Episode 6: The Little Giants Who Conquered Continents, Capt. Aarohi & Capt. Keithair

Hafthor & Captain Aarohi

HE : Hafþór (Hafthor) Júlíus Björnsson, 32, from Reykjavik, Iceland.

(Hafthor sounds like…. ”Half” Thor!!!)

206cm tall (about 6’9’’), weighs around 200 kgs (about 440 lbs).

5 times Europe’s Strongest Man and 1 time World’s Strongest Man in 2018. World Record deadlift of 501 kgs in May 2020.  

Acted over 5 seasons in HBO’s epic-series Game Of Thrones as the monstrous Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane.

SHE : Capt. Aarohi Pandit, 24, from Mumbai, India.

165cm tall (5’4”), weighs errr…well, she will most certainly be ranked a Lightweight contender if she takes up Olympic Boxing!

First Ever Woman in the World to Fly Solo Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Greenland Ice-Cap, Cross-Canada (some legs with a co-pilot) and then Solo Across the Pacific Ocean.  

Flew over 4 Continents, 20 countries, 34000 kms in 52 hops.  

All in a MOTORGLIDER.…a Light Sport Aircraft.

Who of the two is the REAL GIANT here ?  Not to diminish Hafthor’s spectacular accomplishments, but there is no question about it.  To us aviators, its Capt.Aarohi Pandit.

This is her story. And one of her best friend’s story too, actually.

The Girls

Capt.Aarohi Pandit (24) and Capt.Keithair Misquitta (25) are two seemingly ordinary girls, but with very extraordinary achievements already clocked in their young lives.
Capt.Aarohi Pandit (24) and Capt.Keithair Misquitta (25) are two seemingly ordinary girls, but with very extraordinary achievements already clocked in their young lives.

Capt.Aarohi was born in Gujarat but lives in the northwest suburbs of Mumbai.  Her father ran a travel company and little Aarohi has had strong ambitions to fly ever since she met a woman pilot at an airport at the age of eight or nine while accompanying her father on a trip.

Capt.Keithair comes from a typically East Indian family.  She had initially wanted to be a cardiologist, but her father encouraged her to be a pilot and she bravely and obediently complied…only to find out later that this was what she would end up loving to do for life !

Described as coming from “middle class families” in India, both girls coincidentally also come from “all girl” families, with Capt.Aarohi having 1 sister and Capt.Keithair 3 sisters.

Both strongly credit their families for the support and drive to achieve their dreams.  This is such an important prerequisite, as many girls already find it daunting in the first place to be involved in aviation – what more to command their own aircraft in the skies – and many give up early in their quest when they hit the proverbial family and societal roadblocks.

Not in this case, though.

The girls first met at flight school.  The Bombay Flying Club (BFC)’s College of Aviation, to be exact.  They became the best of friends while studying for their degree in aviation and while qualifying for their CPL.  Little would they have expected that the chemistry between them would be one of the main recipes for their successes upon graduation.

After Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair graduated from BFC and got their CPL in 2018, a combination of good timing and good fortune immediately came their way.  

The Blue Navy Foundation selected them for an ambitious circumnavigation expedition out of Mumbai to span the globe.  Capt.Aarohi was just 22 and Capt.Keithair 24 years of age at that time, and had less than 500 hours of flying time between them.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Mission: The WE! Expedition

Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair
Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair

It was written in the stars that Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair were to land on the WE! Expedition.  Or maybe it was the other way around….the WE! Expedition landed on them.

WE stands for “Women Empower”.  The idea for a circumnavigation expedition was first mooted in 2014, and after some initial turbulence before even getting off the ground, the idea eventually evolved to become the WE! Expedition.

The Navy Blue Foundation (NBF) are the organizers and fund-raisers for the WE! Expedition and they own and operate the aircraft used for the mission.  NBF and the WE! Expedition are supported by Social Access Communications and have backing from the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development, several corporate sponsors and an undisclosed key benefactor.

