Friday, May 21, 2021

Pilot thrilled to fly 75 pregnant women, unborn babies safely on a Dubai-Kerala repatriation flight

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.

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.”

20/05/21 Sajila Saseendran/Gulf News

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