Weren’t sure will be able to bring back stranded Indians: AI Kabul flight crew

Air India flight number 243 took off on time, a little after noon, Sunday, but the ground reality changed in just the two hours that the plane took to reach Afghanistan airspace. Just as the crew prepared for landing and the pilots tried to coordinate with Air Traffic Control, it got no reply
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Representational Image. (File photo)
Updated on Aug 16, 2021 06:03 PM IST
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The last commercial flight to Kabul had a dramatic landing and take-off just as fighters belonging to the Taliban were capturing Afghanistan’s capital, taking over the Palace and securing the perimeter of the city’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Air India flight number 243 took off on time, a little after noon, Sunday, but the ground reality changed in just the two hours that the plane took to reach Afghanistan airspace. Just as the crew prepared for landing and the pilots tried to coordinate with Air Traffic Control, it got no reply.

“Zero reply. We were just met with silence,’’ said one of the crew members who did not wish to be named. According to another, there was no other aircraft in the vicinity and the pilots had no choice but hold their descent into Kabul.

In the meantime, other airlines were directing their pilots to turn around and not land in Kabul.

Several airlines, including United Airlines and British Airways, stopped using Afghanistan on Sunday. Lufthansa, KLM and Air India stopped operations Monday, after the war-torn country’s civil aviation authority issued NOTAMs or notices to airmen, closing its airspace to all civilian flights.

Also Read | In Afghanistan, the limits of Indian power

AI 243 stayed in the hold position for over an hour. It could do so for another few minutes. As one official, interviewed for this story said, “The flight had holding fuel for 10 to 12 minutes.”

Unknown to the pilots, the Taliban had reached the gates of Kabul and were preparing to take over the Palace. That was also the time Afghan President Ashraf Ganai was preparing to flee.

Would AI 243 be able to land and bring back Indians stranded in Kabul? The pilots were not sure. They could not have asked to land at a nearby airport. Their standard operating procedure required them to return to Delhi.

An hour’s silence from the ATC is excruciatingly long.

In that hour, American troops were operating their helicopters to evacuate their staff out of their embassy in Kabul. They were also helping President Ghani flee. The Taliban had made it clear: they were not willing to settle for an interim government. They had reached the outskirts of Kabul and were waiting to enter the Palace.

After a long, one hour, the Americans took over the air traffic control and IA 243 finally got a reply: they could land but after the Americans had airlifted their envoys out of their embassy.

The drama did not end after Air India finally managed to touch down on Kabul’s runway.

The airport neither had ground handling staff nor security personnel. The flight needed to refuel for its journey back to Delhi. The fuel bowser driver was nowhere to be found.

The turn-around flight took three hours to depart the Taliban-controlled country; but only after the Americans helped find a driver for the bowser and the Air India crew doubled up to safety check the passengers and their baggage.

The last civilian flight finally landed in Delhi and the crew relaxed after a harrowing day but only after being grilled by senior management officers and officials from the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security. Their main worry: did anyone other than a passenger make it back on the last flight out of Kabul?

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Friday, October 22, 2021