Many pilots had refused the government order but not her. Mahasweta Chakraborty, all of 24, flew thousands of miles to the borders of Ukraine, multiple times, and brought home stranded Indians crossing over from the war-torn country. She was part of Operation Ganga.
New Town Business Club last week felicitated Mahasweta, a resident of Sunny Fort near the Owl Junction. “Mahasweta is a hero. She’s the Gunjan Saxena of New Town, breaking into a field traditionally reserved for men. She handled the tough situation with resilience, experience, knowledge and critical thinking,” said Hidco managing director Debashis Sen, at the ceremony.
Mahasweta was given an introduction by Anita Banerjee, a member of the club, a resident of the township’s AE Block, and the pilot’s English teacher back in Auxilium Convent School. “Mahasweta was very good at extra-curriculars,” she said. “She is the first pilot from our school and the jewel in the crown of our alumni,” she said.
Mahasweta then took stage and shared her experience —
In end-February, at about 4am I got a call from the private airline I work for, asking me to leave for an assignment in an hour. Nothing new for pilots, except that my destination and duration was not disclosed. I was just asked to bring extra uniforms.
It was when I reached Delhi that I was told I would be part of Operation Ganga. There was no time to react and I just took it up as another day at work.
Several pilots had refused to be part of this mission as it would be dangerous, exhausting and fraught with uncertainties. Ukraine airspace is now closed. If one flies over the country, Russia or Ukraine could assume it to be an enemy aircraft and shoot it down. So we had to fly to countries bordering Ukraine — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania. The Indians to be repatriated would be crossing the borders to catch our flights.
I usually fly to south east Asia or on domestic routes but I’ve flown chartered flights to Russia. It’s a beautiful country that I’ve also visited as a tourist. Ukraine I’ve never been to. Nonetheless, these regions would be snowing when our rescue flights would go over and pose an added challenge for pilots to land on ice and snow.
The flights would be 18 to 19 hours long one way, with a refueling halt in Istanbul. Food would not be easy to come by under such desperate conditions and we later found ourselves surviving on coffee, biscuits and cup noodles. Upon disembarking in Delhi we would get the stipulated hours of sleep and rush to fly back to Europe.
What fear looks like
Once the Indians boarded the planes, we were to “welcome” them. This was an impossible task. How do you relax someone who has had to witness killings? We tried to crack jokes to lighten the mood or assure them they were now safe but they were in a trance. Some were unable to even drink water.
These students had crossed the Ukrainian border on foot, through knee-deep snow and sludge for three to four days. Temperatures were as low as -11°C and there was no food or water. You must have seen shepherds guiding flock of sheep and caning them if they wander out of line. This is how these students were sent through the borders. If they raised a voice, they were shot dead, no questions asked. And others had to witness the horror.
It traumatised them. I saw a 27-year-old man wail that he wanted to go to his mother. Some got fits mid-air. Muscle relaxants would have helped them but these aren’t pills we keep on board. Make an emergency landing, you say? Is that a feasible option when you’re flying over Iraq or Pakistan?
I still get goosebumps when I think of these cases. In the eyes of these passengers I saw what fear looks like. Many of our staff members were shaken too. I may be 24 but I held the senior-most post on the aircraft and couldn’t crack.
Something changed in me after Operation Ganga. Most of us crib that the biriyani we ordered lacked zing or that the government doesn’t do its job. How petty all this seems before the troubles these students endured! Some people are even asking why I’m in the limelight after this operation when there were other pilots in the fray too. I find such talk equally petty.
But it’s true that many passengers are now recognising my name when it is announced before take off and are trying to come and meet me. I do not like to be disturbed at work but they are peeping into the cockpit on the way to the washroom or greeting me when I’m on my way there. I’m asking the cabin crew to rush through my name in the announcements so as to not catch their attention.
Frankly, I don’t think I did anything particularly praiseworthy. In school we used to recite the National Pledge declaring all Indians to be our brothers and sisters. Well, I wouldn’t expect a pat on my back if I did something from my sibling, would I?