Breaking the barriers: She was a refugee in Nepal, today she is the first Bhutanese refugee women pilot in the US

Tulsi Bhattarai, a Bhutanese refugee woman, had to struggle a lot in the US but she persevered and achieved her goal of becoming a pilot. Here is a story of her struggles, challenges, moments of victories, joys and success.

Arjun Pradhan

  • Read Time 8 min.

United States: She came to the dream land of the United States from the refugee camp in eastern Nepal. She broke the barriers and overcame great challenges to achieve her dreams. 

Tulsi Bhattarai fled her home country–Bhutan–due to Ethnic Cleansing, conflict and persecution and resettled in the United States, where she pursued her passion for aviation. She faced many obstacles along the way but she never gave up on her dream of becoming a pilot. 

Today, Tulsi is a licensed pilot and a role model for women and refugees around the world. Her perseverance and determination serve as an inspiration to all of us, and her achievements remind us that anything is possible with hard work and dedication. 

Tulsi grew up in the eastern part of Nepal as a Bhutanese refugee. In 2007, the United States and several other countries began a resettlement program for Bhutanese refugees. Over 100,000 refugees have been resettled since the program began, the majority of them in the United States. 

The resettlement process was not without its challenges, as many refugees had to adapt to a new culture and way of life in a foreign country. However, many have also thrived and built new lives for themselves and their families. Tulsi Bhattarai is a shining example of the latter.

Tulsi Bhattarai chooses to fly in United Sky where her dream is full of happiness. On May 8, 2019, she became the first Bhutanese refugee women pilot and received a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as Flight Instructor in the aviation world. 

Today, Tulsi has won the heart of all young women who settle in the USA. But her story is full of struggles and challenges. Nepal Live Today’s Arjun Pradhan spoke to her on a range of issues including her struggle and vision for a better world. Excerpts:

What inspired you to become a pilot, and when did you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in aviation?

I was eight years old when I first saw an airplane flying in the sky. I stared at it until it vanished in the horizon. I wanted to be inside that plane. I started wondering how it feels to fly. I started dreaming of it but there was absolutely no way I could be inside it because as a refugee girl I had no money. We were surviving each day with help of UNHCR. When we got resettled in America 2008, it seemed like my childhood dream could come to reality. But to start life in America was full of struggles–from culture shock to learning English, and furthering education. I was resettled in Jacksonville, Florida. I started going to community college in 2009. I had to be very fluent in English in order to work in airplane. So that was the first step, going to college and furthering education. I resettled with my parents, sisters and two brothers. My brothers were young. I had support of my sister for further education, she was also going to college with me. My very first job at the age of 18 was a flower girl in Walmart. My sister also worked at Walmart with me. Two of my brothers were in middle school and high school. 

Then we went to Florida State College at Jacksonville. I still remember falling asleep on the bus ride and the bus driver often had to wake me up to my stop because I was exhausted by 10 pm. For 18 years old that was a lot of work, but I never wanted to give up. By 2012, we had moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I went to a community college in Allegheny County for nursing. But after each class I would research about how to be a pilot or a flight attendant. I went to talk to a counselor about being a pilot and he told me it would cost 80,000 US$ and I couldn’t afford that. So, I started researching about being a flight attendant. I started applying for a flight attendant job in 2012, I went to interview with many airlines. They didn’t give me a job because I was barely 5 foot, and I wasn’t selected after the video interview probably because of my heavy accent.

Yet I did not give up. Finally after three years, Allegiant Air hired me to start flight attendant training for six weeks. I took the training and graduated from class in May 2015. It felt like my dream came true but that wasn’t the end of my story. I wanted to be a pilot. So, I went to another school in Sanford Florida to find out what I needed to do. They told me I had to quit my job and have to pay 100,000 US$ to finish the training. So I could not leave the job that I had finally managed to get. I worked longer hours for three years and managed to save money. Then in January, 2018 I started pilot training in Pittsburgh. I was still able to keep my job as a flight attendant and still go to college to be a pilot.

 What was your experience like while obtaining your pilot’s license? What challenges did you face along the way?

