When Mao’s Red Guards were in full flow in Beijing during the 1965-66 period they created such terror that the Indian Embassy in the Chinese capital was an embattled area. These guards were on the prowl and none could get out of the premises. Their only link with the outside world was the early morning Air India flight that took off and the diplomatic bag that was sent with it. The Ambassador Jagat Mehta worked overtime, keeping the staff awake with his triple-drafting of the diplomatic messages. From the windows of the embassy residential premises the staff would fondly wave as the flight took off, their only link with the outside world. It would be interesting to know what some of those young Guards, now into their sixties, must be thinking of when they see Air India flights over the Wuhan skies.
In another neighbouring capital, Kathmandu, when a Turkish Airlines airbus crash landed blocking the runway in 2015, in an amazing display of coordination and synchronisation the Indian Air Force and Air India airlifted an Accident Recovery Kit from Delhi to remove the struck aircraft. In an operation lasting eight hours the Air Headquarters in Delhi and the Hindon-based C-130 unit swung into action as the Accident Recovery Kit was brought from Mumbai by Air India and loaded onto the transport craft. Air India’s ace technical crew also arrived in Delhi and were airborne by 7 am.
This demonstrated the Air India’s, and also IAF’s, resolve to help friendly nations in times of distress. Its ground crew of welders were in such demand that when other prestigious airlines had suffered bird hits it was these crew who were flown to set things right. These welders could take apart the turbines and clean them and put them back in a day whereas other airlines crew took a week to do these tricky operations. And JRD Tata, the former AI chairman, it is said, knew each one of these modest welders by name and used to inquire about them every day.
It was not surprising that Air India received praise from an unexpected quarter, the Air Traffic Controller in Pakistan recently. This was during the operation of its special flights from India to Frankfurt, transporting stranded European nationals due to the Coronavirus pandemic and crippling the systems of transport planes across the world. The plane was also carrying relief material.
The senior AI captain was heard saying it was a proud moment for them when they heard the Pakistan ATC greeting them while overflying their air space. ‘As we entered Pakistan's Flight Information Region (FIR) and the Pakistan Air Traffic Controller (ATC) greeted us 'Assalam Alaikum!' This is Karachi's control welcoming Air India for relief flights to Frankfurt.‘It was a very proud moment for me as well as the entire Air India crew when we heard from Pakistan ATC praising our special flight operations to Europe. ‘Confirm are you operating relief flights for Frankfurt,’ the Pak ATC further said.‘AFFIRM,’ said the Air India captain in Pakistan's airspace.
The ATC said it was proud of the work the airline was doing during these trying times. The AI pilots thanked them and added that the ATC has saved them precious time by allowing the over flights. In addition, the ATC had also got in touch with Iran when AI entered their airspace and tried to contact their authorities. The carrier operated two flights from Mumbai to Frankfurt in April transporting materials and European nationals stranded in India.
Air India also airlifted, or good measure, vegetables from rural India to Europe in an effort to help out the farmers whose produce was rotting and supply these to the deficit European markets.
In a reversal of roles which only the impish mascot's creator Kooka could have thought of, on a December 2019 morning it rolled out the red carpet for another Maharaja, the King and Queen of Sweden who flew into New Delhi by the Air India’s scheduled non-stop fight with King Carl XVI Gustaf Folke Hubertus relishing the Indian meal served and carrying his own cabin bags while alighting from the Dreamliner, endearing themselves to everyone on that flight. It so happened that six hours before takeoff from Stockholm they received a call from the Royal Palace for ‘a tentative booking for 14 seats, four in business and 10 economy’, according to sources, because the official aircraft of the Swedish royal family had developed a snag and the King and Queen Silvia Renate Sommerlath were keen on keeping their trip as per schedule and be in time for the ceremonial welcome awaiting them.
Though the rating agency of the global air transport industry may not give more than three star rating to AI and those who have flown may also tend to agree, the service it has rendered during the Covid-19 pandemic has made this national flag carrier’s worth far beyond all these ratings. In the past 9 days alone it evacuated stranded Indians from Milan, Rome, Japan, Iran and China. And it made two flights to Wuhan, the global epicentre of the virus.
In fact from March onwards it had organised its entire resources and scheduled 18 flights to fly back German, French, Irish, and Canadian nationals stranded in India. It operated a cargo flight from Delhi to Shanghai to take vital medical cargo. Operating at great personal risk the crew and air hostesses had valiantly carried on with their mission with quiet efficiency. Within India itself, from March 26 to April 4 AI and its subsidiary Alliance Air operated 86 chartered flights transporting medicines and equipment and other essential items to areas in the Northeast and other far-flung areas.
A former AI executive director says this is not a first time they have been functioning like this. In times of crisis, AI had always risen to the occasion. ‘The airline has done it on a number of occasions for the last 30 years or so and it has always earned rich accolades from everyone. This time, though, the personal risks for the crew members were significantly higher. Carrying every passenger was a risk, travelling was a high risk.’
A former Union Minister KP Unnikrishnan recalls a major evacuation of migrants from Kuwait during the Gulf war of 1990, the meticulous planning and perfect coordination that helped airlift 1.48 lakh migrant workers from the Gulf, in perhaps the biggest operation after the Berlin airlift of 1948. Here the ground realities were much more difficult and the logistics limited. ‘There was much anxiety at home, about the fate of the Indians in Kuwait, especially in Kerala, from where thousands had been working in the Gulf,' he recalled. ‘Initially there were some misgivings about logistics and diplomatic constraints involved but we convinced Prime Minister VP Singh and got the Cabinet mandate.’ IK Gujral was the External Affairs Minister and Arif Mohammad Khan the Civil Aviation Minister.
The stranded people were first brought to Amman and from there to Dubai and then on to Mumbai. This operation had been hailed as one of massive air-lifting of all time from a troubled area.
Air India was involved in the Indian government’s Operation Raahat, with the help of the armed forces, to evacuate Indians as well as foreign citizens from strife-torn Yemen in 2015. This was conducted in the midst of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen when it was reeling under an internal crisis. The operation started by sea on April 1 and two days later the airlifts started too. The airlifts by Air India and the Indian Air Force resulted in the evacuation of over 4,500 Indians and at least 900 nationals from 41 other countries. The operations concluded on April 9.
So also Operation Sukoon was carried out during the 2006 Lebanon war when a military conflict broke between Israel and Hezbollah, to evacuate Indians, Sri Lankans and Nepalese from war-hit Lebanon. Of the 10,000 Indians living in Lebanon at the time, around 2,000 were in the conflict zone. At the end, 2,280 people were evacuated from Lebanon, of which 1,764 were Indians, 112 Sri Lankans, 64 Nepalese and seven Nepalese with Indian spouses. The Indian forces also evacuated citizens of some other friendly countries.
The chubby, big turbaned Maharaja, with a thin long moustache bowing from the waist down, had been an endearing image and logo of this airline for a long time. Kooka’s landmark hoardings and sparkling write-ups of the airliner and the exquisite Indian cuisine were such a favourite with the Western travellers that at one time this airline really ruled the skies. In 1953 when it was nationalised for some inexplicable reason, the slide began but it took a long time for it to be a liability that it has become now. Undue bureaucratic management, political interference, and the general decline of the air traffic the world over all contributed to this condition. But at critical junctures, like the present pandemic, this airline can still be counted upon to come to the rescue. The chubby Maharaja would always be at your service, bowing from the waist down.