Saturday, May 25, 2024

A Conversation with Dhira Chaliha, Assam’s First Female Pilot

Robin Bhuyan (Editor)

Krishnakshee Sharma (Sub-editor)

Naba Kumar Sharma (Staff Reporter)

Dhira Chaliha is a name that is going to be remembered forever in the history of Assam. She made a name for herself as the first female pilot from Assam in the 1960s, when flying was considered to be quite a risky profession, even for men. Recently, Enigmatic Horizon had a conversation with her regarding her flying experience, her challenges, etc. Let’s take a look.

EH: You are the first-ever female pilot in Assam. It was not so common for a lady to get attracted to and be involved with the challenging task of flying an aeroplane at that time. How and when did your journey start?

DC: It was around 1958 when The Lion Man of Assam, Radha Govinda Baruah, started the Flying Club of Assam, and my father, Late Kamaleswar Chaliha, saw this news on the Assam Tribune. He had the belief that I would be able to fly, and therefore he asked me to join the training. I took my maiden flight in October 1959. My instructor helped me a lot, and at times I became impatient to fly alone, but he told me that I would get to fly when the time was right. My first flight as a pilot was on March 23, 1960. When I took off, I saw many people from Azara waiting there to see a girl flying the aeroplane, and after my flight, they came to congratulate and facilitate me. When I came back home, I saw the Late Shantipriya Hazarika, who was the mother of the Late Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, waiting for me, and she appreciated me, something that had left a lifelong effect on my mind. So I started to fly frequently to Dibrugarh, Jorhat, and Tezpur, both alone and with passengers at times. But my mother never approved of my flying because she felt that such activities and professions are suitable only for boys, and no one would want to marry me if I continued this path. I taught nearly every younger member of the family, but my mother did not let me teach my brother because she did not have that confidence in me.

EH: What were the places you recognised from the skies of Guwahati on your first day?

DC: We got training at Mangaldoi, but before taking off, we needed to complete a circle above the Barjhar Airport to set our direction, following the compass. When I needed to fly to Tezpur, I never flew above the temple of Kamakhya Maa. I used to complete the circle and take another track to Tezpur.

EH: How did it feel to fly alone?

DC: I was 19 at that time. I was always confident about flying; the instructors had already taught us about crosswind landings, emergency landings, etc. Once, I got stuck in the skies of Mangaldoi. There was a huge storm, and it was so horrific that it had become almost impossible for me to land. However, I managed to land somehow. That day was a bit scary. 

EH: How do Guwahati and other parts of Assam look from above, and how does it feel to witness this?

DC: Brahmaputra helped me a lot. I always looked at the Brahmaputra while flying, and during sunny days I would enjoy the view. If the weather got worse, I could tell as I would not be able to see the river. The Brahmaputra has always led me home. I feel that none of the rivers in India can compete with the mighty Brahmaputra.

EH: Where did you learn to fly, and who trained you? Was the experience of flying different before and after marriage?

DC: My first trainer was a man from Punjab. After that, I was preparing to get the commercial license, and for that, I started to learn under another trainer named Balan. I used to fly alone most of the time back then. When I applied for the commercial licence, my late husband Kamal Hazarika’s family approached me for marriage. My mother insisted I get married. Therefore, I agreed, and we got married in February 1963, after which I went to London. I wanted to keep learning, but it was expensive, and I thought of quitting flying. However, there was never a time that I regretted it. I will not say that there were restrictions, but maybe it was destined for me to quit. But over the years, whenever I travel on an aeroplane, I wish to go to the pilot’s cabin and fly.

EH: Flying Club was an important initiative back then. What would you like to say about it?

DC: The late Radha Govinda Baruah’s “Flying Club” was the first and only initiative here in Assam to teach our youngsters to fly. The late Radha Govinda Baruah initiated the Flying Club, even though it did not last for long. Our people are going outside Assam to learn to fly these days, and therefore I feel that a flying club is very much needed here in Assam. The fields that were used by the previous flying club are now abandoned, and there is even no trace of them.

EH: Did you ever face any challenges related to the direction of the compass, weather changes, or technical issues while flying the Aeroplane?

DC: When the Saraighat Bridge was in the making, my instructor asked me to observe him flying, and I observed how beautifully he flew. On the very next day, I went alone flying there, and when I told my instructor, he restricted me from flying alone. Later on, I had to fly a British plane called Tarkamosh and I went up to 2000 ft. It was a scary experience.

EH: Other than Guwahati, what were the places you have flown to?

DC: I flew to Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Mangoldoi, and Tezpur. I used to take my sister and brothers-in-law with me, but my mother was so scared of flying that she never agreed to come with me.

EH: What are the qualities needed to fly an aeroplane?

DC: Apart from the educational qualifications, confidence and willpower are the most important elements that are needed to succeed.

EH: You are like the epitome of bravery for the women of Assam. What is your message to the young girls of Assam?

DC: I used to fly 60 years ago. My heart fills with joy when I see Assamese girls achieving so much nowadays. Our girls are shining everywhere. I would love to tell them to be confident, to work on their interests, to be honest about what they are doing, and never to look back. My dream is to see an Assamese girl go to space someday.

EH: What will be your message to the aspiring women pilots?

DC: Girls have become ambitious, more confident, smarter, and better in every way possible. The parents also do not prefer early marriage over a career today, like in the old days. From the police department to the Navy to athletes, we can see women everywhere. Everything is possible with courage and determination.

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