Dubai: As a pilot with the Indian Navy for 21 years, Captain Yatan Mahlawat had taken part in several emergency missions and rescue operations. However, a passenger flight that he piloted from Dubai to Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala last May remains the riskiest mission of his life so far.
Captain Mahlawat, who had joined Air India Express (AIE) after his premature retirement from the Navy in 2016, flew Flight IX434 — a COVID-19 repatriation flight that had a record 75 pregnant women on board among 181 passengers — on May 16, 2020. It was his second flight as part of the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM), India’s COVID-19 repatriation drive. His first flight was the first VBM flight from Kuwait to Kochi on May 9, 2020.
When he was called in for his first VBM flight from the UAE within a week, Captain Mahlawat did not expect that it would be a more daunting task than just flying stranded expats in a PPE suit amid concerns about COVID-19 infection in the early months of the pandemic.
“But I was thrilled when I got to know the unusual number of pregnant women boarding the flight,” Captain Mahlawat recalled in an interview with Gulf News.
“I was just the lucky one assigned [to pilot that flight]. It was a pleasure that it came on my duty,” said the 49-year-old father of two.
“In the Navy also we do various missions for different types of contingencies. But we don’t carry passengers like this over there. It becomes far more interesting due to the human aspect coming into the picture in civilian flights.”
Various thoughts and concerns crossed his mind as he was preparing for the flight. “We [the crew] had to be very careful. We had to ensure they [pregnant passengers] were all at ease and we had to ensure we avoided turbulence. The biggest concern was — what if someone goes into labour.”
When you fly domestic, you have airfields all around and you can land somewhere quickly. But that’s not the case with international flights. In this case, once you cross Oman after about 20 minutes, you are flying over the sea for the next couple of hours. If you have a situation [medical emergency] over the sea, it will take at least one to one-and-a-half-hour to hit Kochi or else we have to return.”
He said he told the cabin crew members to update him about the scene behind the cockpit every ten minutes, instead of every 20-30 minutes, which is the protocol. “Luckily, three of my four cabin crew members were female.” He said his co-pilot, First Officer Arjun Divakaran, was also of great support on that special flight.
What prompted such a flight?
Vipul, Joint Secretary (Gulf) at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, who was then the Consul General of India in Dubai, spoke to Gulf News about the story behind the special repatriation flight.
VBM flights in the UAE began on May 7, 2020, and the consulate and the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi were in charge of prioritising the passenger list based on the emergency reasons cited for repatriation by stranded Indians who had registered with the missions.
“After a few initial flights, there was so much pressure on us to give more priority to pregnant women,” Vipul recollected.
Media reports, including those appearing in Gulf News, highlighted the plea from pregnant Indian women who wanted to fly back home for their deliveries during the lockdown period. “Initially, we didn’t realise that there were so many pregnant women from Kerala who had come to the UAE and wanted to travel back for deliveries. We had a huge number [of applications from pregnant women]. There were more than 6,000 to Kochi alone,” Vipul revealed.
In just three days, 150,000 stranded Indians had registered for repatriation and the number rose to 450,000 during the peak of repatriation.
Though almost all initial repatriation flights had pregnant women on board, Vipul said the mission started prioritising the applications of women in advanced stages of pregnancy after several of the most-pressing cases of stranded Indians were attended to within a week after the VBM flights began.
“From our database, as well as with the support of our community organisations, we started prioritising women who were more than 32 weeks pregnant. Even that number was fairly large.”
He said they were required to undergo medical examinations and present a fit-to-fly certificate.
Woman goes into labour before flight
Neeraj Agrawal, First Secretary at the Indian Embassy in Morocco, who was then the Consul for Press, Information and Culture at the Indian Consulate in Dubai, recollected a specific incident related to the plight of stranded pregnant women. Speaking to Gulf News, he said he was coordinating the repatriation flights on May 13, 2020. “A pregnant woman was scheduled to board a flight. Suddenly, her water broke at the airport. We had to rush her to the hospital.”
He said he then personally got involved in preparing flights that can carry significantly high numbers of mothers-to-be.
Apart from the Kochi flight with a record number of 75 pregnant women, Vipul said two other flights with 35 and 45 pregnant women on board were also operated around the same time.
Agrawal said at least 70 per cent of the pregnant passengers to Kochi were on visit visas to visit their family members in the UAE. One of them was a woman from Pathanamthitta in Kerala, whose husband had died of COVID-19 in Chennai, according to an airline source. “I still remember the face of that woman. She was in tears when she called up saying she couldn’t get a slot earlier,” he said, requesting not to be named.
While Captain Mahlawat still clearly remembers the pressure that was on him and his co-pilot to safely transport all the mums-to-be and their unborn babies, along with the other passengers, what he was not aware of at that point of time was the presence of two doctors and nurses among the passengers.
That was part of the extra preparations made by the Indian Consulate, the diplomats said.
From among the people who had registered for repatriation, these medics who wanted to fly home urgently, were chosen to fly on the special flight.
“We sounded them [about the speciality of the high number of pregnant women on board] and also asked the airline to carry some additional medical aid in case they needed. We were worried that someone might go into labour mid-air,” revealed Agrawal.
While coordinating the special repatriation flight, he said, ambulances were also alerted to be on standby at the Cochin International Airport.
“Luckily all passengers landed safely. And the entire team breathed a sigh of relief … thanks to the support of all the volunteers, health authorities at Dubai airport, Air India Express and Cochin Airport.”
“When we give a call to the ATC (Air Traffic Control) controllers, we say so many souls are on board. We had 75 extra souls in this case as even unborn babies have souls and their safety was far more important.”
Concerns about the safety of the mums-to-be and their unborn babies were above the concerns of flying the early repatriation flights in PPE, which was “quite demanding”, he said.
“In PPE, we can’t even go to the washroom. So we stop eating and drinking some two hours before the flight. It is also a claustrophobic feel inside the cockpit. On top of it, everybody’s anxiety levels were high those days. Crew were worried about infection. We didn’t know much about the virus.”
However, he said it was a special feeling after flying the special repatriation flight. “You get a special sense of accomplishment when you see the way they [passengers] look at you and say thank you — in whichever language it is — upon reaching their motherland. We could see in their eyes that they were so happy to be reunited with their families.”