New Delhi


Domestic and international flight operations stopped when the clock struck midnight on March 24, but there still are aircraft in the air — those transporting stranded foreigners and cargo flights. Captain Ranbir Singh, a former Indian Air Force pilot who now flies planes for a commercial airline, is among those who are not locked in their homes. In his 40 years of flying, the 60-year-old pilot has never seen airports go silent as they have now. In such circumstances, he says, each flight keeps you on edge. As director of training at SpiceJet, he guides younger pilots, but himself was in the cockpit last week in a special flight taking essentials from Indira Gandhi International Airport to Kolkata via Guwahati. “I remember when the coronavirus problem became the focus of pilots in early January. Hong Kong was first impacted, followed by Bangkok. Flights to these destinations were eventually cancelled,” Singh recalls. “By then we had started asking pilots not to exit flights. The cabin crew too started using masks and hand sanitisers by early February. The airline staff was instructed not to mix with the public too much. Yet we never imagined the problems would become this big.” Singh, who has been overseeing operations of special domestic flights transporting Indians brought from abroad, lives in Dwarka with his wife and elder daughter. His younger daughter is an overseas student. He has a three-pronged strategy to stay motivated and build immunity: exercise, healthy food and positive thoughts. “My wife is very particular and she makes sure I remember what I have to do each time I step out of the house. She reminds me, for instance, to always wash my hands after touching anything,” he says, thankful at how “supportive” his family is. He discloses that pilots do not wear masks in the flying deck, but no one is allowed entry after the deck is sanitised. Even the cabin crew is permitted to come in only if necessary. “We have sanitisers at hand and swabs that we use to clean each and every button before a fl ight,” explains Singh, adding that the breathalyser test for alcohol has been temporarily suspended for safety reasons. He may be flying, but the pilot has not stepped into the main airport building for days now. “We go to the cargo terminal. Then, instead of the dispatch office, we go to the medical room where we give a written undertaking in lieu of undergoing the breath-analyser test,” he says. “We are then escorted to the aircraft, which could be parked anywhere on the airport apron because there are so many grounded planes these days.” This is his first experience of flying in such dire circumstances, though Singh says his company has operated goodwill flights for people affected by the Nepal earthquake and the Kerala floods”. He says, “Personally for me, this is the first time I have fl own in a situation like this. From special flights transporting Indians rescued from abroad to ferrying cargo, it has all been a challenge.”