October 3, 2019
Some say India has become one of the world’s best places for women to fly — 12% of Indian pilots are women, higher than the global average of 3%. That history traces all the way back to Sarla Sharma Thakral who, at 21 in 1936, became the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft, donned in a sari.
“For us, sari isnt the most comfortable attire to wear ever,” laughed Priyanka Srivastava, 32, a captain from Mumbai. “For her to be wearing something like that while flying was amazing.” Yet, Srivastava adds, Thakral’s story wasn’t popularly told when she was growing up.
Thakral was born in Delhi in 1914 in an undivided India. She married at 16 and had her first daughter at 17. She had married into a family of nine pilots who owned an airline company, Himalayan Airlines, which operated flights between Delhi and the hilly town of Dehradun. There is little information on Himalayan Airlines today; it likely shut down or, like many other airlines at the time, was subsumed into a larger airline.
The family encouraged Thakral to fly, including her father-in-law and her husband, P.D. Sharma, who was the first Indian with an airmail’s pilot license, and flew mail from Lahore to Karachi.