, all members of the Flying Club were incredibly helpful. She chuckles when she says, “They would see my child, and immediately, I would be advanced to the head of the line, where people would be waiting for their turn to fly.” In 1963, she became the first woman to get a Private Pilot’s License, earning it before anyone else in her family. “My PPL number was 13 but I never realised that I was the first woman to get it at the time.”
Three years later Futehally met MacRae, and that is when she realised that there were other women pilots who were also flying in the same club. “Chanda Budhabhatti, Mohini Shroff and I met, and the idea of starting a Ninety Nines in India was born. We invited women from flying clubs all over the country and in May 1967, we met in Mumbai and created the India’s Women Pilots Association.” Futehally’s association with the club continued till 2010, and although age has finally borne its weight on her wings, she has passed on her love of sailing across the stratosphere to her daughters, all of whom are trained pilots as well.
Futehally could not be present in Atchison, Kansas while she was being inducted by the IFF because her health prevented her from flying long distances. The irony of her plight is not lost on her.
When asked whether she regrets her inability to fly anymore, she says, “Life is too short and there is way too much to do. Everyone has unfulfilled dreams. I do too, but more importantly, I have no regrets.” She mischievously quips though, “I do go with other pilots for joy rides once in a while.”