Akram Monfared Arya is a name vibrant with both nostalgia and bravery. Arya broke with the traditional customs in 1970s Iran when she trained to become a pilot, one of the country’s first women to do so, while also balancing her life as a mother of five children. Her children were aged between two years and 11 years when Arya learned to fly gliders at the Qaleh Morqi Pilot Training School – she gradually progressed to single-engine and then twin-engine aircraft.
Akram Monfared Arya is also a writer and painter. Born on July 15, 1946, a hot summer day in Tehran, she calls herself a “daughter of the sun." Today she lives in Sweden after having left Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
I begin with the first spark. What made you choose this path for your life?
I was a housewife in 1974, raising five children. The television was on and it was showing an advertisement about the Iranian Royal Aviation Club. Suddenly it showed a man and a woman singing and flying in a single engine aircraft in the sky over Tehran. The ad inspired me: a light was sparked in my head. I said to my husbad, “Look, see them flying, while I’m just sitting here at home.”
My husband was an educated man. He had a PhD in law and was one of the top attorneys working at the Ministry of Justice. He was fluent in eight languages. He always encouraged me in my life, never standing against my progress. He encouraged me to continue my education, build a career and to take training courses. That is why he immediately said: “If you want to fly, go do it.” This one sentence became the key, opening the doors to my path to become a pilot. The next day, I found the address of the Royal Aviation Club, which was close to Mehrabad Airport. The next day I met with the head of the Club, Colonel Afashartus.
Many say entry to this field was restricted to a certain social class.
The fee for pilot training, particularly for flying aircrafts with engines, was indeed very high. But flying with gliders, which had a recreational aspect, was three tumans [US$0.50] per hour.But there were not many people interested in the field. The majority were students and pupils who came there to fly for a short period of time.
My father was an architect born in Tabriz and my mother was a housewife from Tehran. Every night, after dinner, my father read history books and the Shahnameh to us. I would eagerly sit next to my father, listening attentively. During school holidays, and at other free times, my father took me to his office and various places when I still a child, from universities to cinemas to mosques. He spoke about the details of how those buildings were built. He influenced my later progress in life.
How did the head of the Royal Aviation Club treat you?
I went to see Colonel Afashartus with my husband. He welcomed my interest in piloting, as I was still young; but when he learned that I had five children, he objected. He said, this is a dangerous vocation and your children might lose their mother. With my usual obstinacy I managed to convince him that dangers are lurking everywhere. I promised to return to Earth safely for the sake of my children. He asked me to begin training with gliders at the Dushan Tappeh military airport; and if I was not not scared, and made progress, I could then go to Qaleh Morqi airport to train on single-engine aircrafts.
Were there other enthusiastic women, similar to you?
When I went to Dushan Tappeh, I found that 200 high school and university girls were already training there. In those days, the fee for flying gliders was three tumans [$0.50] per hour for the public and 15 rials [$0.25] for pupils and students. Not long after I began my training flights, they asked me to establish a club for women pilots. Unfortunately, many of those young women did not continue their training, for various reasons, so the idea of establishing a female pilots’ club never came to pass.
How long did it take to move from flying with gliders to piloting single-engine aircrafts?
After three months of flying gliders, I received my certificate and went to Qaleh Morqi airport to begin training on single-engine aircrafts. From the first day, I told them that my goal was to receive a commercial piloting certificate and to become a commercial airline pilot.
Did the Club officials ever try to obstruct your progress?
Not at all! In fact, their encouragement was very interesting and valuable for me. I was always encouraged and respected by everyone.
How long did it take for you to be able to fly alone?
After 14 hours of training, I passing the qualifications exams and was ready to fly solo. I received my private pilot license and could fly with four passengers while I continued my private or vocational flights. When I landed after that first solo flight, I could not believe who was waiting for me. Reporters, a newspaper photographer, my teachers, and the Club deputy Colonel Mozafari and the staff were all there. I will never forget the overwhelming pride I felt that day. The weekly magazine Zan-e Ruz [Women Today] had published two reports about me; the first, when I was flying with gliders … and the second when Zan-e Ruz wrote about me at Qaleh Morqi airport. Her article later appeared in a book called Iranian Girls and Women: Masters of the World.
