A new start after 60: ‘I got my pilot’s licence at 64 – then applied to be an astronaut’

When Sandya Narayanswami was invited to a dinner by a friend who worked at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, she was excited. Many of the guests flew planes. “I must have expressed some yearning,” she says, because someone told her: “You should join the flying club!” The next day Narayanswami, who was 57 at the time, arranged to meet an instructor. “I said: ‘Aren’t I too old?’ He said: ‘We’ve got students in their 80s.’”

On her trial flight, her instructor took her over Pasadena. “You are very close to the air, because the plane is really small and the windows are big. I felt the air, I felt the motion. I felt as a bird might feel,” she says.

Narayanswami first flew when she was eight. Her mother worked for British Overseas Airways Corporation at Heathrow, her father for Global Air Freight. Every summer they visited family in India. “Flying in the 60s was like private flying,” she says. Her mother made her a “beautiful fitted dress of white lace”. At fuel stops in Zurich, Tel Aviv or Frankfurt, Narayanswami got “a feel for what it was like to be in a different country”.

Back then, “children were invited into the flight deck to meet the pilots”. Narayanswami remembers looking out at “vast clouds”; the plane appeared not to be moving. “The captain explained that the clouds were so vast, it took a long time to fly past them.”

Narayanswami’s own logbook notes that she needed 423 flight hours to earn her pilot’s licence. She was 64. “It took a long time because I had a lot of confidence issues,” she says.

‘I feel as a bird might feel’ … Narayanswami with co-pilot Anita Sengupta.
‘I feel as a bird might feel’ … Narayanswami with co-pilot Anita Sengupta. Photograph: Courtesy of Sandya Narayanswami

At the time, she worked as a fundraising director at California Institute of Technology (which runs the flight club), and now consults for other institutions. But she grew up in Southall, west London, and at grammar school suffered horrific racist bullying.

The library provided sanctuary. But, as she reached her late teens, she felt family pressure for an arranged marriage to a south Indian; her parents were from Kerala. Southall was mostly Punjabi. “I really protested,” she says. “‘But I want to be an astronaut! I don’t want to marry a boy from the village.’

It has been quite hard because I am Indian and I’m a woman, and I never got married and I had no children

“My mother made a promise. ‘As long as you are getting an education, we will not look for a husband for you.’”

Narayanswami studied biological studies at Leicester University, then did a PhD at St Andrews, followed by postdoctoral research at the University of Strasbourg and the University of California. “Every time you move you get further away,” her dad remarked on the phone. “I didn’t feel I would be able to escape unless I did that,” she says.Advertisementhttps://0e808f7d9b05c1d9a4ad4aa7ce8b423a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

“I felt I was a pioneer … When I was young I wanted to be able to look back on my life and realise I had seen the world. It has been that way. But it has been quite hard because I am Indian and I’m a woman, and I never got married and I had no children.”

These days, she says, she does “sort of hanker” for marriage. As for the astronaut career, in 2020, aged 64, she finally applied to Nasa’s astronaut corps, and received a very appreciative rejection.

Even now, at 66, she says: “I haven’t been able to figure out how to deal with [rejection]. It doesn’t go away.” The racist bullying she received as a child has cast a very long shadow.

Flying has helped. It is a workout: she has to tow the plane out to the taxiway. And being airborne offers a different perspective. “You can see eagles, bears, coyotes, mountain lions, birds of prey.

“I love the beauty of the clouds. They are like hills. Vaster than our hills,” she says, recalling the pilot’s words on those childhood flights. “It gives me a sense of freedom.”

New possibilities have arisen – Narayanswami chairs the board of the General Aviation Awards in the US – but she finds relaxing difficult. “I can’t switch off. I’m always churning something, something. But when I’m in the plane I focus totally on flying.” In flight, she is “part of a huge network of people who are communicating by radio frequency. There is no sense of skin colour. We are all tied together by our voices.”

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