Air India's Covid hero who died fighting for India gets emotional farewell
Despite having a young family, and running an extremely high risk of infection, Air India's Captain Amitesh Prasad never said 'no' to his duty
They say the worst things happen to the best individuals and that only the good die young. That is exactly what happened to Air India commander Amitesh Prasad (November 13, 1967--May 9, 2021), who left us all too soon, succumbing to a deadly virus that has already killed 35,30,582 people worldwide and 3,29,100 in India alone as of today. Captain Prasad was 53.
The death of Captain Prasad on May 9 set off a grim chain of events that has seen the national carrier, which has been at the forefront of India's Covid fight, lose five pilots in a month.
However, Captain Prasad, like so many of his colleagues, died as a martyr, sacrificing himself to the national cause as a soldier would. One of the captain's close friends, who could still not believe what had happened, wondered if 'karma' was unduly unkind to one of the most humble and gentle human beings that there ever was. However, like a true 'karmayogi', Captain Prasad stayed true to his duty till the very end, flying Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) flights, rescuing stranded people and bringing them back to the comfort of their families, or operating cargo flights to carry medical and essential supplies where they were badly needed. In the process, he flew to some of the worst Covid hotspots of the world, including China and the US. A Covid infection was, therefore, not surprising.
Captain Prasad is survived by his wife and two young children -- a 21-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son. Despite having a young family, and running an extremely high risk of infection, Captain Prasad never said 'no' to his duty of fighting the Covid war at the frontline. And there lies his greatness.
Captain Prasad landed in Bengaluru from San Francisco on April 15, the IPG informed. He travelled to Mumbai as staff on duty and started complaining of Covid-19 symptoms. On April 20, he did a Covid-19 test, which was positive. He was immediately shifted to the hospital, but his condition kept on deteriorating despite all medical efforts, and on May 9, he passed away at Mumbai's KJ Somaiya Hospital.
"It is possible that he contracted the virus on the flight because he was in the US and in five days (after returning from the US), had tested positive," a senior pilot told Plane Vanilla. The US continues to be the country worst hit by Covid-19 with 3,29,16,501 confirmed cases and 5,88,292 deaths to date, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The pilot added that despite a great shortage of medical facilities, the Air India management and Captain Prasad's colleagues helped to arrange a hospital bed for him and treatment was initiated. Captain Prasad's condition seemed stable for a few days and it was almost taken for granted that he was on the path of a speedy recovery.
However, what came as an "unpleasant surprise" was that on April 30, Captain Prasad had to be shifted to the ICU and on May 2, was put on a ventilator. Still, given the state-of-the-art medical care that he was getting and considering that he was still not past the age of 60, which would have put him in the high-risk bracket, his friends and colleagues hoped that he would be able to trump the disease, but sadly, that was not to be. "The first reaction from most of us was a sense of disbelief," said the senior pilot that Plane Vanilla spoke to.
"With great sadness, we announce the loss of our beloved member Captain Amitesh Prasad. He tragically succumbed to his battle against Covid early this morning," announced the Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG), an Air India union of pilots flying wide-body planes, on May 9.
"Captain Amitesh was loved by all for his gentle nature. He had the gift to always spread happiness around him. We are blessed to have been able to call him our colleague and friend," the union added.
"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 Prasad 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. Indeed, Captain Prasad's good nature was hailed by one and all.
Captain Prasad joined Air India as a flight dispatcher in December 1995. His role was to assist pilots in planning flight paths, taking into consideration factors like aircraft performance and loading, airspace restrictions, airport and runway conditions and weather conditions. He was so meticulous in his planning that he left the pilots in awe, according to a source. His flight plan would be clearly marked, all important features highlighted and he would be ready for any query that the pilots may have had, right down to where they had to take a diversion, where the runway was closed, what alternate runway was available and whether it would support the type of aircraft in question.
Another aspect of his character that made him stand apart was his professionalism, according to an industry old-timer. Captain Prasad possessed a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL), but as a flight dispatcher, was always mindful of the professional hierarchy, never trying to be too friendly or casual with pilots and co-pilots despite being equally and perhaps more qualified and despite being in the same age group. In spite of being a CPL-holder, he never tried to show off, nor was there any effort to exert influence. He always stayed grounded and did his job to the best of his abilities and insisted that the others did likewise.
According to another anecdote, he would give his 'seniors' company in the bar though he himself neither drank nor smoked.