Why did women showed less interest in learning to fly?
The main reason was the objection of their families. In the 1970s, doors were open to women. Any woman truly interested to reach a top military or academic position could achieve it. Piloting aircrafts with engines was more expensive than gliders; I think it reached 240 tumans [$35] per hour towards the end of the course. But the Aviation Club employed young people who were approaching the compulsory military service age – and in return for their four years of service they could receive a bursary for piloting training. Girls from any social class, if they were interested and their families allowed, could use that opportunity. If the girls were interested, it was not a far-fetched goal for them.
There are several contradictory narratives about the first woman who learned to fly in Iran. Do you know who was that first woman?
I must say that until my interview was published in Zan-e Ruz, when I qualified as a pilot, I knew nothing about it and nobody mentioned any names. But in a short article in that journal, there was a reference to women who were passing the first year of the Aviation Club's flying course. I should say that it’s not important for me who was the first, because everybody is the first in her or his own path. I was a married woman with five children when I began to pursue my goal. It was not just a hobby for me: I had a loftier goal in mind. After the Revolution [in 1979], there were women who began to fly, who must also be considered the first in their own right.
At any rate, I read somewhere that the first women pilots began their training courses together and graduated together. But only one of them was interviewed, so her name was recorded as the first woman pilot in Iranian history, without mentioning other names. I cannot and do not wish to make a judgment.
Did your career make it difficult to also be a mother to your children?
Even though I was very young, I never neglected my responsibilities as a mother. In fact, I took care of my children even more passionately. Fortunately, my husband's support and my children's excitement made me more determined to continue. I took my children with me when I learned to fly with gliders. I took my youngest son when flying with a single-engine aircraft. My family's encouragement and my mother's prayers, especially after the publication of that report in Zan-e Ruz, as well as public encouragement, from people I did not even know, made me more passionate to continue.
Were you also aiming to fly commercial aircraft?
Before the Revolution, we did not have any women pilots working in Iranian airlines. We were at the beginning of a long road. Women were not familiar with this field; nor did they have much interest in it. And we must not forget that sometimes fathers or husbands deprived women from pursuing further education. Women had just begun to work outside the home in those days. Aseman Airlines intended to employ me to fly twin-engine aircrafts, which included training to fly larger and heavier aircrafts than the single-engine ones. However, as I have always said and written, unfortunately my progress was hindered in February 1979. I had to continue my training to fly airliners and Boeing jets. I had the chance to fly with various single-engine and twin-engine aircrafts until 1979.
Which one of these aircraft was the most exciting to fly?
The most exciting flights of my life was with Cessna 182s and Bonanza high altitude flyers. I must say that single-engine and twin-engine aircrafts are also passenger aircrafts – but the number of the passengers on board is 12 to 14 people.
Why did you immigrate?
Given the circumstances in those years, a large number of families were forced to emigrate from Iran, including my family. I lost my husband while I was still in Iran. I was forced to emigrate with my children to live in a foreign country.
Did you continue to pursue the same path after leaving Iran?
Yes, in 1990 I managed to renew my piloting license. But because of my new situation, I did not find a job in this field. I was a member of the Aviation Club for a few years, and flew with pilot friends and their private aircrafts. The club later moved to another city so I no longer could fly. But media attention here helped me to still feel proud of my life as a pilot. The media here published several interviews with me. Europeans and Americans were not familiar with Iran’s culture, history, economic progress or gender freedoms; it was interesting and sometimes incredible for them that a housewife with five children, in Iran, had the opportunity to become a pilot. USA Today even wrote an article about me.
Did you experience restrictions or pressure as a woman in Iran?
No, not at all; until 1979, everything seemed as brilliant and shining as the sun for me, and you could see progress happening for women. I wrote about my life, my academic experiences and my training as a pilot in my Memoires, published in Sweden in 2012 and translated in Canada. The book was published by the US website Smashwords.com. And I never stopped my writing or artistic activities.