Circumnavigation, or a journey around the globe – whether by land, sea or air – has been considered badges of honour and life-changing events for explorers and adventurers since time immemorial.  To even contemplate the challenge with two young women pilots straight out of flight school was pushing the limits even further than one can imagine.

The core mission of the WE! Expedition was to fly an all-woman crew over 22 countries in 84 legs for 100 days, and over land, mountain, ocean and ice.  (Spoiler alert!) Up to this point, the expedition has missed the target of 100 days – for good reason (lets blame it on the weather!) – but has hit all the other targets by and large.

Apart from the core mission to circumnavigate the globe, the other mission of the WE! Expedition was to raise awareness and to crowdfund towards scholarships to train up to 100 underprivileged girls to “learn and earn by flying”.  Instead of doing this through conventional fundraising, the WE! Expedition made it clear that the way to do it was to knock it out of the park and break some World Records while doing it !

While Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair are the faces of the WE! Expedition, the entire expedition set-up was actually a machinery of dreamers, managers, planners, ground crew, remote agents, ATCs, logistics and course, the sponsors, supporters and families.

Years of putting the expedition together culminated in the launch in July 2018 when Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair finally took to the skies to start their historic journey around the globe.

The Wings: Pipistrel Sinus 912

The wings of choice for Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair for their mission was the Pipistrel Sinus 912 Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)., which was sourced specifically by the Navy Blue Foundation.
The wings of choice for Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair for their mission was the Pipistrel Sinus 912 Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)., which was sourced specifically by the Navy Blue Foundation.

The wings of choice for Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair for their mission was the Pipistrel Sinus 912 Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)., which was sourced specifically by the Navy Blue Foundation.

The brand new Sinus 912 flown by Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair is named “Mahi” which means “Great Planet Earth” in Sanskrit.  It is the first LSA registered with the Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), and carries the registry VT-NBF.

The Sinus 912 was designed and manufactured in Slovenia and Italy, and was introduced in 1995.  It is a two-seater monoplane LSA weighing just 285 kg (empty), with a 2-bladed propellor, powered by a Rotax 912 single engine with 60kW output and with a 60-litre fuel   tank giving a range of 1000 kms (expandable to 100 litres).  It has the ability to glide and soar without active drive from the powertrain.  The max take-off weight is 450 kg up to 600 kg.  

All in, especially to the layman, that is as tiny an aircraft as it can possibly get.  When you are planning to cross oceans, that is.

In trying to keep Mahi at a consistent MTOW of about 470 kg for each leg, Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair only had the luxury of packing 5kg each in their backpacks for their comfort items.  They decided to buy and dump clothes and other daily items along the way.  However, word got out that banana chips became an important stockpile for them…..kind of like fuel.

One of the main advantages of the Sinus 912 is the STOL capabilities, which is a major requisite considering the nature of circumnavigation where proper airfields may not be available at all techstops, especially in remote locations.  The Sinus 912 is reputed to require only about 100 metres of runway for take-off. 

However, for all its proven capabilities, probably the most critical criteria during flight for Mahi during the expedition is the weather.  Calm weather allows Mahi to fly at her best as the aircraft is designed to soar and cruise in the right conditions.  On the other hand, poor weather has the opposite effect.  That means safety contingencies have to be taken for the riskier legs of the journey.

In speaking to the Mumbai Mirror, Capt Aarohi described the challenge in crossing the North Atlantic ocean like this :-

“When the engine fails while flying on land, you can still land, but flying over the ocean, you have nowhere to land. In the flight that lasted five and a half hours, I saw land only for 40 minutes while landing and take-off. The rest of the journey was just water and silence around 3,000 feet above sea level.”

The necessary Safety precautions required meant that the Sinus 912 had to be properly configured and equipped accordingly for the overland and ocean crossing legs.  

Ultimately when all is said and done, the combination of the two young women Captains and their tiny little plane Mahi was deliberately designed to hit the World Records that were waiting to be broken.  Wouldn’t be as much fun if they commandeered larger aircraft. 

But first, they had an important hurdle to overcome.  Mission training.

