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Mission Yemen: The daring task of rescuing stranded Indians

How a small group of Air India pilots evacuted Indians from Yemen's war zone: The inside story

Published: Jul 20, 2015 06:01:16 PM IST
Updated: Jul 21, 2015 10:08:22 PM IST
Mission Yemen: The daring task of rescuing stranded Indians
Image: Sameer Pawar

In 2011, Yemen caught the scent of the Arab Spring. The 2011-12 revolution unseated President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had led the country for more than 20 years. His successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, has not had a peaceful tenure; after a somewhat fractious peace, he resigned in January 2015, only to declare, in February, after escaping rebel-held Sana’a (the capital) for Aden, in southern Yemen, that he was still president.

The country has been an active war zone since March 2015. Aside from Hadi’s incumbent government (which has support from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK, among others), and the Houthi rebels (who have the support of Iran and, many say, former president Saleh), also in the fray is the AQAP, an extremist offshoot of Al Qaeda, with Islamic State connections. The conflict prompted the Indian government to evacuate Indian citizens from the country in an operation over eight days in April. This is the story of that evacuation, from the point of view of one of the Air India pilots who flew the rescue missions.

March 31, 2015

Four of us (two executive pilots, Rajiv Nanda and MS Zaheer, a first officer, Sheetraj Agarwal, and me, a captain) reported in. It was an urgent flight: Delhi–Muscat, refuel, then Muscat–Sana’a–Muscat–Delhi, in one day. We were to fly an Airbus A321 to Muscat and, with another A321 grounded there for technical reasons, go to Sana’a.

We were at Muscat by 9.15 am, sitting in the plane waiting for clearance to fly to Sana’a. An hour turned to two, to three… we wound up spending six hours on the tarmac.

As evening approached, headquarters informed us that though government-to-government assurances had been given, clearances hadn’t filtered through to the Saudi air force (Saudi Arabia dominated Yemen’s skies). HQ told us to stay in Muscat, the paperwork would be sorted out by morning.

In our hotel, we began thinking about the mission in detail. Sana’a airport is at an elevation of 2,200 metres, and it was almost summer. High altitude and high temperatures mean thinner air, which dramatically reduces the load-carrying capacity of an aircraft.

We broadly knew the political situation, and that the airport had been bombed. Sana’a’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) wasn’t working, so we didn’t have local weather data, or know what facilities—refuelling, security, cargo-handling—were functioning, the runway condition, and so on. So we had cabin crew, engineers, and security staff with us; between the two aircraft, a team of around 45.

Air India’s GM of operations, Captain Arvind Khathpalia, was coordinating with India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Air India’s Chairman and Managing Director Rohit Nandan, and the Director of Operations Captain AK Govil, to get clearances from three agencies: The Saudi Arabian air force, the Yemen government (some were in Aden, some in Djibouti and other places), and the Houthi rebels who controlled Sana’a and its airport. General (retd) VK Singh, minister of state for external affairs, had been briefed on the situation and the difficulties.

April 1
We learnt that we were getting a very small window of time to fly in and out of Yemen: Three hours, at most four; too short to base out of Muscat.

Then we learnt that Indian Navy ships, part of the anti-piracy patrols off Somalia, were being diverted to ferry evacuees from Aden to Djibouti, a major North African coast port a 12-hour voyage away. [Of Yemen’s ports, Al Mukalla was under AQAP control and Al Hudaydah was in the Houthi rebels’ territory, but Aden was the incumbent government’s new base.] India’s ambassador to Ethiopia Sanjay Verma, who also represents India in Djibouti, and his MEA team had stationed themselves in Djibouti.

Djibouti was perfect for us: About 70 minutes’ flying time from Sana’a, so we could—theoretically—fly twice a day within the time window. We decided to move there. We flew to Djibouti, landing around 6 am, checked in to our hotel and came back to start ops around 8 am.

But when we asked Djibouti ATC for clearance, they said, there’s a war there! What are you doing?! If you want to fly to Yemen, go back to Mogadishu airspace—that’s Somalia—and fly from there via Al Mukalla to Sana’a.

