Flying High

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Becoming a pilot is a dream that many young ones have growing up. For Sathnara Fernando, becoming a pilot was more than a dream; it was a goal that she was not willing to compromise on. With her determination, hard work and support from family, friends and instructors, she is now not only a qualified pilot, but also Sri Lanka’s youngest female pilot, obtaining her Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) at the age of 17.

“Becoming a pilot was something I’ve always wanted to do growing up,” she shared with
Ceylon Today. “And obtaining a PPL was the first goal in my life.”

Sathnara credits her major achievement to the encouragement and inspiration first given by her mother, a cabin crew member at Sri Lankan Airlines, who helped grow her love for aviation at a young age. “She would often take me to the cockpit after a flight lands back when I was little,” she shared. “It was like a magical, heavenly place for me. I grew up loving all of it.”

Although passionate in aviation, it was when she was 13 years old that Sathnara’s flame sparked to life. “Captain Anusha Mohamed was invited as chief guest for our school sports meet,” she recounted. “In her speech, she said that we should ‘fly high and never give up.’ I’m grateful for her because it was those words which gave me the drive to achieve what I have done today.”

From school, to ground school

“I wasn’t what you would call a star student when I was at school,” she admitted. However, she did participate in a few extracurricular activities, “and my school life ended after I completed my
O Levels in 2019, she said.” Instead of following the usual track of completing her A Levels, Sathnara decided to jump straight into ground school, in order to qualify for a PPL.

Before any aspiring pilot is allowed anywhere near a cockpit, they first undergo special training, also known as ‘ground school,’ where students have to prove their mastery of the foundational knowledge needed to fly an aeroplane, and more importantly, land in one piece.

“I was the youngest person in the room,” she laughed. “At first it was intimidating to be a 16-year-old when everyone else is in their 20s and 30s. All boys, actually. No girls.

“I was pretty much the younger sister to everyone there,” she said. “We all became very close friends, and it was fun. We helped each other out, there was a sense of unity among us all, no competition or anything of the sort.”

Off the ground

Sathnara admitted that although the curriculum was difficult and challenging, her goal to become a pilot helped her push through it all, and finally the day came for Sathnara to take to the skies for the first time.

“It was on 18 August 2020,” she reminisced. “There was a briefing and some pre-flight preparation first. Then it was time. Climbing into the cockpit was an absolute ‘wow’ moment.”

“While we were mid-flight, my captain gave me the controls for a brief moment, and it was a heavenly moment. Flying through the clouds, it was like a dream.” 

Making the record

It didn’t take long for Sathnara to be skilled enough to fly solo. By the time she was 17 – the minimum age mandated to hold a PPL – Sathnara became the youngest female pilot in Sri Lanka.

“It was a really happy moment,” she shared. “I was really happy with my achievement, and all of my family, including my mother as well as my friends who were happy for me as well. It definitely was a highlight in my life.”

Going beyond

Sathnara hasn’t stopped after obtaining her PPL. She is currently working on her Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) which would allow her to not only fly longer distances, but also pilot larger, more complex aeroplanes.

“The CPL is more about learning to fly relying solely on instruments, during bad weather and gaining experience in flying. That means having more hours of flying solo, and you get to fly cross-country, which is an amazing experience as well.”

“CPL involves flying in longer distances, meaning you get to travel cross-country. Sometimes you set off from Ratmalana and fly to Dambulla, then Sigiriya and back. We get to fly over a lot of Sri Lanka.”

“Flying over Sri Lanka is an amazing experience,” she shared. “Words really aren’t enough to express the beauty of the vast expanses. It’s really great. Flying over places like Udawalawa and Sigiriya, and being able to see it from a bird’s-eye-view is truly a life changing experience.”

Taking action, flying high

It is truly amazing to know that Sathnara’s success today began from a goal and dream as a young teenager. She has succeeded in fanning the flames of that small spark, continuing to fuel it until today. She didn’t give up, and now she is flying high.

“Find a vision for your life, and do what you love,” she advised when asked what her advice might be for you, who might be reading this, wondering if you too can achieve great things at a young age.

“Have a vision for your life. Don’t deviate and don’t always go with the flow. Sometimes you can make your own path. I would say not to give up on your vision, and just go for it.”

“Everyone has a vision in their life, and if you do, you just have to keep it alive. That’s what I did, and here I am now. Be smart with your objective and have confidence in yourself.”

When she’s not working towards the next step in her goals, Sathnara is busy volunteering and engaging in social service efforts, focusing especially on empowering young women. She also aims to obtain her higher education in IT, and is enthusiastic and hopeful for what the future has in store.

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage