From the field to the sky, from never-ending struggles to being the torchbearers to thousands, from extreme poverty to now being one of the most successful Indians, Captain AD Manek’s life is not just a story of persistence and passion, but of dreams and of self-belief.
It was 1967, when poverty was widespread across villages in India and people were fighting battles of survival. In one such small village viz. Vyara of Gujarat, lived a 7- year old boy, who survived via landless labour. Selling mowed grass at a ‘4 Anna’ for a bundle, he with his aunty would fend for a family of four. But Manek realised that education was a weapon for growth and he continued to excel in primary school.
To continue education and write his 7th class board exams, he shifted to his father’s village: Manekpore, where he walked 6 kilometres up and down each day to attend school. Just like the churning of gold, Manek would walk barefoot in severe heat or walk through swampy roads in rainy season just to attend classes. During the year 1973, in spite of having no electricity in his village, with his perseverance he studied under the oil lamp to prepare for school examinations. To excel in the examinations, he had to take extra classes for which the teacher charged Rs.20/month. But with no money and lack of resources, Manek opted to work all day long on Sundays and school holidays–in the field– to make 1 Rupee and 4 Anna a day.
One day while toiling hard at the field, he saw an aeroplane fly over his head and that was the start of his life-long affair with Aviation. His life’s biggest dream, at 13, was to fly an aeroplane.
Manek’s dreams gave flight to his ambition and he decided to come to Bombay where his father was living in slum area of Kurar Village, Malad and owning one room of 10×12 feet and employed as peon in an English-run firm called John Wyeth & Brothers Ltd at Churchgate.
But the climb up was not as easy. Manek didn’t know English, Marathi and Hindi as he was in a Gujarati medium government primary school in the village. It got tough and his motivation, interest and grades started to suffer and he started going astray from the main goal. But he was not someone who would give up easily. He didn’t let the rod spared by the teacher spoil him but let it polish him as he finished school victoriously. He stayed put and looked for innovative ways to better the language. He watched English movies at 90 paisa per show, talked to foreigners at tourist spots like Gateway of India, Hanging Garden, Juhu Beach and read a lot.
He even worked as labour in plastic ring factory in Jogeshwari on a part-time basis to support family income till he finished 12th Standard board Examinations. After this, he enrolled into Siddharth College of Commerce in Mumbai and began his formal search on what was to be done to become a pilot. In this process reading about aviation became his building ground. He became a member of American Centre Library, Indo-Soviet Library and British Library. He continued to gain theoretical knowledge about aviation, its history and geography.
Manek read a book about a young pilot Charles Lindberg from the 1920’s. He had designed own aeroplane and flew non-stop crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 33 and half hours from USA to Paris and covered 5790 kilometers. He only had four sandwiches and two bottles of water on him. In this book, Lindberg had recounted his hourly experience. This greatly inspired him as the flight was of times when technology only allowed for 2 to 3 hours of a continuous flight and there were no advanced navigation systems in place but this man achieved this great a feet.
Along with his college studies he did part time jobs in offices and factories. As he could not afford to buy books, he read on borrowed books from a Charitable Book Bank ran by a Trust in Charni Road. Before college annual exams, he would borrow exam guides from friends and studied them under the street lamp. He craved for practical knowledge and in the second year of college, he joined the NCC Armour Wing. During NCC training he excelled in rifle shooting and horse riding. As hard work and passion had to have it, he proved his mettle and won the Best NCC Cadet of Maharashtra title in 1983 with a gold medal from former cricketer Madhav Mantri. The media went frenzied knowing the background of this young, angry man who was bent on achieving this tall a feet with hardly any resources.
Manek’s skill and knowledge paid for and he got selected in Bombay Flying Club for his practical flight training but upon knowing his father’s profession of a peon, he was refused admission.
Reading that, Late Mr. Mithaiwala, a businessman from Surat came about to help him become a pilot but the cost of learning to fly and obtain Commercial Pilot Licence was Rs 2 Lacs. Impressed with his vast knowledge of aviation Mr. Mithaiwala tried helping Manek but could only support him with Rs.5000, which was used to enrol into the Gujarat Flying Club, Vadodara. This is where he earned a Student Pilot License and a Private Pilot License.