We got off the planes and went to the control tower to discuss it. As per what we know, they said, the air ways are closed. We said, let us fly there; if the Saudis refuse, we’ll come back. They finally agreed, and gave us clearance.

Mission Yemen: The daring task of rescuing stranded Indians
Image: Sameer Pawar
Though the airport had been bombed the runway had been fixed, so we could land

We reported back to Kathpalia, who said it was too late now: It was already 10 am, we’d barely get in before we would have to exit. So we called it off for the day.

VK Singh was now in Djibouti. We joined the meeting he was leading at the control room set up at our hotel. I apologised for being in shorts and T-shirt; I hadn’t expected to be out for more than a day so wasn’t carrying spare clothes. The minister smiled away my apologies and asked us for progress reports.

We explained the situation, and went over our plans. By then, the Saudi clearances (in Arabic) had been translated by the MEA; these were specific on time, route, the registration numbers of planes that would fly in.

A staffer in India’s embassy in Sana’a [which was still functioning] told us a shamal [Arabic for dust storm] had hit the city. He sent us pictures on Whatsapp, and told us, I can’t see to drive my car! More worries: The dust would linger for days over vast areas. We pilots discussed this, and decided to keep it to ourselves. We needed to concentrate on our clearances; the Saudis weren’t going to care how we landed or took off.

April 2
Next morning, I was in the lead plane, with Nanda flying. Singh was in the second plane, with Captain SS Chandhoke (whose A321 had been grounded in Muscat).

Djibouti ATC told us that Sana’a ATC had said the dust was still bad and visibility was 1,000 metres. We said we’d go ahead; as per our minima [criteria used by pilots to determine whether they can land or take off from any runway] we were just about safe. The tower gave us the ‘start your engines’ message.

Then he called again: Visibility is down to 800 metres. I said, we’re still going, and asked for taxi-out permission. Then: Visibility is now 500 metres. Oh, and Sana’a ILS isn’t working. (ILS, or Instrument Landing System, is a navigation aid that lets you land with a high degree of precision even in low visibility.)

Bad news. But if we didn’t go in, the Saudi clearances would lapse. Everyone right up to our PM’s office has worked to get them. We had to go, even if we just circled the airport and came back. At least we’d get to know the route and conditions, and the Saudis would know that our operation was on and the whole process wouldn’t have to start again.

I told the ATC, we’re going; we’ll take a call on landing when we get there, and we took off.

Soon, we were in Yemeni airspace, chatting with Sana’a ATC, who was very polite and friendly, welcoming us to Yemen. We found out that the people we were speaking to were not aviation professionals. (I still don’t know who they were!)

Sana’a ATC wanted us to fly in over Aden. But the Saudi-cleared flight path was off the west coast up to Al Hudaydah, then east to Sana’a. We couldn’t violate the Saudi air force’s patrol routes; we had to fly only the air corridor agreed upon. We couldn’t tell Yemen that, so we made polite noises about not having all the charts.

This was true: Sana’a wasn’t in our navigation database.

When we turned east and began flying over land, we looked down and couldn’t see a single detail of the terrain below, only dust. We got to Sana’a: Still no visibility below.

We knew there was a semi-circle of hills around the airport, with their highest point near the landing approach. This was a war zone; an over-enthusiastic militant in those hills could, say, launch a shoulder-fired missile at a plane. An alternative: A spiral descent to avoid getting close to the hilltops. That’s all we could think of; we’re commercial pilots, not combat guys trained in evasive manoeuvres.

But, a spiral descent was pointless: We couldn’t see the runway. We decided to try the standard approach.

Sana’a’s VHF (very high frequency) Omnidirectional Radio Range, an electronic beacon, wasn’t working either, so we had only our GPS and Inertial Navigation. Luckily our navigation database gave us some terrain awareness, like of the hills. We had the airport coordinates, but not the runway’s; flying blind, relying on GPS, we could be pointing our nose at, say, the airport building. We needed visual clues.

