PICS: KIRAN PANDAY
Captain Bhawana Pant gently pushes the throttle on the starboard engine of her Beech 1900D, scans the dials carefully to ensure everything is ok. To her right is co-pilot Rita Pyakurel who takes instructions from air traffic control and looks out for ground traffic, as the plane with its all-famale crew takes off.
What is unusual is how routine flights with women on the flight deck and cabin have become in Nepal's domestic aviation.
Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines are the only two that operate flights where the captain, co-pilot and stewardesses are all women. But as more and more women opt for careers as pilots, this isn't so rare anymore.
"I used to watch my father wear his pilot's uniform and I knew right then that I wanted to fly too," says Pant,who has been flying for 12 years. "When I took my first flight I felt like I had achieved a big victory." Pant became a captain three years ago at the same time that Buddha Air introduced all-female crews to take charge of their flights.
Co-pilot Pyakurel says there is just too much to do in the cockpit to think about breaking stereotypes. "But," she admits with a smile, "I feel a tinge of pride when the captain is also a woman."
Yasodhara Thapa is another captain along with Pant and both are now also licensed to fly Buddha's new and bigger ATR-42 twin turboprops. Komal Basnyat, a co-captain with Buddha, says the comfort level is higher when she works with a female captain and says the women crew send a positive message to the public about gender equality. Pant adds: "Although one's gender doesn't really make a difference when you work together to control a flight, it's very encouraging that things are changing."
The first step towards all-women crews taken by Yeti airlines in 2006 when, on the occasion of women's day, Capt Sabina Thapa and co-pilot Jeena Ligden flew together. "It was a wonderful experience," recalls Thapa who now flies BAe Jetstreams for Yeti. "You have to prove yourself here to gain respect. This is not a profession where women get concessions simply because they are women. You have to show what you are capable of."
Nearly all women pilots fly domestic routes, regarded as the most challenging flying terrain in the world. So the experience Nepal's women pilots are earning will give them an advantage over others. With more women pilots returning from training abroad, passengers will soon become familiar with the sight of women in crisp pilot uniforms in the cockpit.