THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: “Let’s keep our morale high. We are going home,” the reassuring voice of Captain Anshul Sheoran resonated inside Air India Express flight IX452 shortly after takeoff from Abu Dhabi. The voice also had a distinct note of pride as Anshul and crew members were becoming a part of history. It was the first flight as part of India’s ongoing evacuation exercise named ‘Vande Bharat Mission’.
Tension was palpable as 181 passengers, including four infants, started boarding the flight to Kochi after medical tests. Captain Anshul, first officer Rizvin Nazeer from Kochi and the four cabin crew members had already donned their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). For the passengers, it was a new experience altogether, seeing the cabin crew in such a strange outfit.
Anshul’s announcement continued: “We are all dressed in hazmat suits. But we will still be wearing our warm smiles underneath it.” The announcement lightened the tense mood in the aircraft as it cruised over the Arabian sea. Coincidentally or not, ‘Mission Vande Bharat’ began on the auspicious day of Buddh Purnima, he reminded.
“We were clearly aware of the big responsibility on our shoulders as around 45 passengers were women in advanced stages of pregnancy. Luckily, the weather was calm. Except for a minor turbulence mid-air, the flight was smooth,” Anshul told TNIE.
His long experience as a military aviator with the Coast Guard was perhaps a reason why Air India Express entrusted him with such a responsible mission.Besides hand sanitisers, the crew had placed snack boxes and water bottles on the seats of the passengers prior to their entry. The crew ensured that no direct contact was made with the passengers as per safety protocol. The captain, first officer and crew were given exhaustive training by doctors of Ernakulam Medical College a day ago on wearing PPE kits. They were also clearly briefed of the safety precautions to be taken.
“Since it was a Quick Turnaround flight, we had to wear the PPE kits continuously for around seven hours. To prevent contamination, we could not eat or drink anything nor could we use the lavatory while wearing it. But when we remembered our healthcare workers who also don the protective suit every day for hours on end, our worries went away,” said Deepak Menon, lead cabin crew and a native of Kochi. Along with Deepak, the other cabin crew members - Riyanka Santhosh, Anjana Johny and Tashi Bhutia - had volunteered for the Vande Bharat Mission.
The crew underwent an RT-PCR test on arrival late on Thursday and will be subjected to a second test next week. If results of the two tests are negative, the entire crew can resume duty.
“We had received an e-mail a week ago seeking our willingness to join the mission. Without a second thought, we opted for it. You should have seen the relief on the faces of the passengers when they landed. Some of them burst into tears as they thanked us. This is what keeps us going and we will opt for more such flights in the coming days as well,” said Riyanka, a native of Thrissur.