Updated at 12:34 p.m. ET on 2018-03-16
Prithula Rashid described herself on her Facebook page as an “ordinary girl” with an “extraordinary love” for aviation, literature and fluffy animals.
But days after she and 50 other people were killed in the crash of a Bangladeshi airliner in Kathmandu, she is gaining posthumous recognition for what hundreds of social media users described as her bravery and self-sacrifice.
Rashid, 25, was the co-pilot of ill-fated US-Bangla Airlines Flight 211, and one of a relatively tiny number of women to have earned her wings and made a career as a professional aviator in Bangladesh.
A post from Sikkim Messenger, a Facebook page based in Sikkim, India has been shared more than 5,500 times after it called on the Bangladeshi government to declare the late first officer a national hero.
Rashid, the posting said, “tried to save around 10 Nepali nationals before she died” after the airliner slammed into an empty field and burst into flames while landing at Kathmandu airport on Monday.
“She is a real hero,” Rumana Afroz, a Bangladeshi Facebook user, commented on the Nepali page, referring to Rashid. “In her heroic sudden death, her family and all Bangladeshi should be proud of her.”
Authorities said Rashid died when the plane, a Bombardier Q400 turboprop, veered off the runway as it was touching down at Tribhuvan International Airport during a flight from Dhaka. The plane was carrying 71 passengers and crewmembers.
It was not immediately clear why the Facebook page attributed the survival of the Nepali nationals to Rashid. The plane’s 67 passengers included 33 from Nepal, 32 Bangladeshis, one from China and one from the Maldives.
But the Facebook post, which immediately went viral, turned the spotlight on Rashid, one of an estimated 30 female pilots in Bangladesh and the airline company’s first woman pilot.
She was the only child in a middle-class family, her uncle, Ashikur Rahman, told BenarNews.
She joined US-Bangla Airlines, a subsidiary of the privately-owned joint venture US-Bangla Group, as a pilot and first officer in July 2016 after completing her training at Arirang Flying School in Dhaka, Rahman said.
Another relative, Tofiqur Rahman Sumon, said Prithula was taking up English and modern languages at the North South University, a private university in Dhaka, when she decided to pursue flying as a career.
“At first, her parents or any of the family did not want to accept this risky occupation,” he said.
“But, later, her wishes won out. We feared for her safety, but we did not want to break [her] heart.”
The crash of Flight 211 was the deadliest disaster involving a Bangladeshi airliner, as well as the worst accident involving the Bombardier Dash 8-Q400, according to the Aviation Safety Foundation.
Capt. Abib Sultan, the plane’s pilot, died Tuesday at a Kathmandu hospital where he was taken in critical condition after the crash, authorities said.
The plane’s black box – which includes the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder – was recovered Tuesday, officials said.
Investigators were hoping that the black box would answer the question on whether pilot error or a wrong instruction relayed to the cockpit from the airport’s traffic control tower contributed to the disaster. Officials said the cockpit voice recorder, which preserves a recent history of sounds in the cockpit, including the conversation of the plane’s pilots, would help facilitate the investigation.
On Tuesday, Nepalese civil aviation authorities said Flight BS 211 was cleared to land from the southern end of the single runway at Tribhuvan, but it landed from the opposite direction despite instructions from air-traffic control to the pilots to correct the plane’s course.
Workers at Tribhuvan told reporters that the plane overshot the runway by about 150 feet before nose-diving into the deserted field just beyond the airport fence. An intense fire broke out toward the tail end as rescuers pulled panicked passengers out of the front of the plane.
On Wednesday, US-Bangla Airlines shut down all its flight operations between Dhaka and Kathmandu for an indefinite period, the Bangladeshi newspaper Daily Star said, quoting Kamrul Islam, the airliner’s general manager, who said it was “due to shortage of aircrafts.”
Rashid’s friends, family members, former classmates and government officials mourned her death in online tributes to her.
“Love you, Prithula Rashid, my dear sister,” Shahriar Alam, the Bangladeshi state minister for foreign affairs, said in a post on his Facebook page on Tuesday. “The name of Bangladesh goes up a bit for some people like you. Stay well in afterlife."
Prithula’s last post on her Facebook page shows a couple of pictures with “Avled,” a friend’s cat.
Controversy follows death
Despite the outpouring of sympathy for Prithula’s family, her death did not come without controversy.
“Some people are spreading confusion. There are different types of comments about her in social media, which is not right,” one of her relatives said.
After the accident, a few Bangladeshi conservatives posted comments on Facebook questioning the ability of women to work as pilots.
“In two deadly air crashes in Bangladeshi airlines history, the co-pilot was a woman,” a pilot of Regent Airways, another of the nation’s airlines, told BenarNews.
On Aug. 5, 1984, a Biman Bangladesh Airlines plane crashed into a marsh near the Zia International Airport, now known as Shahjalal International Airport, in Dhaka, while landing in poor weather, killing 49.
“In that incident, the co-pilot was Kaniz Fatima Rukhsana,” the BenarNews source said. “She was the first commercial license holder woman pilot of Bangladesh."
“Earlier in 1998, another female pilot named Faria Lara died along with her instructor during a crash,” he said, without elaborating.
But the BenarNews source acknowledged that Rashid’s achievements have been extraordinary.
At least 250 pilots are employed in three private airline companies in Bangladesh, aviation officials told BenarNews. There are no more than 15 women among those pilots, they said, adding that about 10 female pilots also serve in the government’s roster of 193 pilots.
“Around 1,200 total licenses are issued by Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB),” wing commander Chowdhury Mohammad Ziaul Kabir, director of CAAB, told BenarNews. “Among them, approximately 30 pilots are female.”
Officials of the US-Bangla Airlines expressed their grief over the death of their two pilots and two crewmembers, but “Prithula was a pride of the US Bangla airlines,” one of his senior colleagues told BenarNews on Tuesday.
Anisur Rashid, Prithula’s father, said many friends and relatives had expressed their condolences, as well.
“They are talking about her achievements, too. But I'm asking them, what would we do with these?" he said, appearing nonchalant. “In the end, she gave life to others but lost her own.”
CORRECTION: The main photo in an earlier version of this report misidentified the pilot who was pictured as Prithula Rashid. An earlier version also wrongly reported that Sikkim Messenger was a Nepalese Facebook page.