Pilot training was so intense that at times I regretted even starting it but I knew that was my dream and I had to work hard for it. Pilot training comes with many challenges from anxiety and stress of stalling or spinning the airplane to handling engine failure during flight. It comes with many mental challenges as well. There were unlimited numbers of challenges I faced and am still facing but the very first challenge I faced was my height. To fly an airplane I had to see outside as well as be able to reach the rudder paddle by my feet. I couldn’t do both. But my chief pilot, Frank Beresnyak, knew how committed I was. So he bought me seat cushions that helped me to see outside as well as reach the rudder paddle. Pilot training is non-stop study and commitment. I had a very hard time multitasking, such as navigating, flying and also talking to air traffic controls. Learning to land the airplane was the hardest thing. I wanted to give up so many times because I just couldn’t understand. I had no aviation background. Starting everything on my own was a big challenge. Each phase of pilot training gets more intense and harder.

In your view, what are some of the biggest challenges facing women in the aviation sector  today? How can these challenges be overcome?

I think aviation is seen as a male-dominated career. It’s often thought women cannot do men’s jobs. There are only seven percent of women pilots around the world. I have been very lucky so far to run into great people who support me through this journey, but I have read stories of being told that you are a girl and you don’t know anything about airplanes. But things are changing. Most of the airlines these days are supporting women in aviation and hiring women pilots. 

What is your favorite part of flying, and what do you find most challenging about your job as a pilot?

I get to leave my problems on the ground. When I am in the air nothing matters but flying and enjoying being thousands of feet above the ground. It’s an amazing feeling and it’s never the same view from the flight deck. It goes from sunset to sunrise, to sunny day to rainy and rainbows. It’s amazing. Currently I’m working as a flight instructor to build 1500 hours to go fly airlines jet. I enjoy my job as a flight instructor to make other pilots. When they get their license it is just an incredible feeling.

How do you balance your work as a pilot with your personal life, and what do you do to unwind when you’re not flying?

I like challenging myself. I love doing yoga. I started yoga when I was a student pilot. When I was learning to land an airplane, I would hold my breath and obviously that wasn’t helping. My instructor had suggested doing yoga to help breath which was the best advice I have got to further my career. It helps me to be in my space. I enjoy my job so balancing hasn’t been a tough job. I go to yoga in the morning before going flying and I start my day at work. I meet with my friends for lunch or dinner often. 

We support each other greatly. I met my best friend Justyne Lasher on my first day of flight training. She flies for Castle Air and we have been best friends since then. I love spending time with her. I like reading books or having lunch or dinner with myself. Also, I love spending time with my family. I often take my parents on a trip which they enjoy.

What advice would you give to young Bhutanese women who are interested in pursuing a career in aviation? How can they best prepare themselves for this field?

I would say get curious and don’t give up. It gets so hard but it’s all worth it. Give time to your work, ask questions, and get necessary help. There is not a thing you can’t do if you are committed and do the hard work. There is more than being a wife and mother in this world. We are often pressured by society to get married at a young age, but don’t live your life by what you have been told. Go out and find out what you are interested in. Find out who you are before starting your married life with a man. Don’t get me wrong I’m not against marriage but find out who you are before you decide to become a wife or a mother. Life is not easy and getting married doesn’t solve the problem. Just don’t give up and go after your dream.

What has been your most memorable flight experience as a pilot?

Every flight is very different and enjoyable. Some flight does get stressful when we encounter unexpected weather, or mechanical problems but we are trained to handle those challenges. My most memorable flights are with my friends when we fly to other airports to have lunch or dinner. We have the freedom of being able to get on the air with your best friend. It’s just amazing. I am often told I am too young to be a pilot. Most people get amazed when I say I’m a pilot. Another happy moment for me was when I made an 18 year old guy a pilot and to see how happy he and family were. I’m very close with his family. His name is Cody. They are grateful to me.

What do you think needs to be done to encourage more women to pursue careers in aviation and increase diversity in the industry?

They need to be given full support and encouragement from family for hard work. We often face financial challenges and family pressures of finding a husband. I’m very lucky to have my family supporting me through this journey and letting me figure out my life and letting me follow through my heart to get somewhere in life. But not everyone gets that.

What do you hope to achieve in your career as a pilot? What are your long-term goals in this field?

My long-term goal is to fly Airbus 320 for Delta Airlines. I know there is a long way to go. But I won’t stop until I get to that. For pilots there is no stop, we can always further our career by learning to fly bigger jets. I would like to say to all that we should be bold and go after what we want out of our life.