The Training & The Gurus

In preparing for their record-breaking circumnavigation effort, Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair undertook intensive and extensive training with Mahi – in India and in Serbia.  They trained for months, simulating extreme conditions for weather, ocean crossing, high and low altitude flying and so on.  

Physical training was key for strength and endurance, but mental training was also extremely important for such a risky mission. Prior to the WE! Expedition training, both Capt,Aarohi and Capt.Keithair had only flown quite leisurely for 2-3 hours maximum each time.  Circumnavigation and in a motorglider was a whole different ballgame !

The pilots both had clocked only about 230 hours each for their as CPLs. Kicking off their training regimen for the WE! Expedition, they added 25 hours each when they were sent to Pipistrel Serbia in April 2018 for specific training on flying the Sinus 912 under the instruction of Capt.Dragan Vrencev and Stefan Lovric.

After their training in Serbia, they trained under WE! Expedition Director Capt.Rahul Monga at Patiala, Punjab, from May to July 2018 where they clocked another 40 hours each flying solo and buddy. He prepared them for the mission diligently and flew cross-country in North India with them. 

It is noteworthy that Capt.Rahul Monga – formerly from the Indian Air Force – has the distinction of being a World Record holder himself.  In 2007, as Wing Commander Rahul Monga and together with Wing Commander Anil Kumar, he flew a German-designed CTSW microlight aircraft and circumnavigated the globe in a World Record 80 days – covering 40,259 km, with 85 stops in 19 countries.  The old record that they broke was 99 days.

Once the expedition commenced, Capt.Rahul oversaw all flight planning and operations and was in constant contact with Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair on ground and in the air, including  via their their onboard helitracker.

Another contributor to their learnings in preparation for the expedition was Matevž Lenarčič, a Slovenian and a world-famous aviator, adventurer and multi-record holder for flying LSA and microlights.  He is a climber – an alpinist, to be exact -, a paraglider, an environmentalist and also a photographer.  

Matevž also holds the World Record for the first Solo Circumnavigation in 2004 – coincidentally with the Pipistrel Sinus 912.  As he works closely with the Pipistrel organization in his home country Slovenia, he was able to advise the WE! Expedition team on configuring Mahi for her own journey across the globe.

As true-blue subject matter experts, Capt.Rahul and Matevž continuously and unselfishly shared their knowledge and experiences with Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair before and during the expedition….minute details, insights, instinctive stuff and magic tricks that perhaps you cannot find in books and manuals and charts.

Time and again, Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair have credited all their Gurus…. their trainers, mentors, their crew and their mission handlers for the teachings and learnings they received before and during the expedition.

It was testament to their training and all their Gurus that Capt.Keithair attributed to her family finally gaining confidence in the expedition’s planning and processes, and to finally allow their daughter to take the risky journey. 

Not surprisingly, her parents were initially against her doing the unimaginable expedition as she was literally fresh out of flight school but in the end, they were convinced they girls were as well prepared as could be and from then on, there was no stopping the girls.

Phase 1 : The WE! Expedition (30 July to 19 September 2018)

Notable Details / Achievements / Records :-

  • From Patiala in Punjab, India to Kulusuk in Greenland
  • 3 Continents (West Asia, Europe, Arctic Circle), 17 Countries, 27 Stops, 13000km
  • Mahi commanded by Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair until Wick in Scotland
  • From Wick, Capt.Aarohi flew Mahi solo for the remainder legs to Greenland
  • First Indian Civilian Women Pilots to Land and Take-Off in Pakistan
  • First Indian Women Pilots to fly in and out of Iran in an LSA
  • First Indian Women Pilots to fly from India to the UK in an LSA
  • First Woman Pilot Solo over the Atlantic Ocean from Scotland to Iceland to Greenland in an LSA

On the morning of 30 July 2018, Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair said emotional good-byes to their families, friends and their ground crew (and their 2 puppies too!), took command of Mahi and then took off from Patiala in Punjab. Their first leg was a cross-country to Kishangarh in Rajasthan, cruising at 065 above the clouds at 105 knots.  From this point on, there was no turning back for the girls.

