The Helicopter Pilot Saving Lives in the Himalayas

The only woman helicopter pilot in Nepal, Priya Adhikari takes travelers on scenic flights and performs rescue missions on some of the world’s highest peaks.

The Helicopter Pilot Saving Lives in the Himalayas

Adhikari has been a full-time helicopter pilot since 2018, when she began working with Shree Airlines.

Photograph by Nishant Gurung

This story is part of a series on women in the air. Read the other two stories here and here.

Priya Adhikari’s journey to becoming the only woman helicopter pilot in Nepal started with being in the right place at the right time. In 2010, she was working as a flight attendant and happened to be at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport when a helicopter captain asked her to go on a rescue mission. Why her? She wasn’t sure, but she listened to his instructions and took a seat inside the aircraft. Then her world changed.

“When the helicopter took off, I was like, What the hell is this? I want to fly this machine,” Adhikari says.

In Nepal, daughters traditionally get married at a young age. Sons work. Not in Adhikari’s family. After the fifth girl, her parents stopped trying to have a boy. They didn’t need a son. They sent their daughters to the best schools they could. They supported her dreams. Still, her grandmother didn’t understand. A daughter’s job was to learn to cook, clean, and take care of a house.

“My grandmother, I think, wanted a grandson, not a granddaughter,” Adhikari says. “But my mom was very happy. My parents never, ever said anything like, ‘Oh you’re a woman, you cannot do this.’ They never said anything like that.”

Adhikari’s parents supported her through her schooling. They let her decide her career path and encouraged her as she first hoped to study environmental science. Even when she got a job as a stewardess to help the family because her mother got sick, she kept studying—reading before and after takeoff, taking classes before and after work. Within four months of that first helicopter ride, she had taken out a loan from her parents and was in the Philippines, training to get her license. When she returned to Nepal, she worked 365 days a year to amass the required flying hours to become a captain.

While some men snickered behind her back that flying was a man’s job, she outworked them. She flew whenever she could. In 2018, Adhikari became a helicopter pilot with Shree Airlines, dropping off cargo, flying travelers on chartered trips, and performing more than 1,000 rescue missions in the Himalayas.

These days, Adhikari’s father—who used to drive people around Nepal for work—drives her to the airport in Kathmandu, where her H125 chopper waits. She suits up and goes through the checklist, signs her paperwork, looks over her helicopter, and calls around to different airports and reliable locals to figure out the conditions. If she’s flying travelers, she goes over the instructions with her passengers, reminding them over and over again about the rear helicopter rotor, which can chop a person’s head off in an instant.

When everyone has been sufficiently warned, they get in. Adhikari takes off, usually to Kalapathon for breakfast with a view of Mount Everest. Adhikari herself has never climbed Everest. She doesn’t climb those kinds of mountains, she says. She prefers to land on them.

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