NEW DELHI: With no radar and few helping hands, the air traffic controller at Lucknow is in an unenviable position during election season. Up to 30 helicopters land at roughly the same time—before sunset—every day in addition to scheduled flights, and all want to land first.
The scenario is as tough for those flying, maybe tougher. The helicopter pilots, most from a defence background, come under immense pressure from their high-profile passengers. “Very few politicians stick to their schedule. They either delay or change their plans in the last minute making refuelling difficult. To top that, their workers create a lot of nuisance,” said a pilot.
So, while Mayawati’s partymen carry out drills before she boards the copter, Uma Bharti’s fear of heights makes the pilots fly not more than 500 feet. Vinay Katiyar’s weak bladder also makes the pilots keep him at low altitude. “Mayawati is amongst the difficult passengers. Not only is she temperamental but also goes to any extent to assert her authority,” said a source.
Flying politicos for all these years have become an experience of sorts for the pilots. “In Bihar, Nitin Gadkari always started with ‘While I was flying over the region, I noticed Bihar’s lush green lands from the aerial view and the potentials this state has. However, the people are so poverty struck due to their own negligence.’ We will know he is ending when he starts propagating about the BJP,” a charter company official said. Gadkari’s cue in Uttar Pradesh has been little jokes on the land apart from promoting sugar mills and litchi juice, given the fruits’ high growth factor.
While most pilots agree that seasoned politicians and star campaigners of all the parties are amongst the well-behaved lot, it is the first-time flyers who act funny. “We would have been told that there are three passengers coming on board and we will fuel accordingly. At the time of departure, there will be five walking in to fly. In such situations, it’s tough to convince them. Many take offence and go off into ‘tum jante nahin ho hum kaun hain’ (you don’t know who I’m),” said a pilot. Politicians like Sharad Pawar, Arun Jaitley and others from the Gandhi family are known to stick to their schedule.
“Jayalalithaa is very soft-spoken. She is always cordial asking us if we have been taken care of. Her workers give her a red carpet welcome,” said a seasoned pilot.
The list of cordial politicians is as good as those that are rated bad. Mulayam Singh Yadav ensures that the pilots get their food for the day from Lucknow’s popular Chappan Bhog outlets while Ashok Gehlot gets lunch packed from home for himself and those flying him.
A lot of these campaigners get carried away in their speeches. “In such situations, it becomes tough to get them back to the copter before sunset. Many a time we have started the engines and on seeing the rotors rotating, they end their speeches and run to board. Sukhbir Singh Badal has absolutely no disciplined time schedule and never sticks to his agenda, say his flyers, adding that “with him we are left planning and re-planning the whole day long”.
“Praful Patel’s wife was a bad passenger to fly when she was campaigning for the party in Nagpur along with Bollywood stars,” said a pilot based in Mumbai.