The Story of Prem Mathur: India’s First Female Commercial Pilot

Long before commercial aviation became popular in India, a woman broke the glass ceiling among pilots. Prem Mathur became India’s first female pilot, flying for Deccan Airways, Indian Airlines and as a private pilot for powerful individuals after clearing a number of hurdles. Here’s the story.

Mathur’s aircraft included the Douglas DC-3, which previously belonged to the United States Air Force. Photo: Getty Images

Certain

Born in 1910 (or 1924, reports differ), Prem Mathur broke many norms for women at the time, including challenging the male-only airfield. Her older brother was a flight instructor, while her younger brother later bought and sold used aircraft, according to a profile in Feminism In India. During the delivery flight of one such aircraft, Prem accompanied Captain Atal for a short flight.

While Atal had tried to scare her with acrobatics and other flying stunts, Mathur showed no signs of fear and fell in love with flying. This led to his suggestion to become a pilot, an idea unthinkable at the time. However, this led to a long journey for Prem Mathur.

After graduating from college Mathur began her flying lessons under Captain Atal in 1947 at the newly established Allahbad Flying Club. She excelled and quickly obtained her license, paving the way for her to fly commercially. However, the road would be much more complicated.

Challenges

Her first challenge came in the National Air Race held in Kolkata. Despite being discouraged from entering because she was the only woman, Mathur entered the race. She stunned the country by beating an experienced field of men and winning the 1949 edition of the race, despite only having a few hundred flying hours. This made her an overnight sensation and received praise from future Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and many others.

Despite proving her mettle as a pilot, the jump to commercial aviation was not easy to recreate. She moved to Delhi to get her commercial pilot’s license, becoming the first woman to do so. However, advisors asked her to become an instructor instead of going into passenger flying.

Indian Airlines
Indian Airlines was the country’s largest domestic airline until its merger with Air India in the early 2000s. Photo: Getty Images

Eight airlines rejected her application because she was a woman, despite her tremendous achievements. It was ultimately Deccan Airways that accepted her application, making her a co-pilot, first on an unpaid basis of six months. While grateful to finally be able to fly scheduled flights, Deccan declined to promote her to captain when the time came, again citing passengers and crew would not be comfortable with a female pilot.

Breaking the ceiling

Prem Mathur quit Deccan Airways a few years later and chose to become a private pilot for business scion GD Birla. She rejoined Indian Airlines in 1953, where she became a full Captain. This was the start of a 30-year career that ended in 1984, making her the first Indian woman to become a pilot and captain. She died in 1992.

Mathur inspired a generation of female pilots and started the trend that India is the country with the highest percentage of female pilots worldwide. While this figure is only 13%, airlines are doing everything they can to hire more non-male pilots and promote the industry far and wide.

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