A report in The Times of India details the courage of Air India and its crew in its recent mission last week to rescue Indian nurses held captive by terrorists in Iraq.
The rescue flight was assigned flight number AI161 and would be performed by a Boeing 777-200LR VT-ALF Jharkhand which was kept ready while diplomatic parleys were conducted. The airline also empanelled four of its most seasoned pilots Captains Pankaj Agarwal and Atul Chandra with S P Sinha and Adhar Puri as co-pilots for the mission. Two crew for the journey into Iraq and two for the return trip.
The 777-200LR designed for ultra-long haul flights of over 18 hours can carry over 181,000 litres of fuel, and the flight from Delhi to Erbil is only six hours. However, with Iraqi authorities waffling on re-fuelling facilities, Air India decided to carry fuel from India. But, with a maximum landing weight limitation of 223 tons, the airline was limited to the amount of fuel it could carry.
Catering and other support for the return trip was also done in India to prevent any last minute snags when departing from Erbil. Indian food was chosen to give the stranded nurses “home food” after days of captivity.
Despite preparations, the flight to Iraq was met with a series of hurdles. A few minutes outside Iraqi airspace, the flight was denied permission to enter. The flight was turned towards Kuwait. In the mean time, Air India officials briefed the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and India’s foreign ministry. The dynamic PMO swung in to action and conducted its diplomatic parleys and the flight was allowed to land in Erbil. However, this manoeuvre cost precious fuel which made it impossible to return direct to Kochi as originally planned, and instead land in Mumbai for refuelling.
It was later learnt this denial of permission was due to internal ego clashes in Iraq between the Kurdish authorities who control Erbil and the non-Kurdish authorities at Baghdad who gave the permission for the flight.
After about an hour on the ground at Erbil, AI161 took off for Mumbai carrying the 46 nurses who ultimately returned to Kochi along with 73 stranded Indians who proceeded on to Hyderabad and another 56 to Delhi.
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