Air India has brought Indians back from war-torn Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan, so operating evacuation flights is not new for the national carrier. But the Wuhan operation was different.

“Earlier, we landed at an airport close to the conflict zone and, once the passengers had boarded, we flew them back. But this time, we were going into the epicentre of the virus (outbreak),” recalls Capt Amitabh Singh, Director, Operations, Air India, who was on both the Wuhan flights.

In its first medical evacuation, Air India flew two flights to Wuhan, China, to evacuate the 637 Indians and seven Maldivians stranded there, on January 31 and February 1.

Since then there’s been an evacuation on February 27, when Air India brought back 119 Indians and five foreign nationals who were on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked off Yokohama, in Japan. And another, when the Indian government flew an Indian Air Force C-17 aircraft to Wuhan (on February 26) carrying 15 tonnes of medical assistance comprising masks, gloves and other medical equipment.

On its return, this IAF aircraft also brought back 76 Indians and 36 foreign nationals. With this, India has operated three flights to Wuhan, bringing back 723 Indians and 43 foreign nationals.

Crew fitness, training

The first and second medical evacuations included five doctors each from Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital and Safdurjung Hospital, in addition to 25 cabin crew, two sets of pilots and engineering staff on each flight.

The crew was selected carefully; those who had a cold, cough or fever, basically anyone whose immunity was low, was not considered for the flights. The airline also consulted its in-house doctor to get information on the virus so precautions could be taken to ensure the safety of its crew members and their family members once they returned.

Understandably, the crew members wanted to know about the medical risks they were exposing themselves to and also the risks to their family members on getting back.

On landing in Wuhan, the contact between those boarding the flight and the crew and doctors was minimised. Four rows in the economy class section, in which the evacuees were seated, were kept vacant. Before the evacuees boarded the jet, a box of food and one litre of water were placed on each seat.

Safety procedures

Since the Boeing 747 is a double-deck aircraft, the upper deck was isolated for the cabin crew operating the flight while the first-class section in the front of the aircraft was isolated for doctors and engineers. Again, on landing at the epicentre, everyone on board wore masks, protective glasses and hazard suits. It was only during take off and landing that the cabin crew manned the doors. All those boarding the flight were checked by the doctors on the aerobridge before they entered the aircraft. The basic hygiene to be followed during the flight was explained to the evacuees.

They were also told that in case they felt sick during the flight, they should ring the call bell and they would be attended to. The aircraft carried medicines to take care of any emergency. Luckily, there was none on either flight.

Air India used two different Boeing 747s for the relief flights as the time between the flights was short, hardly a few hours. Once the Boeing 747s returned to India, the airline’s engineering department fumigated them before they were put back into service. The crew and doctors on both the flights were put in self quarantine for a week after their return.