On the evening of April 1, Wing Commander Hansraj Bhatt began ‘Operation Sanjeevani’, one of the longest missions of his 18-year flying career. Taking off from the Hindon airbase in his C-130J Super Hercules, he landed first at the New Delhi airport. He then criss-crossed the country, Mumbai, Madurai and Chennai, picking up six tonnes of medicines and essential supplies, before flying out across the Indian Ocean to the Maldives. It was nearly 30 hours before the aircraft returned to base in Hindon after delivering the relief supplies to India’s island neighbour. The versatile special missions transport aircraft has been designed to fly low level sorties to deliver commandos and equipment into enemy territory and operate from rough and ready airstrips. It is one of the workhorses which the Indian Air Force has used during the lockdown to deliver over 600 tonnes of relief supplies, medicines, essentials and passengers, across India.
Sergeant Sunny Parmar
The military special missions that these aircraft fly call for a unique set of skills. Flying Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief” (HADR) missions are taxing since there are several imponderables like airfield and fuel availability in disaster zones. Flying through a contagion is especially challenging because, as Wing Commander Bhatt says, “we are operating in unusual circumstances.”
Pandemic flying is a difficult task since, as Sergeant Sunny Parmar explains, crews operate in close proximity with passengers and cargo. Sergeant Parmar is a ‘loadmaster’ on another one of IAF’s workhorses, the Soviet-built IL-76, which recently flew 200 pilgrims who had returned from Iran, from a military-run quarantine facility in Jodhpur to their homes in Leh. Sergeant Parmar ensures the safe loading, transport and unloading of all air cargo, including passengers. In the cargo hold, he is constantly exposed to the cargo and passengers, any of whom could potentially carry the coronavirus. “We take adequate precautions, the cargo is sanitised, we wear hazmat suits and maintain social distancing,” he says.
The IAF employs stringent measures for isolation and home quarantining of their crew. The members work on rotation and are quarantined for 14 days after a mission. Always on call, the IAF crews are conscious of their onerous responsibility and are eager to perform their task. Their friends and families are deeply concerned for their safety but delighted at their unique role in the skies, ferrying essential supplies across the country. Wing Commander Bhatt sums up his biggest motivator in one word, “Pride.”