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Neerja – One of the most inspirational flight attendants

Neerja Bhanot was an Indian purser/ flight attendant who heroically saved the lives of 358 people onboard Pan Am Flight 73 on the 5th of September 1986. She is one of the most inspiring women in the aviation industry, and her courage is so admirable even to this day.

Who was Neerja Bhanot?

Neerja Bhanot was born on the 7th of September, 1963, in Chandigarh, India. She was bought up in Bombay by her parents and had two brothers.

Neerja got scouted in Bombay to become a model, which is what propelled her modelling career. In 1985, she began working with Pan Am as a flight attendant and quickly got promoted to purser – which is someone who is in charge of the whole crew.

Why is Neerja Bhanot an inspiration?

Why is Neerja Bhanot an inspiration? Neerja Bhanot is an inspiration because she selflessly saved the lives of 358 passengers onboard Pan Am Flight 73 – and it, unfortunately, cost her her own life.

The flight

On September 5th, 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 was heading from Bombay to the USA and was stopping in Karachi, Pakistan and Frankfurt, Germany. There were 380 passengers onboard in total and 13 crew members.

At Karachi Jinnah Airport, terrorists boarded the flight. Their goal was to fly to Cyprus in order to free Palestinian prisoners and also wanted to target Americans and American assets. However, Neerja was able to alert the pilots, who – following protocol – disembarked the aircraft.

Many people have criticised the pilots for leaving the plane; however, it was good that they did – otherwise, the terrorists may have killed more passengers in order to make them fly the plane.

Unfortunately, as soon as the terrorists hijacked the plane, they identified an Indian-American man and shot him dead, then proceeded to throw his body from the aircraft. They then instructed Neerja and the other crew to collect all of the passports from the passengers – so the terrorists would be able to identify the Americans.

Hiding the passports

Neerja and the other flight attendants hid the passports of the 43 Americans on the aircraft. They did this by dropping passports under seats, making passengers cover the passports and by throwing the passports down the bin.

As the hijacking continued, Neerja tried to comfort the passengers by offering them food and comfort. Something that would’ve helped calm the passengers down a little bit – especially as there were children on the aircraft.

During the hijacking

As time went by, the terrorists would threaten the flight attendants and hold guns to their heads. They would open up the plane doors and show themselves threatening them in order to blackmail the emergency services.

Seventeen hours later, the terrorists got fed up with the situation as they were unable to do anything with the plane – due to the quick thinking of the pilots earlier. They then set off explosives and opened fire in the cabin due to the lighting being turned off onboard.

The escape

Whilst the lighting was off and the terrorist was letting fire – Neerja opened the aircraft door in order to help passengers escape. She let the passengers go first even though she could’ve been the first to escape, and then even went back to help three children who were scared and confused.

As she helped the children, the terrorists spotted her and grabbed her hair – then proceeded to, unfortunately, shoot her at point-blank range in the head.

Neerja passed away at the age of 22, just two days before her 23rd birthday on the 7th of September.

Twenty more people sadly died onboard the aircraft. Citizens from India, Italy and the UK represented 71% of passengers who tragically passed away.

Neerja’s Legacy

Neerja’s courage and bravery saved 358 people onboard that dreadful plane, and by doing so, she lost her own life in the process. Fortunately, her legacy has been remembered, and her life and bravery have been honoured in numerous ways.

She was posthumously awarded the Ashoka Chakra Award, which is the highest award for bravery and courage away from the battlefield, by the Indian Government. Neerja was the youngest person to receive this award and the first woman to receive it.

In 2005, she was also posthumously awarded the Justice for Crimes Award during Annual Crime Rights Week, which was held in the USA. Additionally, she was awarded the Special Courage award by the United States Department of Justice, and so were the other flight attendants on board and the flight director.

One child who was onboard the flight stated that Neerja was his inspiration and that he owes every day of his life to her. He has now become a captain for an Indian Airline – or possibly the Indian Airforce – I couldn’t find which one specifically.

Internationally, she was recognised as ‘The Heroine of the Hijack’, which is true because she sacrificed her own life for others.

In 2004, the Indian Postal Service released a stamp in order to commemorate her.

Additionally, there have been lots of things named after her, such as a square in Ghatkopar, Mumbai, called Neerja Bhanot Chowk, Neerja Bhanot Hostel at Panjab University, and many more.

Neerja Movie – 2016

Neerja
Credit: Raj Kathri

In 2016, a movie based on Neerja and the tragic events that unfolded was released. Sonam Kapoor portrayed Neerja, and the movie is in Hindi and English – so if you want to learn more about the events that happened onboard, definitely give it a watch!

The film is one of the highest-grossing Bollywood films, which features a female protagonist and made Β£14 million at the box office. In addition to this, it received numerous awards, such as Best Actress, Best Film and more.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 100% approval rating based on the reviews. Many critics have stated that it is “a must-watch film” and that it is “deeply moving”.

Why Neerja Bhanot is an inspiring woman

I’ve personally chosen to add Neerja to my strong women section because she is such an inspiration and deserves to be remembered for her bravery.

Aviation is such a male-dominated industry, and that’s why I believe that her story needs to be heard by many more people – especially in the ‘Western World’. It saddens me to say that I probably would’ve never heard of Neerja if it wasn’t for when the movie came out originally, but I’m so glad I did.

Many people in her situation would’ve not acted as fast as she did and may have even gotten too scared to help everyone else onboard at the time – and there’s nothing wrong with that, as it is a very scary situation. However, that’s what makes Neerja so great. The fact that she had the chance to escape first, yet put others before herself and went back to help the children is so inspiring.

She has definitely been one of the major inspirations for me wanting to become a flight attendant myself, and now that I am, I want to instil Neerja’s values into my role, and she has taught me how to be selfless if ever faced with danger. I will always think of her and her courage whenever I’m worried or scared, and almost 37 years after her death, she still continues to have an impact.

Have you ever heard of Neerja Bhanot? What did you think of the movie?

If you’d like to learn about some more strong women, check these out:

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