The girls and Mahi flew across India’s Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat and then on across Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Serbia, Slovenia, Germany, France and Britain.  

Unbeknown to Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair who were likely having great fun in the air – with the exception of having to cope with 40DegC+ heat – there were considerable worries among their crew and their families and friends over the Pakistan and Iran legs due to heightened political and military awareness. 

In the end though, the girls made it through and also got to enjoy local hospitalities before they hit the European borders.  Capt.Rahul had alluded that it would hard at first but then it gets easier as the journey goes along and true enough, the girls made it look easy, knocking off one target leg after another.

One of the more emotional moments in Phase 1 of the expedition was when their Pipistrel Serbia instructors Capt.Dragan Vrencev and Stefan Lovric received them at Nis in Serbia, and flew in formation with them back to the their previous training school in Vojka where they had the media waiting for them, and had great fun taking photographs with Mahi and telling their stories of the expedition so far.  

In Slovenia, in a homecoming of sorts for the Sinus 912, Mahi and the girls took a breather to allow the aircraft to be properly looked after by its manufacturers and to allow the girls to meet with their mentor / advisor Matevž Lenarčič for the first time. When they had the chance, the girls took in the touristic sights in Slovenia eagerly but they were also keen to push on in the journey which they eventually did, all the way to Scotland.

As part of the planning, a decision was taken for the coming Atlantic Crossing legs to be flown solo in order to optimize Mahi’s set-up for the ardous journey to come. The two pilots were asked to decide who the soloist would be.

When they reached Calais in France, the girls communicated that the decision was made for Capt.Aarohi to fly solo over the Arctic / Atlantic legs.  

At Wick in Scotland, Capt.Keithair separated from Capt.Aarohi with a heavy heart to make her way to Canada via commercial flights where she had hoped to re-connect with Capt.Aarohi again for the Canadian overland legs.  

For the Arctic / Atlantic legs, Mahi took on extra safety gear, tools and kits, oxygen tank, extra fuel (with a range extension bladder), as well as food and water.  A life raft was also a primary necessity. 

From Wick, Capt.Aarohi commanded Mahi solo to Iceland, and then on to Kulusuk in Greenland.  Effectively, these were the record-breaking first legs of the Atlantic Crossing being attempted solo in an LSA by a woman pilot.

Iceland presented a challenge to Capt.Aarohi due to weather conditions, and she had to wait 2 days for a window to open for take-off heading to Kulusuk, over the Atlantic Ocean.  

When Capt.Aarohi finally took off from Iceland, her first encounter with the Atlantic Crossing was a lot harder than she had anticipated.  Heavy clouding pushed Capt.Aarohi and Mahi to 2,000 feet and black clouds were forming around them.  Capt.Aarohi has contemplated turning back to Iceland, but the weather was not friendly at all so she decided to push forward to Greenland.

With more low clouding being encountered and all the way up to 5,000 feet with icing danger at -2DegC, Capt.Aarohi had to descend further to fly at 1,000 feet.  

She declared it was so scary being so close to the water but in spite of that, the view was still so spectacular !  To top all adventure stories, while flying at 1,000 feet above water in the low darkening clouds, Capt.Aarohi actually saw a whale breaking the water surface and then diving again.  Beat that !

However, what Capt.Aarohi did not know was that she and Mahi gave everyone else a major heart-in-mouth scare on the ground.  Forced to fly at only 1,000 feet altitude, Capt.Aarohi and Mahi blipped off the radar and could not be tracked.  The screen went blank !

It just so happened that at that very moment, Capt.Keithair was in transit between commercial flights en route to Canada and she was told by their crew that Capt.Aarohi and Mahi had gone off the radar.  

Capt.Keithair had to board her connecting flight to Canada not knowing the outcome of Capt.Aarohi and Mahi, and she said it was one of the worst few hours she had lived as she did not have any communications onboard the airliner to get updates.

