'We Go Where No One Goes': The Aviation Sector Workers Rescuing Stranded Indians

Since the outbreak, pilots, nursing officers and ground staff have worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of Indians and foreigners while transporting essential supplies.

Chennai: In these unprecedented times, one of the sectors brutally hit by the pandemic is the aviation industry. They have been grounded, literally and financially. With a blanket ban on international and domestic flights, revenues have seen a freefall yet national carriers like Air India continue to bring in stranded Indians from the epicentres of infection, help foreigners stuck in the country reach their homes while also transporting essential supplies.

From the massive Kuwait operation to the one in Wuhan, Air India has a diligent crew ready to respond to national exigencies. With the announcement of the lockdown, domestic and international flights were suspended and only important cargo and charter flights with approval from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation were allowed to fly.

The skies are empty and the airports resemble parking lots but the frontline workforce at every rung in nodal Indian airports, from the ones flying to the loader who checks the cargo, is tirelessly working.

The security in-charge of Operation Wuhan

On January 29, Devdas Natesan Pillai, the deputy manager at the Air India Security Wing received a call from the regional head of the national carrier regarding a rescue operation to bring in stranded Indians from Wuhan, China. “We go where no one goes. Wuhan was not an exception,” said the security in-charge of the Air India Boeing 747 which undertook the medical evacuation of 324 Indians from the COVID-19 epicentre. His wife Mini Pillai had only one query, “Of all the places in China, why are you going to Wuhan?”

On January 31, they reached New Delhi where the director of operations, Captain Amitabh Singh was waiting for them along with a team of medics, ground engineers and the rest of the crew. Everyone was briefed of the risk and told that the PPE was now akin to a life jacket. After Devdas undertook a complete security check of the flight, they took off for Operation Wuhan in the afternoon. “We were going to a country afflicted with a novel virus. We couldn’t afford any lapse in security,” said the aviation security official with over 27 years of experience in the national carrier.

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At 7 pm, Devdas looked down from the landing flight. He saw a breathtakingly beautiful city below, well-lit and manicured. But the eerily deserted city sent a chill down his spine. When the flight landed at the gigantic Wuhan Tianhe International Airport, the official was slightly on edge, for before them was an airport with not a single soul in sight.

The city looked lifeless – a strange sight for Devdas who would have hardly guessed that India was just two months away from this very moment. “It looked very unusual at that time. It was a relief when we sighted a few Chinese officials at the far end of the airport. Captain Amitabh Singh made some quick calls to the Indian embassy informing them about our arrival who then set out to get the evacuees at the airport.”

Devdas Natesan Pillai, security in-charge of the Boeing 747 in the baggage loading area of the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. Photo: Author provided

Donning the heavy PPE, Devdas set out from the flight into the aerobridge and walked slowly but steadily towards the terminal building. He was now on-guard at Wuhan, ground zero. The passengers had arrived by then. The next few hours had him completely occupied, checking and loading their baggage, methodically and cautiously. Fear and anxiety was writ all over their faces which soon turned into welled-up eyes that reflected gratitude. When the evacuees entered the aircraft, the food packs, water bottles and nausea bags had already been dutifully placed in the front trays of their seats by the flight crew.

The crew had instructed them to not engage in any conversation with each other and leave their seats only to use the restroom. The security officer clearly remembers the complete silence in the flight during the five and a half hours journey.

In Delhi, Devdas and his team were screened at the airport and sent off to check-in at a hotel and maintain mandatory quarantine. The very next day, Air India flew yet another flight to Wuhan, which rescued 320 persons. Devdas and his team had briefed them on what to expect once they landed in China.

Once back in Mumbai, he was amused when his colleagues ducked instead of shaking his hand. He was called the ‘Wuhan return’. But the officer wore the badge with pride – not every day does one earn the sense of immense contentment and a treasured letter from the Prime Minister of India.

The nursing officer who went to Wuhan

On January 29, 33-year-old Ajo Jose, a nursing officer at Dr RML Hospital, New Delhi also received a call from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for Operation Wuhan.

Ajo, who went on a day’s notice for the rescue efforts during the Nepal Earthquake and Kerala floods, knew that time was of the essence. He, along with his colleague Sarath Prem, immediately undertook a thorough research on the COVID-19 defence mechanism in China and prepared an all-inclusive procurement list of what they would need for the mission.