Mission Yemen: The daring task of rescuing stranded Indians
Image: Sameer Pawar

We began our descent, and levelled off at bare minimum altitude in relation to the ground. We had some visibility below, but a negligible view of what was ahead; all we knew was that there were no terrain warnings of hills ahead yet. We were about to abort the landing when we suddenly saw the tail of a Boeing 747-200 sticking out above the haze, directly ahead and 60 to 90 metres below us. It meant this was the taxiing or parking area, and that the runway should have commenced by then.
And then I saw the runway: We were well to the left of it. We looked at each other: Let’s go for it. Nanda did a steep descent and turn, and we landed within our safety margins.

The shamal had covered the runway and taxi lanes with a thick layer of sand. We blew up so much dust we were worried about the safety of the engines. The good side: We now knew where the runway was in relation to the GPS coordinates, so we could let the second plane know precisely what approach to take.

We taxied to the apron. A few of the Houthi rebels who controlled the airport, in jeeps with mounted machine guns, came up, but all very friendly.

Our embassy folk told us they had around 400 people ready to evacuate. We had 364 seats, 182 in each plane. If we took more children, we could fit in more. By then the second plane had landed, with Singh, who said, I’m going to stay and coordinate this end and come back on the second sortie. We knew it would be difficult to make a second flight back within the time window. But he insisted: If I stay, you guys will come back. Very brave of him.

We flew back to Djibouti at the maximum speed regulations allowed, despite which, by the time we landed, we knew we couldn’t do a second sortie that day. That became a mini-crisis: We had left a minister behind in an active war zone! Alarm bells rang. The MEA did their thing; the embassy staff took him to a safe zone.

April 3
Next day, I flew the lead plane, with Agarwal in the co-pilot’s seat. Visibility at Sana’a remained as bad: Even though I knew what to expect and adjust for, I was close to abandoning the approach, but got sight of the runway in time.

As we touched down and reversed thrust, I glimpsed something moving on the runway. Agarwal peered through the haze and said, that’s a jeep! It was past the point where I could take off again; even if I tried, I would still hit the jeep. I slammed on the brakes, the plane shuddered. The jeep driver must have seen us, and in panic, instead of turning, he accelerated, trying to race a landing jet! Thankfully  our brakes held. I complained to the ATC; he said, I can’t see any jeep. I can’t even see the runway!

Singh was there to welcome us. He had seen the bombing raids, he said; the runway had been bombed, but repairs had been done with a quick-fix material, so it was fully operational.

The evacuation gathered steam. And the word about our mission  had got out and other governments got in touch with ours: Please get our people out too! The MEA said we’d prioritise Indians; if we had extra place, we’d carry others.

Mission Yemen: The daring task of rescuing stranded Indians
When we were ready to take off, Singh said he was going to stay again, but we urged him to come with us and return in the second sortie. To be honest, we knew that that was unlikely within the window, but luckily he agreed. And it turned out that we didn’t have time to do a second trip that day either.

April 4
Sana’a tower refused permission to land! We protested that we had all the permissions, and began reading them out.

No, they said, go back to Djibouti! We flew a holding pattern off the coast, hoping they would see reason. But fuel levels started getting critical. The slightest impurity in aviation fuel can cause a catastrophe; since Sana’a was controlled by non-aviation personnel, we did not want to risk refuelling there. We gave up and flew back.

At Djibouti, our people had been monitoring the situation. The Houthis had apparently been thinking about our planes coming in empty. There were many Yemenis stranded outside the country when the war broke out and, naturally, they wanted to get back to their families. The Houthis urged us to offer ‘humanitarian relief’ to them. There were about 20 Yemenia Airways aircrew stranded at Djibouti for a month. We agreed to fly them back the next day.

Mission Yemen: The daring task of rescuing stranded Indians
Image: Sameer Pawar
As we touched down, I saw something on the runway. It was a jeep!

April 5
Another A321 had joined us; to guard against Sana’a not letting all three planes land despite having all the permissions, we split the Yemeni aircrew between us. And sure enough, Sana’a ATC asked how many ‘humanitarian relief’ folks we had on board on each aircraft!

