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December 25, 1999
'Normally, it's a war of nerves'
Captain S T Deo
Captain Devi Saran must be very tired by now. Assuming he had flown from Delhi to Kathmandu and was coming back, he will now be physically and mentally tired. And flying for so long with terrorists aboard who may have killed four of his passengers might put him under great strain. He has been flying from place to place, talking to traffic control, facing problems with Lahore not letting him land...
As pilots, our first instructions are, as far as possible, to do what hijackers want us to do, to simply follow their instructions and ensure that everybody is safe.
I was very worried when I heard that the plane was headed towards Kabul because we don't usually carry maps for all these routes. He is flying in the dark and the ground control in these areas speaks a different language. But if he is headed towards Dubai, he is comfortable. But one had to remember that not all planes are equipped with the Inertial Navigation System or the Ground Positioning System...
In Dubai the communication is better, and one has maps of these regions since these routes are flown a lot.
One good thing is that Saran had his tank filled. So if the plane is a B-4 he will have five hours of fuel plus one hour reserve fuel. If the plane is a B-2 he will have four hours of fuel plus one hour reserve fuel.
I don't think he will break. He is a very seasoned and experienced pilot. He must have been a co-pilot back in 1986-1987. He has been a captain for many years now, so his flying capacity won't be affected.
My friend captain V K Mehta -- we used to call him the champion -- his planes were hijacked thrice. Once his aircraft was hijacked and flown to Dubai, and they didn't allow him to land. He was out of fuel, so he said, 'Give me permission or I'll land on your beaches.'
The second time he landed in Lahore, and the plane, a Fokker 27, was burnt. It was when Bhutto was in power. The third time the plane landed in Amritsar.
What worried me is that this is the first time we have had a death aboard. The hijackers have perhaps killed passengers and, to my knowledge, this is the first on an Indian Airlines flight. The worst thing that has happened to date was when the plane was burnt.
Normally, it's a war of nerves. I spoke to Mehta about his experiences and he would just say, 'Keep saying haanji. Do whatever they want, become their best friend, let them come to you for help, lull their fears and heighten their sense of security by being one of them. Offer them tea, coffee and keep stressing that the passengers shouldn't be hurt'. But then the same rule does not apply to everyone.
Captain Mohan outsmarted the terrorist. He attacked the man with the small axe we carry on board to break the skins (panels) in case someone gets stuck. He killed the man and threw him out.
But we can't carry guns on board because they are very dangerous. One bullet can break a window, hit the hydraulics, cause the plane to crash, or drop altitude severely.
What I fail to understand is how five men could carry such huge quantities of weapon on board? Once in Delhi we had an invalid who got on board with a plaster on his leg. They didn't search him thinking he is an invalid, but he had a gun in his plaster. But so many people with so many weapons??
There must have been a breach in security. There are so many people who come in contact with the plane before take-off -- the despatchers, cleaners, refuellers... Anybody could be bought.
I just hope everything goes smoothly.
One of my friends used to fly for Malaysian Airlines, and the plane crashed. Later we learned there was a terrorist on board and, when the captain tried to overpower him, he blew up the plane.
I don't know how this will end... All I can say now is that the situation is extremely tense.
Captain S T Deo, former regional director, Indian Airlines, is a pilot and a friend of Captain D Saran, commander of the hijacked IA Flight 814. As told to Suparn Verma.
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