Such was her desperation that – in between prayers – Capt.Keithair said she actually looked out and downwards of her aircraft window trying to spot the tiny speck that might be Capt.Aarohi and Mahi.

They were both crossing the Atlantic at the almost same time, but while Capt.Keithair was likely flying above 30,000 feet, she did not know then Capt.Aarohi was only flying at 1,000 feet.

For Capt.Aarohi, she was in the first fright flight of her life as a pilot. It was a continuous struggle with rain, clouds and gusty winds until she finally saw the gravel runway of Kulusuk.  Even then, she had to make two attempts at landing before she was on safe ground due to the weather conditions.  But she made it.  The guts of this girl….she is a fighter !

The next morning in Kulusuk – it was now 13 September 2018 –  Capt.Aarohi woke up with a banging head and a blocked nose, which required her to take medicine and subsequently to abort the day’s planned flight.

However, the twist of that aborted flight for the day gave her a truly unexpected bonus later that evening, That night, she witnessed in-person the “Aurora Borealis” or the Northern Lights.  Very few people have ever witnessed this phenomena and the stars and the skies must have recognized one of their own in Capt.Aarohi, and they gave her the rarest of shout-outs in a visual spectacular.  

Of course, Capt.Aarohi was not going to miss her Instagram moment…

On the downside, the weather conditions in Greenland were not so forgiving.  After prolonged days of continuing poor weather, Expedition Director Capt.Rahul Monga made a call in the interest of Safety and decided to end Phase 1 of the WE! Expedition at Kulusuk in Greenland.

Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair returned to India to soak up the accolades as national heroes and as new celebrities.  But at the back of their minds, they were always wondering and waiting for Phase 2 to begin…

To pick up a phrase so appropriately mentioned in the WE! Expedition’s “MotorGlider Diaries” blogsite…

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”  Leonardo da Vinci

Phase 2 : The WE! Expedition (04 May to 23 August 2019)

Notable Details / Achievements / Records :-

  • From Kulusuk in Greenland to Magadan in Russia
  • 3 Continents (Arctic Circle, North America, Russia East Asia), 4 Countries, 26 Stops, 21000km
  • Mahi commanded by Capt.Aarohi solo over 13 Stops
  • Capt.Aarohi had co-pilots Jonas Boll and Olga Oreshenko for another 13 Stops over Canada and Russia due to photography and local regulatory requirements respectively 
  • First Woman Pilot Solo over the Greenland Ice-Cap in an LSA
  • First Woman Pilot Solo over the Atlantic Crossing in an LSA (Wick in Scotland to Iqaluit in Canada) 
  • First Woman Pilot to Cross-Canada in an LSA
  • First Woman Pilot Solo over the Pacific Crossing in an LSA (Unalakleet and Nome in Alaska to Anadyr in Russia’s Chukotka Region)

If Phase 1 of the WE! Expedition was already history-making, Phase 2 became the “World Record beating” phase.  This was where the expedition really nailed its big scores on the scoreboard.

The WE! Expedition managers had by then already decided to continue with only Capt.Aarohi flying solo for most of Phase 2, up until Capt.Keithair could join her in Russia or further ahead of the journey for the home stretch flying over landed terrain.

After Phase 1 was completed, Capt.Aarohi was separately trained to take on Phase 2 solo.  First up was mental fitness training, and this was done in Mumbai.

By the time the Christmas holidays of 2018 hit the calendar, Capt.Aarohi was reunited with Mahi, but this time in Vestmannaeyjar in Iceland.  One of the windiest places on the planet,  she undertook intensive training with Gudmundur Arnar Alfredsson aka Gummi.

Gummi coached and flew with Capt.Aarohi in extreme weather conditions over glaciers, oceans, and volcanoes between December 2018 to May 2019, and pronounced her an extremely good pilot at the end of training.  Capt.Aarohi and Gummi bonded so well that he and his wife later visited the girls and the WE! Expedition team in India !