The next day, they were ready with the list of items to be procured by the authorities for the massive operation – PPE kits, N-95 masks, triple-layered masks, disposable gloves, sanitisers, infrared thermometers, stethoscopes, general medicines, stationeries, hypochlorite solution, labels and tags to tie bio-medical waste bags for 350 persons. At the last minute, the nursing officer decided to add pulse oximeters in case any of the evacuees suffered breathlessness. In an unknown zone of infection, what they miss could make a big difference.

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On January 30, the team had a briefing in New Delhi, where they were informed that the Chinese government would do core level check-ups and Indian medics would have a window of 18 hours to wrap up screening and get Indian citizens back home. The rescue team was advised to exercise caution and that if any of them showed symptoms, they would have to be quarantined in Wuhan.

The brave Wuhan duo: Ajo Jose, a nursing officer from Dr RML Hospital, New Delhi and Devdas Natesan Pillai, Aviation Security official from Air India, Mumbai. Photo: Author provided

The flight journey in the double-decker Boeing 747 to Wuhan just whizzed by with meticulous planning and preparation. “The first thing Captain Amitabh did was to turn the air circulation inside the aircraft from circular to laminar which meant that the air would flow from front to back and the chances of getting infected would be low. The medical team and engineers would be seated in the first-class cabin and the passengers would be seated in the economy class leaving the first four rows empty. The remaining crew would be seated in the upper deck,” said Ajo.

Ajo who was in the frontline during the Swine flu outbreak knew the importance of a hazmat suit. “Wearing it is difficult and when you remove it, you have to avoid touching the outer layer, as that could be infected. You cannot wear it beyond six hours as the sweat causes contamination. You should also know what to do if it gets torn,” he said.

When Ajo got out of the flight in his PPE, he realised it was freezing as the temperature was two degree celsius. Then he set out with the medical team to prepare for the passengers at the entry point in the terminal building.

“The passengers had to take the escalator to come down to the screening point. We kept a biohazard bag right next to the escalator, to dispose of the masks and gloves that they were using. We disinfected them after which they proceeded for screening, we enquired about their stay in Wuhan and gave them a fresh pair of N-95 masks, checked their temperature and, after sanitisation, asked them to proceed towards the flight. Six symptomatic persons were deboarded,” said Ajo.

After the long process, Ajo disposed of his PPE in a biohazard bag along with other discarded items into the Indian aircraft and got into a fresh pair before boarding the flight. Worn out, Ajo had a sandwich, munched some peanuts and caught a quick nap. So did many on that flight, who were tired and sleep-deprived, he recalled.

At the Delhi airport, the airline landed on a deserted runway where a troop of army personnel was waiting. They were screened by a medical team and the Wuhan evacuees were taken to the ITBP facility at Manesar and Chhawla for 14 days quarantine. Ajo also completed his quarantine before joining duty at the medical emergency department in the hospital. Ajo encountered the next wave of the virus in India as a part of the COVID-19 screening team in Dr RML Hospital, New Delhi where he has been working for the past seven years. He also makes educational videos on the pandemic.

The pilot who carried out rescue operations in Abu Dhabi  

On March 20, fear found no place in Captain Dushyant Kamath’s itinerary while he evacuated 150 Indians from Abu Dhabi. “There were a lot of excited kids and labourers, who would rather get home than be stuck. Social distancing is easier said than done when you are in an aircraft. I just remember sanitising my hands a lot,” says the captain who remained in the cockpit till the evacuees arrived.

Once back home from the rescue mission, Dushyant had a tough time self-quarantining with his four-year-old daughter wanting to see him, while his 8-year-old daughter stayed away. His wife was glad meanwhile, that he didn’t develop any symptoms.

Captain Arjun Sareen (L) and Captain Dushyant Kamath evacuated 150 Indians from Abu Dhabi on March 20th. Photo: Author provided

Kamath also flew a couple of flights to bring in crucial medical supplies like masks and hand-sanitisers. “I just wish people would stay home and follow government regulations as those in the essential services cannot afford that luxury,” he said.

Captain Dushyant said that he couldn’t wait to get back to full-time flying. “As pilots we cannot work from home and we don’t like being grounded,” said the 43-year-old pilot, who has been flying with Air India for over 16 years.

