Op Raahat: Pilots dealt with dust storm, damaged machines

NEW DELHI, Apr 19:  Blinding dust storms, damaged navigational aids and confusing instructions from the ATC were some of the challenges braved by Air India crew who took part in the recent mission to airlift thousands of people, including foreign nationals, out of strife-hit Yemen.
Recounting the edgy operation, an Air India pilot who was part of the efforts said that they managed to evacuate nearly 2,900 people with the help of three aircraft and eight pilots.
‘Operation Raahat’, as the mission to airlift civilians was called, had featured a 55-member AI team, he said.
Dust storms were a major threat during the mission as they reduced visibility to as low as 100-ft, said the pilot who was speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to talk to the media about the operation.
The situation was further aggravated by the malfunctioning landing systems at Sana’a airport, leaving the pilots virtually blind and dependent only on the GPS for landing.
“The major challenge was visibility. Around the time we reached there for the rescue operations, the region experienced severe dust storms and it was not until we descended to a height of 100-ft that the runway was visible,” he said.
On a good weather day the runway can be seen from a distance of 10-km, the pilot said, noting that, under the dust storm however, they “were flying almost blind-folded”.
“Moreover, severe bombing had damaged the Instrument Landing System, the Distance Measuring Equipment and other navigational equipment at the airport. Thus, there was no help while landing,” he said.
If poor visibility was not enough, the ATC in Sana’a added to the confusion and, in one such instance, it suddenly rejected permission to land on April 5 as the aircraft hovered over it to evacuate a bunch of Indians.
The AI team had reached Djibouti on March 30 and got permission to start operations on April 3. After the green light was shown, the staff swung into action and started evacuating people using a four-hour window in the Saudi Arabia -controlled airspace over Yemen.
The pilot said that venturing into a war zone is not
something AI pilots are used to doing and they were extra vigilant, regularly looking out to track any other aircraft flying nearby.
“We were very much aware that we were flying in a war zone, we had to be more vigilant in the Saudi-controlled Yemeni airspace. We regularly checked to see if any fighter aircraft was also in the skies. I mean it was difficult. It is not what we generally do,” he said.
As the Airbus A-321 he was flying was about to land in Sana’a, the pilot recalls that a few bombarded military hangars were visible to the right of the runway, while untouched by the bombs, the commercial hangars lay to their left.
The airport was in a shambles and was witnessing a free- for-all with Houthi rebels roaming around on their jeeps and pick-up trucks and some even on foot near the area.
The AI personnel realised on reaching the airport that the evacuation would take more time than had been anticipated as the staffers at the immigration desk were not to be found at their stations.
After regular sorties between Sana’a and Djibouti for two days — April 3 and 4 — confusion prevailed on April 5 as permission was denied for landing at Sana’a with an AI plane just about 4,000 feet from landing, he said.
“The ATC asked if we were carrying any passengers, to which we said there were none. Just after a minute, the ATC refused permission to land and told us, ‘Fly back to Djibouti’, leaving us clueless,” he said. Later, they came to know the deal was to bring some Yemeni people and take out Indians, he said.
Around 400 people were flown in to Yemen from Djibouti by the AI planes, the pilot said.
Recalling one of the moments from the rescue operation, the pilot said, “As the aircraft left the runway and started climbing, I could hear in the cockpit the Indian passengers clapping for joy.”
Operation Raahat led to the evacuation of over 5,600 persons, including 4,640 Indians and about 960 foreign nationals from 41 countries. (PTI)

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