In between training with Gummi in Iceland, Capt.Aarohi also trained with Nejc Faganel of Pipistrel Italy who trained her specifically to fly high altitudes using oxygen in the Alps in March 2019.  She was also instructed in emergency procedures during this period.

All in, Capt.Aarohi put in an additional 35 flying hours in extreme conditions before setting off again on Phase 2 of the WE! Expedition in May 2019.

Meanwhile, as Capt.Aarohi continued with her training and preparations for Phase 2, Capt.Keithair decided to stand down and to turn her energy towards her other passions – commercial aviation and flight instruction.  She also took the downtime to indulge in community outreach programs.  This was a quality and humility that both girls had – giving back to the community that gave them their dreams in the first place.

When 4 May 2019 came around, final preparations were made in Kulusuk in Greenland and Capt.Aarohi and Mahi were ready to go.  Weather was good and in no time, they were on their way to break the LSA solo record for crossing the infamous Greenland Ice-Cap.

Capt.Aarohi found this leg a surprisingly tough challenge – both mentally and physically.  In her own words, 

“Let me say that it is never possible to fly only VFR over the Atlantic, at some point or the other you are back staring at your instruments with glued eyes….altitude training was at 18000-20000 feet….there is no search and rescue….so alone, so quite.  If you keep thinking about it, its going to mess up your own mind…”

Taking the hardship in her stride, Capt.Aarohi and Mahi eventually broke the record for the Greenland Ice-Cap Crossing and landed in Nuuk, Greenland.  Next was the big one.

After a rest, both pilot and plane took a deep breath, climbed the skies again and aimed for touchdown in Iqaluit in Canada – over the final stretch of the Atlantic Ocean.

The second Capt.Aarohi and Mahi touched down on Canadian soil at Iqaluit on 13 May 2019, she became the World Record holder as the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in an LSA.  She took her time  – from Wick in Scotland to Iqaluit in Canada – but she did it !

No sooner than when the smile on her face began to become permanent, Capt.Aarohi hit a major stonewall.  The weather.  This time, bad winds and weather conditions grounded her and Mahi in Iqaluit for 3 frustrating weeks.

To quote bits from Capt.Aarohi’s published diary pages online…

“ On June 7, after being stuck at Iqaluit for three weeks, I had my first ever anxiety attack. The weather had caused the fuel in my Mahi’s pipes to get contaminated and after we had it all flushed out, the winds and clouds stubbornly refused to cooperate.

….that night, I could feel my body acting very loose and tired, completely drained of all energy.  I was confused at first, such things never happen to me. It took me a while to understand that this might be because of the stress I was going through. It lasted only for couple of minutes, maybe 5-7 at the most, but felt like an hour.

I’m writing about this not because I want to prove how hard I am working or how stressed I get sometimes. Everybody works hard, everyone goes through stress. But in the end you deal with it. You overcome your weakness, you overcome your fears, and you also overcome your anxiety.

Whenever I am stressed or maybe confused about anything regarding my flight, I always reach out to Matevz Lenarcic. He is an ace pilot from Slovenia, a circumnavigator and my mentor. His gentle support and guidance to the expedition right from its inception four years ago, has always been like a soothing salve to all of us. 

After yet another week of no flying, I wrote to him and as always his reply filled me with the confidence that the weather would break, and that Mahi and I would be fine. I flew over the Hudson Strait two days later. “

When the 3 weeks had passed, the next target after Iqaluit on Capt.Aarohi’s record-breaking list was the Cross-Canada route, and once she got going again she wasted no time.  Hopping from stop to stop she and Mahi covered ground (or skies, rather!) like they were in a real hurry to reach the Pacific coast.

Over several legs during the Cross-Canada journey, the President of Pipistrel Canada, Jonas Boll, co-piloted with Capt.Aarohi, and in the process got some great photographs for the expedition and for Pipistrel over the Canadian Rockies.  (yeah, yeah….just hop onboard like an Uber !)

