This engineer swapped the cubicle life for paragliding
Over the past two decades, Fly Nirvana has trained around 5,000 pilots, and are today certified to hand out licences granted by the Switzerland-based Association of Paragliding Pilots and Instructors
It was during the mid-90s that Sanjay Rao realized he wasn’t cut out for the engineering industry. His thirst for exploring the outdoors had led him in the past to Kamshet, between Mumbai and Pune, where he eventually landed up purchasing a plot of land. Over time, it became his escape from city life. At that point, if someone had told him that he would set up a paragliding school, Fly Nirvana, which would run out of the same barren plot a few years later, he would have simply shrugged.
Rao graduated with a degree in electronics engineering from Manipal University in 1988. Right through his growing years, he enjoyed his time in the outdoors but soon found himself in an air-conditioned room all day at his first job with Zenith Computers. “I was opening up computers, repairing chips and doing all kinds of technical things. I thought that if this was engineering, I definitely didn’t want to be a part of it," Rao, now 52, says.
After a short stint in Dubai, he moved back to India and dabbled with the stock market for some time with his savings. He made enough money to invest in the land along with his now wife, Astrid. By the time the market went bust around 1996, he was married with a baby, and considered moving back to engineering.
A few days later, some friends from engineering class paid him a visit in Kamshet. They arrived with a couple of friends from abroad, who were certified paragliding pilots. Over a barbecue, Rao learnt about the concept of paragliding and took on their offer to go flying the next day, even as he looked on in disbelief at the bags in which the gliders were stuffed.
“I first thought they were talking about the hand gliders, because none of us had seen a paraglider in India in the 90s. But I couldn’t get over the fact that I was to fly with that bag lying at my feet. The engineer’s brain of self-preservation came into play," Rao says.
But the unique experience of flying the following day had piqued his interest. He asked the two pilots if they would be open to teaching him how to fly.
“I told them I would rent a place, cook for them, even do the dishes, as long as the washed their own clothes. And they agreed," he says.
Later, an article in a Mumbai tabloid drew an inquiry from two clients in Mumbai. “It got me thinking if there was potential to start a flying school. I borrowed money from my sister to invest in equipments, and in 1998, Fly Nirvana had its first students. The next year, there were six," he says.
While the flying was sorted, Rao started work on a guest house on the same land, where the students could be housed, and which could bring in much-needed revenue in the monsoon when flying is inaccessible. By 2003, basic accommodation was constructed and the inauguration of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway drastically cut down the travel time to Kamshet.
Over the past two decades, Fly Nirvana has trained around 5,000 pilots, and are today certified to hand out licences granted by the Switzerland-based Association of Paragliding Pilots and Instructors.
In the future, Rao’s looking to organize paragliding holidays around the world.
“We were broke for the first 10 years. It’s been a long, slow rewarding process with no quick fixes. But I’m happy, despite having no major bank balance. The bills have been taken care of," Rao says. Career Detour features people who quit their 9-to-5 job and made adventure sports their profession.