Commander Rishabh Kapur and co-pilot Ashish Sharma helmed Air India’s Yemen rescue operations
When the Indian Air Force ran into a tough spot during its Yemen rescue operations, an Air India crew stepped in to evacuate over 3,000 people from the war zone.
Airline crews, unlike defence personnel, are not trained to evacuate civilians from strife-torn areas. However, time and again, Air India has pitched in responding to calls for help. They did so again for Operation Raahat, the much-feted evacuation efforts at Yemen earlier this month, even though their names were absent from the honour rolls. Rishabh Kapur, 35, a commander with Air India – who piloted Flight AI 161A along with co-pilot Ashish Sharma, 33 – who narrated the six-day rescue op.
Air India stepped in for evacuation efforts in crisishit Yemen on April 3, when the situation had become complicated and Air Force aircraft were not being allowed in the air space. It was clear that only civilian aircraft would be allowed. To bypass the initial Yemeni no-fly zone restrictions, we based our evacuation efforts in the Republic of Djibouti, a tiny African country in the Horn of Africa, across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait from Yemen. Indian nationals were advised to reach the Yemeni capital Sana’a, or the popular port Aden, while two Air India Airbus 321s were parked in Muscat on standby.
For us, the mission began the moment we flew out of the Horn of Africa peninsula. For starters, the airspace was in Saudi control, while ground control had been taken over by Ansar Allah (Supporters of God), known to the world as the Houthis.
Landing in Sana’a in zero visibility, with no instrument landing system, in the middle of a dust storm on a partially bombed runway at 7,300 feet (the same as Srinagar) was a nerve wracking experience. Each day, we were given a stipulated time in which we had to fly from Djbouti to Sana’a and conduct the evacuation process, a task only defence personnel are trained to do.
The time could vary from three to Each time we approached the airport between April 3 and 9, the scars of the brutal conflict tearing Yemen apart were only too clear. Wrecked aircraft lined the apron – area where aircraft are parked – and the nearby buildings were in ruins. The airport had been bombed by warplanes of the Saudi Arabia led Arab coalition a few days earlier. Cement patchwork, which covered the craters created by the bombing, greeted us from the centre of the main runway at the El Rahaba Airport. The cementing was a quick-fix job and far from being the best in terms of safety, but we had to fly out our brothers and sisters. Every inch outside the airport was a war zone.
When we sought permission to land, the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) in Sana’a asked how many Yeminis were on board – they wanted us to fly in as many locals from across the globe and would allow us to land only if there was a Yemeni on board. On three occasions, our team had to turn back the aircraft after preparing to descend into Yemen’s largest city, as we did not have any Yemini on board. By the end of the evacuation, we had flown in 304 Yemini passport holders back to their country.
Our last day was our toughest ever. We were flying Flight AI 161A which had on board General VK Singh and the Indian Ambassador Amrit Lugun along with the money to pay airport charges. And, we were denied permission to land.
The Sana’a ATC told me that our flight was not meant to be in the airspace. We were flying in as a group of three aircraft and the other two had been allowed. Now, this was a challenge that I and Capt Sharma had never encountered. That the coalition fighter planes were bombing areas close to the airport was the reason cited.
Turning back was not an option because the cash chest meant for payments to be made for airport services was with us. What followed was 30 minutes of trying to make the controller understand that the two aircraft he was willing to grant landing permission to, had no money and would have to be detained in Sana’a.
We bypassed the rule book, offering to interchange the flight code with the other Air India flight that was mid-air. Using the Air India communication channel, flight AI 160A, one of the other two aircraft was prepared to return. After much convincing the controller relented making way for us to land. But this was not uneventful either. We had five bird hits, one splattering blood all over the windshield. Luckily, none were sucked into the engine.
It was difficult to land two planes, segregate passengers for Kochi and Mumbai, check their papers, get them on board and fly them back within the stipulated 150 minutes. A big problem was handling people who wanted to return home, but didn’t have relevant documents or exit visas and permission from employers. The government had to arrange emergency exit documents for them.
Air India carried 3,614 passengers (evacuees) out of Yemen to Djibouti. Of these 2,932 were Indians and 682 foreign nationals from US, UK, Canada, France and Germany among several others.
While the Operation Rahat was declared over on April 9, the last flight by Air India was operated by us with operations-in-charge minister, General V K Singh on April 14. This was when the curtains actually came down. While most Indians are back home, those who have nowhere else to go and no chance of a flight out, are being cared for by mercy missions, UNICEF and other NGOs.