The aviation veteran who ensures aircraft are in shape  

“Everything else can be shut, but airports cannot. Our work is ongoing,” said H.R. Jagannath, the 64-year-old CEO of Air India Engineering Services Limited (AIESL), and the man responsible for maintaining the aircraft in good shape.

Aircraft maintenance is hardwork and no one knows it better than this aviation veteran who has over 35 years of experience. His team of engineers have to ensure that the flights are fit to fly when the lockdown is lifted. Right now, aircraft are being sanitised, fuel tanks drained, surfaces protected from exposure to harsh weather and wheels rotated at regular intervals, to keep the plane parts unaffected. The ground staff constantly checks exteriors and tests the aircraft management software. “Our focus is on maintaining airworthiness, in preparation of return to service,” he said.

“We are working with less than 50% of staff as from flying 450 flights, now it is only around 30 flights per day. Air India’s role in the pandemic is crucial. We only operate chartered and cargo flights now. Our crew has flown all over the world to rescue people. They are our heroes supported by the ground staff who toil in the background,” he said.

Aviation veteran, H.R. Jagannath, CEO of Air India Engineering Services Limited has to ensure aircraft are in good shape. Photo: Author provided

A day’s work for Jagannath who manages over 6000 personnel across the country also involves exhaustive discussions and planning with the state heads on the status and availability of aircraft for crucial operations and allotment of specific time slots. Every plan requires foresight too. “If we fly to China, we have to send along our engineers as local agencies there can’t certify our flights. Aircrafts have to be inspected, management informed, immigration done, and everything has to be planned, keeping in mind the finer details. The commercial department in Air India gets the demand from the ministry, who then intimate us, and we plan further. We also have to take care of the business interests,” says Jagannath who goes to work as usual at the office in Old Airport, Santa Cruz East, Mumbai.

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“With dwindling travellers, we are going to use passenger planes for cargo operations as per the guidelines of Boeing and Airbus,” he said.

The technician offering backend support 

Stephen Moses and his wife work at the Kempegowda International Airport, in Bengaluru. His wife, a customer service personnel at Indigo’s domestic operations, continued working until the lockdown was announced.

But for the 33-year-old technician in-charge at Airworks (an aircraft maintenance and repair service provider), it is work as usual. “I lead a team of 24 persons but at present there are just nine of them. I sent those staying alone in the city to their hometown,” said the empathetic team head who got them travel passes to get home.

Stephen and his team continue to attend to international cargo and rescue operations. “We recently handled Oman as well as Japan Airlines, which took home their nationals stuck in the city. Regular supplies of fruits and vegetables are also being exported to Qatar and medical supplies continue to be imported,” he adds.

Stephen Moses, the technician in-charge at the Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru, offers backend support for international cargo and rescue operations. Photo: Author provided

“We also ensure the safe arrival and departure of flights with a thorough inspection, rectification and refuelling. For every flight that takes off, there are at least 20-25 persons involved in various capacities, including engineers, technicians, loading supervisors, loaders, trim staff, push back and equipment operators apart from those involved in the desk jobs,” said Moses.

“We generally come to work once in two days, depending on the shift and many times we continue to work for days at length. Last week, I had inspected a flight that had arrived from Madrid. In this age, COVID-19 has become more challenging as flights fly from one hotspot of infection to the other. Cargo loaders face the highest risk. They have to stay well-protected as they touch multiple surfaces,” he said.

The quintessential cargo loader

Jawahar Yadav, a 39-year-old who has been loading cargo for over ten years at the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru supports his mother, father, wife, four daughters and a son back home in the Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh with his meagre salary. During the lockdown, he continued his work of uploading and unloading cargo from flights.

The loader works eight hours per day though there are no fixed timings. “We stay half an hour away from the airport in a shared accommodation and leave home atleast two hours before the flight lands. Around 8 of us are engaged in unloading cargo for one flight.”

“My wife wants me to come home but who will feed us? I am glad that there is work available to keep me occupied. They do medical check-ups at the airport and I trust them,” he said.

Nalini Ravichandran is an independent journalist who has worked with The New Indian Express and Mail Today and reported extensively on health, education, child rights, environment and socio-economic issues of the marginalised. She is an alumna of the Asian College of Journalism.