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December 27, 1999
How long can Captain Sharan hold on?
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
On normal duty, a pilot is required to fly non-stop only for seven hours. Captain D Sharan has long crossed that. He has been at the controls of the hijacked plane for over 63 hours now -- how much longer can he hold on?
"More than his own safety he must be extremely worried about the safety of his passengers," said Captain Rakesh Chadda, a commercial airline pilot. "As flight captain, you are constantly thinking of their safety."
Flight 814 is still on the tarmac in Kandahar. No one knows whether in the interregnum hours Captain Sharan got to rest. Lack of sufficient rest means that muscular co-ordination suffers. This affects concentration, which in turn will affect flying.
"This effect is more pronounced at night, since flying then is much more risky and considered an adverse environment," said Captain Chadda. "All this then pushes up the stress level, which in turn affects the neuromuscular system."
What adds to the stress is that any mistake while flying or during the more difficult takeoff and landing could endanger the passengers' lives.
The passengers have also been seated for 50 hours, which itself is very tiring. There are just four toilets (which were cleaned at Kandahar on Sunday), it is very cold in Afghanistan and ventilation inside the aircraft is limited. "There is the auxiliary power engine that produces electricity and circulates the air," said Chadda.
Since it is the pilot who deals with the hijackers, he also has to ensure that they do not turn violent. "He has to keep talking with the hijackers, yet not appear to be side-tracking or bullying them. The idea is to keep them engaged with the aim of ensuring the passengers' safety," added Chadda.
The cabin crew (purser and hostesses) is trained to look after the passengers during emergencies. They have to ensure that they stay calm, warm and as comfortable as possible. All along, they have to retain their own strength and confidence.
His co-pilot and crew aid the captain in seeing to the passengers. All the same, it is a difficult job even during normal circumstances. During an emergency, it is much worse.
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