On 24th March as lockdown was announced in India, Susmita Kumar; A Boeing 737 Captain for Spicejet flew from Mumbai to Patna.
The experience was stressful and uncanny, Susmita tells Storymakers. “There was chaos everywhere, Airports were Crowded with people wanting to go to their families. The plane was packed. In few minutes several questions popped in my mind, what if I get infected? What if I am virus carrier way back home? I would have to be obligated to go on quarantine on return. But I knew it’s my duty to fly and there is no way I could refuse for this opportunity to serve my nation. You have to behave like a soldier. It is like our doctors and healthcare workers, housekeeping staff — some jobs have to be done, so you take precautions and carry on. At the same time it was a different experience. Our temperatures were checked and we were wearing enhanced protection with masks, gloves and PPE kit. We were like Ninja’s taking precautions and learning measures to deal with Coronavirus. Social distancing becomes a problem in pit as pilots sit just three feet apart, both are required to touch same buttons and switches, Radio headsets provided in aircraft are shared by both pilots, so there’s not much distance you can keep from other pilot. Once we touched Patna, we were taken to an isolation area where the ground staff wearing PPEs and carrying huge fumigation spray tools, disinfected us.
All the passengers followed strict guidelines. “We had an amazing crew, who kept safeguarding everything was alright.
In India with passenger services suspended since March, Cargo operations have been stepped up and repatriation flights have been in operation to and from several countries. Captain Kumar have flown across and delivered more than 100 tons of essential including vegetables and medical cargo across the country under ‘Lifeline Udaan Scheme,’ which was launched by the Ministry of Civil Aviation to ensure a steady supply of essentials, even in the remote locations of the country.
Honorable Minister of State for Civil Aviaition, Hardeep S. Puri, expressed his views on the ‘Lifeline Udan’ initiative, “My deepest appreciation for the Corona Warriors operating and facilitating the ‘Lifeline Udan’ flights for transporting essential medical cargo to the remotest corners of our country. India will win the war against COVID-19, definitely and decisively.”
Flying after Lockdown:
On 25th of May as restrictions following the lockdown was lifted in India, domestic flights began its operations. I was scheduled for Bombay-Delhi-Bombay flight. The passengers were eager to return back to their families, it was an emotional moment. As soon as I landed, I could hear people clapping for me from the tower”, – that day, I truly felt the acknowledgment that I am right where I am supposed to be and doing exactly what needs to be done. A sense of achievement, something that a lot of people dream of.
The passengers and their families were greatly relieved for making the journey back home. The evacuees who included kids left heart touching ‘Thank you’ messages and notes so efforts we took felt worth it. The process to ensure their safe transport amid the COVID-19 fright involves a high degree of rigor, hard work and sacrifice for pilots, cabin crew and ground staff. Our job as pilots is better than cabin crew and check-in staff. At least we can distance ourselves, but these young staff has no choice. They face the crowd. It’s a tough job for them and they do it enormously well, says Kumar who became the youngest female flight instructor in India at the age of 19.
Her outstanding efforts were admired by several people across India for airlifting 189 Indians stranded in Muscat and bringing them back to Kannur in the middle of the novel Coronavirius pandemic. On 24th June as the Boeing girl landed from Muscat, she received a water cannon salute at Kannur Airport, which is a traditional act of respect to honor military veterans or pilots. It’s a fairly common practice in the aviation industry and is usually performed to celebrate a landmark flight. The plane passes through the guard of honor on the runway.
Here is a video of water salute for the pilot on her flight.
It looks majestic doesn’t it?
I have been tested more than 5 to 7 times, recalls Susmita. Every single time we land, whether it’s a cargo or repatriation flight, we have a team that come on to the aircraft and screen our temperatures. If we get the green light here, we can come ashore and every person involved in that flight then has a nasal swab test. Only after that, can we go back to the company accommodation. It happens on every single flight. Now that I am back in isolation, I already have my next schedule which will take me to Varanasi, Riyadh and Dhaka. With restrictions around the world to curtail the spread of Covid-19 a lot more turnaround flights have been taking place.
But flying in the pandemic is unpredictable, and scheduling can change at any minute. We used to know our schedule before 15 days but now it’s less than 4 days and you have to be ready.
It’s not the same when layovers do happen. Gone is the desirable way of life of those working in aviation and getting to see the world through their job. Spicejet insists staff stay in their hotel rooms even if the country is open. So we are confided to our rooms with food water and watching movies.
Once back in Mumbai, I wash my hands leave my bag in the corner of my house and isolate myself. Coming back home is not the same no more welcome hugs or physical touch from mom; it’s difficult but life has to go on as we need to protect ourselves and our families too. So we have to follow the protocols as a health worker.
Flying in Pandemic:
Empty skies, empty terminals, empty planes, we do not have many air planes flying around it’s a different experience, when you are used to be surrounded by thousands of people, but the good part is less traffic, I am always before schedule.
Best Unforgettable aspect of flying during pandemic is the view up there; it’s just astonishing, reduced pollution, clear and bright skies, it’s lovely and stunning up there right now.
Family and Education:
Susmita joined aviation training in 2006 and at the age of 18, before getting her driver’s license she got her pilot’s license in year 2008. She later hinged with Bombay flying club as an instructor and also completed her command papers. Susmita is from Haryana and hails from a family that has a long history in Merchant Navy. So she has seen different places and currently settled in Mumbai since 1998. Her father Dr. Surendra Kumar is Dynamic Positioning and simulator instructor fondly known as DP Guru by his students and Mother a homemaker who has been pillar of strength and always supported in achieving her dreams. Her brother Rahul is presently working as a mariner in merchant navy.
After serving as a co-pilot with Air Costa, she is currently the Captain (aeronautics) at Spicejet and has completed 6000 hours of flying.
In these tough times our Air Warrior continues to fly passengers across the country and around the globe. She flew more than 30 aircrafts including domestic and international flights and Cargo operations in past three months amidst Pandemic.
My parents are anxious at the same time they are proud of me; I get to serve our nation says Captain Susmita Kumar.
We salute Captain Susmita Kumar, the unsung warrior, working proactively and tirelessly for saving lives of millions of Indians.
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(Written by Raavya Sarda)