You’re a pilot. A lady pilot.
Your husband is a software engineer, in a booming multinational, in the management, at a high level. He works 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and often works from home.
Which is good, because your daughter is only 4 years old. And your timings are odd. Early morning one day, afternoon the next, and late night after that. Plus, a lot of changes in the flight schedules. And lots of days away from home on layovers when he takes care of her.
Your husband thinks your job is dangerous and glamorous. He never says it, but sometimes he even appears jealous.
And sometimes you yearn for a job like his. Fixed hours, fixed days, always online, always available, always ready to go out for dinner or for a weekend in the hills.
But you know you can’t be chained to a chair, stuck at a desk, confined to the earth…
During the pandemic, your salary was affected. His wasn’t. Thank God. You were not in trouble, like your friends, who found it difficult even to pay their EMIs.
Hubby told you he could easily find you a job, a steady income, with no sleepless nights.
You were tempted, but only temporarily, till the lockdown lifted and the sky summoned you again.
You’re on Standby Duty tomorrow, from 0400 to 1100, and it’s your weekly Off the day after. And it’s a weekend too. You know the chances of being called for a flight are low. So, you’ve agreed to Hubby’s picnic plans at an exclusive resort. It’s his birthday, and it’s not often that you both get to celebrate together. Your only request to him is to leave after 1100, after the Standby Duty timings.
Your phone rings. It is from the Rostering office, from the people who plan the flights. You look at the clock. It’s almost 10 pm. Why are they calling at this hour? You wonder.
“Good evening, Madam, Anup here.”
“Good evening Anupji.” You reply warily, although you know Anup is a nice guy and won’t call without a good reason.
“Madam, an urgent IROP flight tomorrow.”
IROP, you know, is short for Irregular Operations. Which means it’s not a scheduled, regular flight. They couldn’t have foreseen and planned for it.
You sigh. There goes your weekend plan. Your child will be disappointed and Hubby too will sulk like a child for days.
What is the flight for? A charter for some rich man’s marriage? Why me for the flight? You wonder. Why not someone else?
But you’re too polite to say that, so instead you ask, “To where?”
“To Kosice and back.”
Anup sounds like he’s saying the Hindi word ‘koshish’ which means effort or endeavour. You’ve never heard of such an airport.
“Where’s that?” you ask.
“LZKZ,” Anup tells you the ICAO code to identify the airport and adds, “In Slovakia, for a rescue flight.”
Oh yes, you remember, there’s a war going on in Europe and there are Indians trying to get out.
Your reluctant lethargy vanishes. You know you’ll convince your Hubby. You’re sure even your baby will understand.
“What time? I’ll be ready.”
“I’ll call you back with details,” Anup’s voice echoes your new found enthusiasm.
You kiss your daughter goodnight and tell her to sleep tight. She’s not sleepy at all and continues jumping in the bed. Then you grab her in your lap and tell her and the Hubby about the change in plan.
“But why tomorrow, Mummy? Why not after the picnic?” she asks.
“Because…” you search for words that a 4-year-old will understand. “There are students there, waiting to get back to their parents. Bombs are falling and buildings are burning. Mummy must go fast.”
Her eyes widen and she looks at you in awe.
“Go Mummy, but come back also fast. Go supersonic. Zooooooom!” She yells.
Everyone laughs, you kiss them goodnight and start studying for the flight.
You must prepare for the unfamiliar route and the unknown airport. No matter how limited the time, the flight must be safe.
You get the details of the flight and reach the Dispatch Office well before time. Lots of possible loose ends to be tied up, because this is not a routine, regular flight.
The Chief Pilot calls you and personally briefs you despite the odd hour.
Then you discuss the details with your co-pilot and the crew, who seem equally enthused.
And then you take off, literally into the unknown, with support from the ground staff.
During the long flight, you remember all the untoward incidents of the past wars and wonder if any misdirected fighter planes or stray missiles would come your way. You keep a keen ear on all the three radio sets, and especially on the International Guard Frequency, 121.5 Megahertz, for any warnings.
You’re relieved when you contact the destination Air Traffic Control and everything seems normal – as yet – for half the job, the return flight, still remains.
You land at the unknown airport in a city you had not heard of till yesterday.
Your Company’s staff is not available there as they normally are at your regular airports, so you go out of the plane and arrange the details with the local staff.
There are some Embassy officials there and a lot of extremely tired looking fellow Indians.
After refuelling and loading of the baggage, the passengers come on board. They look sleepy yet happy.
You make an announcement on the Public Address System to welcome them on board. That’s just a routine announcement for you, but the Senior Cabin Crew (SCC) informs you on intercom that they all cheered and clapped.
Then the passengers sleep off to the steady drone of the two jet engines while you gulp cups of coffee to keep away the sleep and the tiredness.
Your co-pilot rubs his eyes often, but smiles and shakes his head every time you ask him if he’s tired.
You fly the long route home, with a planeload of some two hundred trusting passengers, sleeping soundly, knowing you’re awake, watching out.
When crossing the border and entering the Indian airspace, you’re tempted to tell them, but you decide against it, because you don’t want to disturb them.
After landing in Delhi, and switching off the engines at the parking bay, you make an extra announcement, welcoming them home to India.
This time, in the absence of the engine noise, you hear them cheering and clapping.
The SCC opens the cockpit door and informs you that the passengers want to see you. You’re too tired, but these are no ordinary passengers. These are the people who have braved the ravages of a war zone and they deserve a warm welcome home.
You stand outside the cockpit.
All deplaning passengers express their joy through smiles, nods and thanks.
Then one kid stops, shakes your hand, and says, “Thank you, Didi.”
Didi? You’re surprised. Nobody calls you that when in uniform. And he’s hardly younger than you.
Only then do you realise the enormity of what you’ve done; but just when your heart fills with pride, you remember you’re not the only one giving up personal time for this national emergency. Pilots and crew from other airlines and from the Indian Air Force have also evacuated stranded Indians from danger areas. And even some ministers have spent days organising the evacuation.
You realise you’re just a small cog in the machine, and the personal sacrifice was quite minor.
Yes, the ‘koshish,’ the effort and the endeavour were worthwhile.
That’s because to an unknown kid, one you’ve never seen before and whom you may never meet again, you’re a Didi, an elder sister, a caretaker, like a family member.
And you realise, for him, however fleetingly, you’re Mother India.
© Avinash Chikte
Photographs courtesy: Wikimedia
This article was originally published on indiatimes.com and can be accessed at https://www.indiatimes.com/explainers/news/operation-ganga-rescue-from-ukraine-a-pilots-personal-perspective-564499.html