Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Grz5vOH0ws
It was August 11 2018, Saturday, and we just had some joyrides on our mind as we landed on a helipad at Jatayupara in Kollam district in Kerala. The Jatayu Earth’s Centre, a tourism park, was due for inauguration and we were anticipating a steady flow of tourists and looking to make some good money. That was not to be. By August 14, the rains had become incessant and the weather had deteriorated.
By August 15, the situation was really grim — villages were marooned and people were stranded on rooftops. We decided to fly on humanitarian grounds. A pilot with the Indian Army for 24 years, I took early retirement in 2013 and now fly helicopters for a Kochi-based charter services firm called Chipsan Aviation.
Unlike defence aircraft, our helicopter has to abide by visual flight rules (VFR), a set of regulations under which a pilot operates under minimum visibility weather conditions .The Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA) gave us special permission to fly. The military and other government bodies like the National Disaster Relief Force had already begun relief operations but no helicopter had started flying at the time. We took off.
The Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA) gave us special permission to fly. The military and other government bodies like the National Disaster Relief Force had already begun relief operations but no helicopter had started flying at the time. We took off.
My first mission was triggered by an SOS call from the civil administration in Kottayam to evacuate a pregnant woman in the foothills of Sabarimala. The woman had already gone into labour. The area was cut off by the floodwaters of the Pampa river. The weather was adverse but I took a chance and got airborne.
Loaded with food packets and relief material, we first picked up a medical team from Kottayam and landed on a makeshift helipad at Angel Valley to evacuate the woman. She was, naturally, tense. But a doctor was flying with us to take care of any emergency. The woman was flown to Kottayam and taken to a government hospital. I went back to the valley to deliver some more relief material but had to make a precautionary landing on a church compound on our way back to base.
The weather had deteriorated and my crew and I spent the night there with the locals who gave us food and shelter for the night. My day typically began at 7.30 am at the Jatayupura base station. We would finalise our route based on the requests we had got from all quarters.
We would feed in the coordinates of places where relief material had to be dropped. We often found 200-300 people in one building. Relief material was pouring in from everywhere. We used a few helipads as collection and re-fuelling points. We dropped food and relief material on rooftops but more often on school and college campuses where people had been camping. In the beginning, relief material comprised mostly of food and water. Subsequently we were supplying medicines like insulin, solar torches, clothes, sanitary napkins, adult diapers, matchboxes, etc.
The weather was the X factor but being an ex-army pilot, I was trained for this. Unlike defence aircraft, we were also flying handicapped. We could not undertake winching operations to evacuate stranded people. On board were three of us — apart from me, there was an engineer to take care of technical issues and a technician at the back to drop relief material.
My colleagues were not trained for rescue operations. So, I had apprehensions about precision landing and the dropping of relief material on exact spots amid difficult weather conditions. My fears were laid to rest after seeing the performance of my crew in the very first sortie. Typically, the helicopter would be airborne for 150 minutes after which we refuelled at the nearest helipad, thus minimising dead time and ensuring maximum load utilisation. We logged in 5-5.30 hours of flying every day with only biscuits to munch on. We would end the day before sunset. The rescue operations are over, but I am still in Kerala, pitching in for rehabilation work.
As told to Malini Goyal By S. Singh, Chief Pilot, Chipsan Aviation Pvt. Ltd.
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