Ever since the first case of coronavirus was found in Wuhan in December 2019, the world has been battling its rapid spread across the globe. Countries announced lockdown to contain the spread of the virus, and as a result, many Indians living abroad were out of work and almost broke amid a raging pandemic. The Centre then facilitated the return of Indians stranded abroad in a phased manner from May 7. They travelled via aircrafts and naval ships.
National carrier Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express flew the repatriation flights to bring back Indians stranded in 16 countries. One country where the outbreak became severe very quickly was Italy. Captain Swati Raval, an Air India pilot, led the rescue operation and airlifted 263 Indians from Rome to Delhi.
The 40-year-old commander and a mother of two recounts her experience of evacuating those stranded in Rome.
After this mission, Captain Raval became the first female civil pilot in India to undertake and successfully complete a rescue operation. She spoke to Humans of Bombay and recalled, "I had 5 seconds to answer him, and all I could think about was my 5 year old son and 18 month old daughter. The memory of my daughter falling sick a few months before, while I was flying, made me hesitant. But the thought of those 263 Indians desperately waiting to go back home to their families made me agree. So I gathered courage and said, ‘Yes, I will pilot this flight’."
The next day Swati kissed goodbye to her two kids to board the flight for the rescue mission. Describing it as the 'eeriest evening of her life', she said, "But after the passengers in Rome boarded the flight, the vibe instantly changed. For a brief moment, it felt like the pandemic never existed. After landing, the passengers cheered for us before leaving the plane."
While leaving her two kids behind wasn't an easy decision, coming back to them wasn't a cheerful experience either as she had to stay away from them as a precautionary measure. "When my son ran to hug me as I entered, I had to stop him and tell him, ‘Mumma can’t hug you’. When my baby girl saw me, she had a huge smile on her face as she waddled her way to me–but my husband had to pick her up and take her away. She screamed and cried–it broke my heart," said Captain Raval.
She was in self-isolation before she could finally hug her two children. She recalled how her daughter used to sneak inside her room to be with her. "My daughter couldn’t stay away from me. Any chance she got, she tried sneaking into my room. It became a game, where I’d run and she’d try to catch me. It was the best way to explain the situation to my baby," she added.
And when she finally got to hug her family, she said she got to know the pain of those who were stranded outside of their countries, "But after isolating, when I finally got to hold my kids, I felt what those passengers must have felt–an ache to be close to loved ones. And if it means that we can bring families together, I’m ready to pilot as many flights as it takes to bring my fellow Indians home, safe and sound," she said.
Well, we are proud of her for putting her life on the line to help others in unprecedented times like this. More power to you, Captain Raval!