In almost no time, Capt.Aarohi nailed her record for the First Woman Pilot to do the Cross-Canada in an LSA.  She then quickly raced to Unalakleet in Alaska for the next record-breaking leg in front of her.

On 20 August 2019, Capt.Aarohi took off from Unalakleet and headed for Anadyr in eastern Russia, with a planned techstop at Nome, Alaska.

On 21 August 2019 at 1.54am, Capt.Aarohi and Mahi successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean and landed at Anadyr Airport in eastern Russia, in the process breaking the World Record for the First Woman Pilot Solo Across the Pacific Ocean in an LSA.

In doing so, Capt.Aarohi flew across the International Date Line, also known as the Line of Confusion, when the date changes and some instruments can shut down or go haywire for a few minutes.

Cheeky as ever, Capt.Aarohi was heard saying “I lost one day of my life which I will never get back…” in reference to her IDL crossing.  But she did gain a lifetime of experiences and achievements which would be her badge of honour for life.

Next for Capt.Aarohi and Mahi was to head westwards overland and onwards home to India.

However while on Russian soil, local civil aviation regulations dictated that Capt.Aarohi had to have a Russian-speaking navigator mandatory onboard to deal with the ATCs while flying the VFR routes. 

As luck would have it, Capt.Aarohi was designated a navigator called Olga Oreshenko, who was a kindred spirit in both aviation and women empowerment issues. 

On 23 August 2019, Capt.Aarohi, Olga and Mahi flew overland from Anadyr, heading westwards to the southern borders of Russia to the city of Magadan, across the famous scenic lakes of Baikal, Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk.

This was where Capt.Aarohi hit another brickwall which ultimately would bring Phase 2 to an end.

The route ahead from Magadan to Yakutsk required a stop in an uninhabited place which was among the coldest parts of Siberia with extremely poor weather and so the WE! Expedition team had to make several requests to change the route to a more southerly one. 

Unfortunately, the requested routes were turned down by the Russian authorities and to make things worse, the weather deteriorated as it did in Greenland the previous year.  

The drama and stress further intensified when Capt.Aarohi had to travel to Yakutsk, and then later back to New Delhi to keep extending her Russian visa.

Finally, with Mahi being grounded indefinitely, the WE! Expedition team decided to call a halt to Phase 2 on September 19, 2019.  

Capt.Aarohi stayed back until mid-October to make arrangements for Mahi’s safe shipment back to India as the aircraft could not be properly housed in Magadan stored with no hangarage available.

Until today, Phase 3 and the final 14 legs of the WE! Expedition from Magadan in Russia to Patiala in India – with three optional routes in the plans – has not been fulfilled, thanks to the global pandemic of Covid-19.  

Words of Wisdom

In truth, there is not much more for Capt.Aarohi Pandit and Capt.Keithair Misquitta to say to advocate for women empowerment and to encourage young girls to take the leap of faith to improve their lives, and not to mention, to take wings and to fly.

Their actions and achievements says it all already. They just went out and did it.

They conquered continents and the elements, and did things that even most men would not dare venture into.  

They believed in themselves although they were rookies, literally took on the world, and came back as heroes and role models.

When pressed for their advice to young girls who would look up to them, Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair had this to say :

Capt.Aarohi : Be confident, be brave, be patient.  And don’t get scared of society.

Capt.Keithair : I really believe that if the family does not support you, you cannot really break free. The moment your family has your back, you can do amazing things.

When further asked where they saw themselves in 5-10 years, Capt.Aarohi and Capt.Keithair had rather different answers :

Capt.Aarohi : I am just living for the moment. I do not have plans but I have dreams. Flying tops the list.

Capt.Keithair : I want to be a test pilot for aircraft manufacturers. If not, I want to be a trainer in a flight academy.

Sometimes, we forget that these are young girls themselves and they have dreams, plans and ambitions like everyone else.  But that is not such a bad thing.  Their achievements speak for themselves, doesn’t matter if they are girls or not.​

This is the story of Capt.Aarohi Pandit and Capt.Keithair Misquitta.  

The little giants who conquered continents.