Air India's Covid braveheart dies fighting with legacy firmly in place
As a professional, Air India's Captain Sandeep Rana had been at the peak. Nobody can doubt his credentials
"Sandeep was just the kind of guy you would like to have in your corner. He was so dependable," said an aviation veteran. "If we had to go for training, or had to pull out some old notes, Sandeep would do it for you. If he had come for a training course, he would get stuff for two or three people. He would say, 'You want a notebook? I have an extra one. You want a pen? I have an extra one. You want a compass? I have one. You want a calculator? I have an extra one.'"
Captain Sandeep Rana, commander on Air India's Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner fleet and Deputy GM (Ops) was infected by Covid-19 and passed away on May 13 in Delhi. He was 55. He is survived by his wife and two sons, both of whom are also aviation professionals.
"Respected Hardeep Singh Puri sir, you are losing more and more of your frontline workers. When will what we do for the nation stop being taken for granted?" tweeted the Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG), an Air India union of pilots flying wide-body planes, tagging the civil aviation minister.
The union was evidently bitter because despite risking life and limb during the pandemic, getting severely exposed to the coronavirus and its several different strains while flying from one end of the world to another in the service of the nation, aviation sector employees are still not considered eligible for priority vaccination.
Captain Rana's demise was followed by that of Captain GPS Gill the very next day. Air India lost five captains in a month in May, driving the national carrier to the verge of calling 'Mayday'. It remains a matter of considerable regret that vaccinations for the aviation employees in India have not been done on time.
After so many deaths, everyone had risen to the need to get vaccinations. Airlines started to inoculate their employees when they found that the state governments were taking time to react, despite the Ministry of Civil Aviation's (MoCA) requests, but by the time vaccinations were done, it was already too late.
Contrast this with major global carriers like Etihad, Emirates and Singapore Airlines putting the vaccination of their employees at the very top of their to-do lists, and you would realise how pitiable the condition of aviation employees in India has been.
"The sad part is that we should have been vaccinated along with the frontline workers," said the aviation old-timer whom Plane Vanilla spoke to. Most of the pilots of airlines like Etihad, Emirates and Singapore Airlines are expats. Still, every single pilot and even the cabin crew of these airlines not only got their first shots but were fully vaccinated by the beginning of February," he said.
"I just keep wondering if these people would have been vaccinated, would they have been alive now? Chances are that if all of them were fully vaccinated they would have been here. That is what hurts," he added, ruing the fact that the aviation employees in India have not been accorded priority status.
An Air India Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Sergey Korovkin 84
"And how many vaccines does India need? The total number of pilots in India maybe is 4,000 to 5,000," he stated. The disappointment in his voice was palpable. "I got vaccinated on my own. I didn't wait for the airline to get it. When vaccination opened on April 1 for people who are 45, I went and got it on my own," the veteran said.
Captain Rana joined Air India way back in 1989. It was Indian Airlines at that time. He was on deputation to Alliance Air when the airline started and was one of the first few to go to set up the airline. He flew with Alliance Air for four to five years and after that returned to Indian Airlines. Then in 2007, Indian Airlines merged with Air India. Captain Rana also played a role in the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for a few years as a Flight Operations Inspector.
"As a professional, Sandeep had been at the peak. Nobody can doubt his credentials," declared the aviation veteran, adding, "It is really sad losing him, a big loss for all of us, a big loss for the airline and of course a tremendous loss for his family."
"Captain Rana has done a lot of Vande Bharat flights, and mostly flown to Australia and Europe. Then he had gone to Hong Kong many times to get oxygen concentrators and other relief materials. After the Covid crisis struck, he operated cargo flights too," revealed one of Captain Rana's family members. This was corroborated by the aviation veteran Plane Vanilla contacted. Some of those flights were to high-risk areas, he said, pointing out that when the UK strain of the coronavirus was running amok, Captain Rana was still actively involved in the VBM exercise, pointing towards the dangers that Captain Rana and many others like him came face-to-face with while operating during the pandemic.
"It has not been a very good period for pilots. They are constantly exposed," the aviation old-timer said. He explained that the passengers are subjected to that exposure let's say, once in months, while the aircrew members go through the ordeal two-three times a day.
"There is a constant in and out. Besides we are on the plane for so many hours. A long-haul flight takes let's say 14 hours. It just takes one person somewhere down the line to have some disease and it travels. However well-masked you may be, you would have to take your mask off to have a glass of water, to have tea or to have a meal. Prevention is there. We are extremely careful, everyone tries their level best. The airline does give us PPE (personal protective equipment) kits, an ample supply of sanitisers and masks and everything," he said.
He mentioned, however, that when in April last year, airlines started flying medicines, PPE kits and other essential supplies to the remotest corners of India, pilots didn't have PPE kits themselves. "We used to do flights to various parts of India. These guys used to go to places like China and Hong Kong to pick up supplies and to pick up passengers who were stranded," he informed.
"We convey our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family members and pray to the almighty to let his departed soul rest in peace and give courage to the members of the Rana family to bear this irreparable loss," wrote the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA), an Air India union of pilots flying narrow-body planes on short-haul domestic and international routes, about Captain Rana. The IPG followed suit.
"He was a very active person. He used to work more than what we could ever," informed Captain Rana's relative, while also highlighting a very interesting aspect of his character.
"He used to love going to the farm. He loved nature a lot. He used to go to the farm every day and raise crops the way farmers do. Since the flying had reduced a lot because of the pandemic, this was what he had focused all his energies on. He used to work 8-10 hours every day. There were three passions in his life: family, flying and the farm," said Captain Rana's relative. The Rana family has been living in Gurugram since 2000 and that is where the farm is located.
Significantly, Captain Rana's wife was infected by Covid-19 as well and had to be hospitalised too. Initially, there was no Covid tests available and Captain Rana's relatives were trying desperately to get them arranged for the Rana couple. Then finally, Captain Rana talked to Air India, and the company graciously agreed to arrange a test for Captain Rana's wife as well.
"This was one very big help initially which we got. After that we used to keep getting calls asking about updates," said Captain Rana's relative.
Nearly 2,000 Air India employees were infected by Covid, 583 were hospitalised and 19 groundstaff were dead, according to figures provided by Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri in Parliament on February 11.
This meant that about one-sixth of the national carrier's staff were down with Covid, and these were just figures till February 1. We are in June and one can well imagine the proportion that the problem would have assumed, especially under the circumstances of an alarming second Covid wave in the country and with various strains of the coronavirus on the rampage across the world.
In the bid to rescue people and reconnect families, the aviation employees have been seeing their own families being torn apart. Delayed vaccinations have not been the only issue that they had had to face. There have been steep pay cuts and other austerity measures and even ostracisation at their own housing societies. "(We have seen) the worst of both worlds. You actually expose yourself and you get criticised as well," said a senior pilot.
Captain Rana may not have got his due in this world, but perhaps a more just and beautiful place exists beyond, where he has flown to. Considering his professional achievements and character that endeared him to one and all, Captain Rana has left behind a legacy that few can match.
(Cover image source: Arranged by Plane Vanilla and Wikimedia Commons/John Taggart)