His story had touched many hearts. Looking out came another gentleman, to form an alliance for his sister. Coming from an affluent background, he even proposed to offer him Rs.2 Lacs as financial assistance, so that Manek could comfortably pay for his education and start a living with his sister. But a self-respecting and individualistic Manek refused to take the money or marry. Honest about his background and the struggles his family was facing, he was upfront with ‘Kumud’ (now his wife). His family home was a mud house with no washroom or any furniture. Not enough source of income and an added responsibility of siblings and parents. Even though there were troubles but she saw a life with him, and agreed to stand next to him in thick and thin.
They married on May 9th, 1984 and had two beautiful sons.
When he would be flying or canvassing through the length and breadth of the country to make aviation work, she would be making two responsible and driven individuals out of the two sons along with the joint family. While Gujarat Flying Club trained him to be a private pilot, he still needed to obtain a Commercial Pilot License to make for a viable career option.
In between he tried to join the Indian Air Force as an Airman but he was disqualified for being underweight, since he had recovered from an appendicitis surgery.
At the age of 28, he was running short on time with 30-years of age as the upper limit to get employment with the Air India or Indian Airlines. The Indian curricula would take 4 to 5 years to finish the CPL course making it impossible for him to while the one in America would make him a fine pilot in 6 months.
In order to sustain and save some for his fee, he then joined National Water Development Agency (NWDA) Ministry of Water Resources as a lower division clerk, Government of India Baroda Office as a CLERK CLASS III Employee. After working for some time with NWDA, he got employed as a typist with Life Insurance Corporation of India, Bardoli Office. He stretched his limits and before and after the office hours gave private coaching tuition to students. But it was not enough to reach the target of Rs.2 Lacs.
He even approached pilot and Hon. Prime Minister Late Shri Rajiv Gandhi, First Pilot of India and Bharat Ratna Sir JRD Tata, many charitable trusts including J.N. Tata Endowment Fund, Sir Ratan Tata Trust, NM Wadia Charities but each of them turned down his application for assistance.
Increasing responsibilities and no favouring conditions, he could see his dream slip away but maybe this was not the end.
In 1985, the newly elected Chief Minister of Gujarat happened to be from his vicinity, Shri Amarsinh Chaudhary, he decided to give it another shot and seek an educational loan from the government. Through the help of a social worker, he got to meet him at 10.30 in the night and narrated his journey so far. Touched by his story, he called his Chief Secretary, Mr. Rama Subba Rao to meet him right then and handed over the case. Next day he grilled Manek on every little to big detail about aviation. He marvelled at his knowledge and immediately gave orders to send ahead a Government Resolution (GR) to help him. This was when discussed in Vidhan Sabha, Opposition Party; Janata Party objected questioning why help one when many could be helped in parts of the money needed. It got stalled for two years but his unrelenting efforts to follow up made him get the file approved. He got the Government Treasury cheque of Rs.1,77,792/- equals to USD 16000/-. His trunk calls to the University in US started and he secured an admission but another roadblock cropped up as Reserve Bank of India Forex Permit was refused on the grounds of ‘not being an airline employee’. His trips started to RBI, Mumbai and then Delhi. He met the Mr. RN Malhotra, the RBI Governor but was refused citing the RBI manual which said the permit for foreign aviation training was only to be given to the one who was linked to Airline as an employee.
He felt shattered and lost. He had the money, admission in US Flight School, but age and the permit were not on his side. He was offered by an aide there to get any employment letter from the airlines and he would release the permit. But Manek refused saying, “If I have come so far, it is because of my honesty and determination and he won’t compromise on it”.
