Team Air India flew into an eerily quiet Wuhan rescue

Meticulous preparations marked the operations to evacuate Indians from ‘a ghost town’; a Boeing 747 aircraft used

Updated - November 28, 2021 11:35 am IST

Published - February 06, 2020 11:07 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Captains Amitabh Singh, Kamal Mohan, Sanjay Achalkar, S.H. Reza and Bhupesh Narain. Photo: Special Arrangement

Captains Amitabh Singh, Kamal Mohan, Sanjay Achalkar, S.H. Reza and Bhupesh Narain. Photo: Special Arrangement

An eeriness greeted the crew on-board Air India’s Boeing 747 aircraft as it approached Wuhan on a mission to rescue the first batch of 640 Indians from the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak . The pilots on-board the plane remember the city as “a scene from an apocalypse movie”, a “ghost town”.

“Initially it was like any other flight and airways were busy. But when we started descending, the silence started creeping on us. The airport was absolutely silent. All the aircraft were parked and sealed. The streets were empty and it felt like a ghost town,” recalled Captain Amitabh Singh, Director of Operations of Air India and in-charge of the 34-member rescue team.

Five pilots and 15 cabin crew were sounded off about a mission to evacuate Indians from Wuhan “2-3 days” before the scheduled departure. A day before the flight, the pilots and cabin crew underwent detailed briefing on the mission, including from doctors on the disease. The airline also procured medicated suits, protective shoes, gloves, N-35 masks, glasses and caps for the crew and the support staff.

VVIP aircraft

A Boeing 747 aircraft, usually kept on standby for use by VVIPs, took off from Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport at 12.30 p.m. on January 31 for the first rescue flight along with extra fuel, spare parts, and sufficient food and water. The aircraft, known as a jumbo, was chosen for its seating capacity as the twin-deck plane can accommodate 423 passengers.

Another pilot, who requested anonymity, said he chose not to inform his family about his role in the mission.


After a four-hour long flight, the jumbo landed at Wuhan and what followed was a long, anxious wait of nearly eight hours for passengers to start boarding the flight. The Chinese authorities allowed students to depart from their hotels and hostels for the Indian Consulate only after the Air India plane took off from the Indira Gandhi International Airport.

The students were then allowed to travel to the airport only after the aircraft reached Wuhan, resulting in the long ground halt, explained Captain Singh, whose responsibility it was to co-ordinate with officials in China.


The flight was operated by Captain Kamal Mohan, Captain Sanjay Achalkar, Captain S.H. Reza, Captain Bhupesh Narain. The cabin crew team was led by Manju Tanwar.

A team of three doctors and four nursing staff on-board the flight measured the temperature of all 324 passengers and taught them to wear masks before allowing passengers to board.

Precautions taken

Inside the plane, precautions were taken to minimise exposure. All passengers were seated in the Economy Class, the engineers and doctors were in the First Class in the front-section, while the extra cabin crew and commercial staff were on the upper deck, in the Executive Class.

The flight returned to New Delhi at 7.30 a.m. on February 1, where the officials of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and personnel from the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police were waiting. Passengers were then offloaded, medically checked, and escorted to the buses waiting to take them to the camp. But many on Team Air India returned to the drawing board to prepare for the second rescue flight in the next five hours.


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