Captain Prasad's knowledge was impeccable and armed with this and his passion and hard work, he came up through the ranks, becoming a First Officer (FO), and ultimately, a commander, setting glorious examples at every step. In fact, there was an incident when as a FO, he was flying to Newark in winter. The conditions were hostile. The runways were shutting down and CAT-II conditions prevailed. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a Category-II approach is a precision instrument approach and landing with a decision height lower than 200 feet (60 m) but not lower than 100 feet (30 m), and a runway visual range less than 2,400 feet (800 m) but not less than 1,200 feet (350 m). When the pilot prepared to descend and began his briefing, he realised that FO Prasad had much more to offer and, therefore, let him take over, a source said.
When he finally became a senior captain, his nature did not change and arrogance stayed unknown to him, despite achieving so much by dint of his sheer grit and determination. This is something all his friends concurred on.
Captain Prasad commanded the top-notch Boeing 777 aircraft, which many aspiring pilots dream of flying. He was actively involved in flying cargo missions to the Covid epicentre of China (Shanghai and Guangzhou) when the pandemic broke out last year. One would recall that India had launched the Lifeline Udan mission immediately after the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March 2020. The mission's objective was to carry medical and other essential supplies to the remotest corners of India and also abroad. It also looked to carry supplies to India from foreign lands. Captain Prasad had also been flying VBM flights to the US and back till he fell ill.
Captain Prasad's demise was followed by those of Captains Sandeep Rana, GPS Gill, Prasad Karmarkar and Harsh Tiwari, making it five Air India pilot deaths in just a month.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said in Parliament on February 11 that a total of 1,995 Air India personnel, including those deployed on the VBM, had tested Covid-positive till February 1. Out of them, 583 were hospitalised. Nineteen Air India ground staff had died due to Covid-19 and other complications.
According to data provided by an Air India spokesperson, as of January 1, 2021, Air India had about 12,350 staff on its payroll, including 8,290 permanent staff and 4,060 contractual staff. Therefore, going by the figures provided by Puri, about one-sixth of the carrier's staff were infected by the coronavirus.
Till May 30, the Air India group had repatriated 34,52,741 passengers on 25,984 flights. But not just the VBM and Lifeline Udan, Air India aircrew have been traversing the length and breadth of the country and indeed the world to carry vaccines and Covid relief materials at a time when the acute shortage of vital medical supplies amid a frightening second wave of Covid-19 has been causing mayhem in the country. Air India has also been keeping the world moving even if in a very limited way through air bubble flights when scheduled commercial international air travel stays banned in India in the wake of the pandemic. Furthermore, since domestic flights resumed in May last year, the aircrew members have been playing their parts diligently.
In the bargain, the Air India aircrew have been exposed to the coronavirus and its deadly foreign strains while operating in the searing heat of the pandemic for such a long time, often doing multiple flights in a short span of time. In their bid to reconnect thousands of families separated by the pandemic and the resultant travel bans and lockdowns, the Air India aircrew are now seeing their own families being broken apart.
In return, they have only been taken for granted. The government is yet to accord them priority sector status for vaccination that would give them the necessary protective cover for operating in such high-risk conditions. In fact, it is a widely-held view that with timely vaccinations, the families of these unfortunate pilots, some of whom had children as young as five-year-old, would not have faced bereavement. In fact, the ICPA, along with the condolence message for Captain Prasad, tweeted that all flight crew in India need to be vaccinated on an urgent basis.
The then Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola had written to his counterpart in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) Rajesh Bhushan in January itself, when Covid vaccinations started in India, to consider inoculating the aviation staff after the healthcare workers, according to a PTI report. There was another communication by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) in April. However, the state governments kept dragging their feet and then came a nationwide vaccine shortage. Following this, airlines started to vaccinating their staff and the MoCA also issued guidelines in this regard. But by the time, vaccines were started to be administered, precious time was lost.
Global aviation giants like Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines had already aggressively undertaken campaigns to vaccinate aircrew.
Shockingly, there seems to be an unwillingness to accept the aviation employees as frontline workers notwithstanding the stellar role played by them during the pandemic. It is almost forgotten that air travel is one of the easiest ways to import and spread virus strains far and wide.
Pilots have also had to bear steep pay cuts, were hounded in their own housing societies and faced several other issues. "(We have seen) the worst of both worlds. You actually expose yourself and you get criticised as well," a senior pilot told Plane Vanilla.
However, the Air India pilots have vowed to keep serving the nation like they have done so many times in the past, evacuating people from places torn by strife or hit by natural calamity. In this, Captain Prasad would show them the way. He didn't crib for being a flight dispatcher despite holder a CPL, but made adversity a weapon and rose to the very top, and died fighting for the country, sinking his friends, family and well-wishers in tears, but at the same time, giving them enough reasons to celebrate his life and career. He was indeed the karmayogi that Bhagavad Gita had envisaged.
(Cover Image courtesy: Twitter/@GuildPilots and Wikimedia Commons/planepictures.net/Sean d'Silva)