Then he moved to the Prime Minister Office (PMO), and corresponded with the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He contacted the Finance Ministry to explain his situation, and tried meeting Finance Minister ND Tiwari but found he was put across as a commoner and was not able to get through. He went again to CM, Gujarat and obtained VIP pass and met the Finance Minister. He signed Priority on his application and sent it to the Secretary in the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance of Government of India; in South Block, New Delhi. He waited a full day to meet the Secretary in the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance of Government of India, Mr. J.L. Bajaj. Mr Bajaj assured him and told him to wait for a reply from the ministry.
Hours turned into days turned into months, the wait was not getting over. Till one day he gave up and decided to give up on his life, as nothing was changing even though he fought each battle to get success, But when you are in the darkest pit, the light shows up. That very day in the afternoon he got a telegram from RBI to come and collect the forex permit. He read it several times as he could not believe his eyes. That was the victory to have changed the forex permit regulation in the RBI: A milestone that has helped many thousands students who followed.
His eyes twinkled again. He got readmitted in US Flight School, and left for US in 1988, as the first person from his village and state to go out of India to study aviation. People came in trucks to bid him success at the airport.
When he reached USA, he realised the money granted as education loan by Government of Gujarat was just enough for the course fee and he had to earn his bread. Since he didn’t have any work permit, he started helping at the Flying School by cleaning the small 2/4 seat training aeroplanes at US$5 per aeroplane. Working weekends he would make about $125 to sustain. Sometimes he used to work as a helper to handle Hot Air Baloon belonging to Mr. Jerome Hoffman, owner of Flying School or work as a Safety Pilot for Airline Senior Pilots practicing Flying under Bad visibility.
But life took another turn.
One day, while relaxing in the aeroplane cockpit after tiring, cleaning and washing of the plane he was recounting his struggle so far. He realised how many more young boys like him would have the same dream but would give up on the idea, given how expensive or difficult it could get for a man of not many means. He decided to upgrade his career plans to become an Aviation Instructor and open an aviation school to help others realise their dreams.
After completion of training he returned to India and joined as Aviation Instructor with Air India Employees Guild. Later he opened “The Skyline Aviation Club” and has so far trained over 4000 first class pilots and other airline professionals who have gained name and fame across borders. In thirty years, this flight school has taken flying out to the regular dreamers and made them look ahead of the conventional employment options.
And it doesn’t stop here. His’ is the first family in the country which breathes aviation: Both his sons are pilots, one a senior airline pilot another a Pilot Instructor, the two daughters-in-laws: one a Certified Aircraft Dispatcher and the other a Flight Attendant. Last but not the least, his wife holds a Student Pilot Licence and is slowly moving out of her comfort zone and panning the sky.
Looking back he owes his success to the people who helped him in the right times. “I would not have been at this place if I didn’t find all those kind souls who stood next to me in times of need or the ones who told me to push my limits and do better,” said Manek. That was the philosophy behind starting “Mahyavanshi Vikas Manch”, an NGO that is driven for ‘Vikas’. As the national president of the NGO, his goal is to help poor students and provide medical assistance.
Capt AD Manek is featured as Aviation Expert by various TV Channels including CNN IBN, Headlines Today, Aaj Tak, DD1, DD11 and Rajya Sabha. Currently, he is also the AVIATION IN-CHARGE: Bhartiya Janta Party, Surat District, Gujarat, India. And a Recipient of Best Aviation Instructor in India Award by Pride of Indian Education, New Delhi 2017, Recipient of Social Service Award by Dept. Of Social Justice & Empowerment, Government of Gujarat 2015, Recipient of Exceptional Service Award for Disaster Management by NIAR, Hyderabad 2001, among many others.
From a daily wage of Rs.1.25 to making pilots, he changed 27 jobs, and 9 houses. But one dream, one life and a whole lot of grit and undying passion. That’s the story of Captain AD Manek.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A development Sector Professional who started her career in journalism with names like TOI and Tehelka. What inspires Megha the most are the stories of people who learned to fight, to make it large. As an editor for India’s Most Inspiring Success Stories, her aim has been to bring out the stories that inspire to aspire. And for her, it has only reaffirmed her faith in dreaming and achieving.