Neerja Bhanot, AC was a purser for Pan Am, based in Mumbai, India, who was shot and killed while saving hundreds of passengers on board a Pan Am plane which terrorists had hijacked – Pan Am Flight 73 – on 5 September 1986. Posthumously, she became the youngest recipient of India’s highest peacetime award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra. Born in a Punjabi family in Chandigarh, she was brought up in Mumbai. Neerja Bhanot had a successful modelling career, simultaneously working as a purser at Pan Am. Her life and heroism inspired a biopic in the form of Ram Madhvani’s Neerja (2016).
Neerja Bhanot was born in Chandigarh, and brought up in Mumbai in a Punjabi Brahmin family. Bhanot was the daughter of Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist, and Rama Bhanot. She had two brothers: Akhil and Aneesh Bhanot She received her early schooling at Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School, Chandigarh. When the family moved to Bombay, she continued her studies at Bombay Scottish School and then graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. It was in Mumbai, where she was first spotted for a modelling assignment which began her modelling career. She was a huge fan of actor Rajesh Khanna and used to refer to quotes from his film throughout her life.
Neerja Bhanot applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am, when in 1985 it decided to have an all Indian cabin crew for its Frankfurt to India routes, and upon selection, went to Miami for training as a flight attendant but returned as a purser.
Neerja Bhanot was the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States, which was hijacked by four armed men on 5 September 1986 at Karachi airport in Pakistan. The aircraft was carrying 361 passengers and 19 crew members. The terrorists wanted to fly to Cyprus and wanted to release some of their members from jail. After the terrorists boarded the plane, Neerja Bhanot alerted the cockpit crew. As the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member American cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer left the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit. Neerja Bhanot, as the senior-most cabin crew member, took charge.
Bhanot had an arranged marriage in March 1985 and joined her husband in the Doha, Qatar. However, the marriage soon deteriorated following alleged dowry pressure and she returned to her parents’ home in Mumbai within two months.
Bhanot has two brothers, Akhil and Aneesh. Her father, Harish Bhanot, worked as a journalist with The Hindustan Times for more than 30 years and passed away on 1 Jan 2008 in Chandigarh at the age of 86.