By now, the Houthis had realised the potential of the evacuation. They insisted we also carry some people that they thought needed humanitarian relief out to safety.

This was a problem: Our embassy had lined up our citizens based on seat capacity. They had passed immigration, and what with all the charges that the Houthis were suddenly levying—‘exit visas’ got more expensive overnight!—many were stripped not just of passports, but also of all cash, and had nothing to fall back on; we’d be leaving them stranded. But the Yemenis were adamant.

We put kids on parents’ laps and things like that. Additional problem: The Yemenis who wanted to get out were loaded with baggage. We had designed our ops for minimum turnaround: We weren’t even opening our cargo doors; passengers carried what they had in the cabin. Somehow we managed to get them all in.

It is important to note that while everyone may not have been as comfortable as they would have been in a regular commercial flight, we had done our calculations, and knew that we were, with the current weather conditions, within our load-carrying capacity.

April 6-9

Each day, we flew three aircraft in and out (but we never managed to do a second trip). An Air India Boeing 777 would then fly people back to Mumbai with the Indian Air Force planes and return with new crew. I stayed on until the end.
It wasn’t simple though.

One day, the paperwork for the third aircraft (the plane Singh was in) wasn’t to the rebels’ satisfaction and they refused to let it land till its last reserves of fuel. Then the pilot had a brainwave: He said, we’re the one carrying cash for the landing and parking fees. Permission was immediately granted!

Another day, the crew had to deal with multiple bird strikes on landing, which splattered blood all over the windshield.

Every day, we were on tenterhooks about what the Houthis would come up with next.

On April 9, the MEA decided it would be our last sortie, as we had flown out everyone we could: 3,614 of the total 6,398 evacuees from Yemen. Of the 1,578 non-Indians—more than 40 nationalities!—evacuated by the Indian government, we flew out 682.

It took coordination: The mission included four Air India planes, two air force Globemasters planes, three navy ships (INS Mumbai, INS Tarkash and INS Sumitra) and two civilian ships (MV Coral and MV Kavaratti, which normally ply the Lakshadweep–Kochi route). Full credit to VK Singh: He led from the front. His army background kept him on top of the logistics of these simultaneous operations.

Which is not to take credit away from anyone else. The leadership—Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, VK Singh, ambassador Verma, Minister of Civil Aviation Gajapati Raju—and their teams did a stellar job. Getting clearances on a day-to-day basis to fly and ship out people from a war zone, coordinating with multiple agencies of multiple countries: It was quite a feat, and I feel privileged to have been part of it.

Would I do it again? In a flash. But I’d want to pack enough clothes.

(As told to Peter Griffin)

(This story appears in the 24 July, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Suresh

    Hats off to all people involved in this mission!!! We are very proud of your services to great nation!

    on Aug 26, 2015
  • Suresh

    Great job, commendable, our TV news should be highlighting such great stories

    on Aug 7, 2015
  • Vikram Singh

    Its really very nice story. Its very good job done by all of you. Even I also so happy to know that. Best of luck Captain.

    on Jul 25, 2015
  • Hemant K Chitale

    Great Job ! We are very proud of you !

    on Jul 21, 2015
  • Srishi

    Pilots took risks. What did the engineers and other ground staff do. Who made the hotel arrangements in which pilots checked in and checked out. Who arranged for transport. Who guided passengers to board. Answers would help to understand the ground situation better.

    on Jul 21, 2015
    • Anil Sharma

      I agree. A CEO/Leader earns more respect if he/she acknowledges the contribution of the entire team. Here the writer, an ace pilot no doubt, has chosen to extol the top brass of the Civil Aviation only with not a word spoken about the support staff, including Cabin Crew :-)

      on Jul 25, 2015
  • Vishal Mehra

    Great piece, overwhelmed to read it. Hope everybody in the crew gets appropriate recognition for a mission well done.

    on Jul 21, 2015
  • Bikash

    Proud of all the members who undertook this mission.

    on Jul 20, 2015