Flying In India After The Gujarat Earthquake

We landed in New Delhi on the 25th January, 2001 after flying almost 8 hours from London Gatwick. The airline had a contract to fly Indian muslims to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj from Bangalore, Madras, and New Delhi.

That night we had a party in someone's hotel room which lasted until the early hours of the morning. I had only just got to sleep when I felt the bed shaking. My first thought was that it was someone under the bed playing a practical joke. I quickly dismissed this idea when I saw that the base of the bed was too close to the floor for anybody to fit under it.

At breakfast someone said that his bathroom had been shaking and that he'd cut himself while shaving. The consensus was that there must have been an earthquake. This was confirmed by a waiter who told us that there had been a massive earthquake in Gujarat province which had killed thousands of people. New Delhi was approximately 700 kilometres from the epicentre. He added that it was India's National Day.

After breakfast we paid our bar bills and moved to another hotel. Over the next 5 days we flew scheduled Haj flights to Jeddah. We were then asked to re-position the aircraft to Bangalore in the south of the country. Bangalore has a lot of high tech industry and is known as the IT capital of India.

For the next 10 days we flew Indian muslims from Bangalore to Jeddah. The block time was just over six hours with 362 passengers and 13 crew, which put us close to the maximum takeoff gross weight of 466,000 lbs. Crews overnighted in Jeddah then took over the incoming aircraft and flew it back empty to Bangalore.

One of the other airlines contracting to the national flag carrier had been involved in an incident in Ahmedabad, and because of this there was an urgent need for a replacement aircraft. We were asked to re-position to Ahmedabad to fly three return sectors to Jeddah. Ahmedabad was close to the epicentre of the recent earthquake in Gujarat.

This directive to re-position to Ahmedabad almost caused a mutiny among our crewmembers. Earthquakes in other parts of the globe were cited where disease had been rife and buildings had crumbled all over the country. These examples of natural disasters were somewhat exaggerated so as to make a strong case for not going to Ahmedabad.

Notwithstanding the objections, all crewmembers were finally persuaded to board the aircraft. During departure preparations a number of phone calls were made to various embassies in New Delhi seeking advice as to whether it was safe to be in Ahmedabad. Almost without exception embassy staffers advised against it given the proximity to Gujarat. The aircraft departed with much controversy and many animated conversations particularly among the pilot group.

Approximately 90 minutes later we were parked on the apron in Ahmedabad. Steps were wheeled into place and the door was opened but nobody got off. One of the flight engineers stepped to the front of the cabin to address crewmembers. His opening statement was to remind everybody that our contracts did not cover operating in natural disaster areas and in the event of an accident it would be difficult, if not impossible, to claim compensation. He went on to say that his embassy had strongly advised him not to disembark in Ahmedabad. He recommended that nobody else disembark. Nobody got out of their seats!

A doctor was called out to the airport to report on the situation regarding disease in the city as well as the structural integrity of buildings. I failed to see how he could comment on the latter - he was a doctor and not a civil engineer!

The doctor finally arrived and clearly stated that disease was not a factor in the city and that he had seen very little damage to buildings. At this point someone at the back stood up and shouted "Is the Holiday Inn still standing?"

As the situation was now getting out of hand, the L1011 Fleet Commander stepped to the front of the cabin to make a statement. He began by saying that no one had to get off the aircraft if they didn't agree with the doctor's assessment. He then said that he could not fly the Tristar to Jeddah by himself and called for a volunteer first officer and flight engineer. I put my hand up as did a tall flight engineer from North Carolina. Now he needed a cabin crew. I spoke to one of the senior girls about coming up with a crew for the first flight in the morning. As an enticement I offered to host a party in my room at the Holiday Inn, adding that it would be a lot more fun than sleeping on the aircraft. In 20 minutes she had 10 girls volunteer, including herself, for the first of three scheduled return flights to Jeddah.

The 13 of us, 3 technical crew and 10 cabin crew, got into 4 taxis and headed into the city. The rest of our group who did not want to risk it, checked into the airport hotel where they remained until the end of the short tour.

The operating crew stayed at the Holiday Inn downtown. We had a great time with room parties on a rotational basis every second night after returning from Saudi Arabia. The only structural damage in the hotel that I could see was in the coffee shop where there was a 10 metre long crack in the back wall. The coffee shop had a very high ceiling. Walking around the town I saw very little damage to buildings.

That first evening I got a call from the airline asking me for an assessment of the situation. I replied that in my opinion the many complaints and the prevailing negative attitude was a clear case of overkill, and that we did not expect the hotel to come crashing down around our ears anytime soon. I added that we had a doctor's assurance that there was no risk of disease.

We completed the three return sectors to Jeddah without incident and were then re-assigned to Madras, or Chennai as it is now called. Ten days of flying to Jeddah from Madras completed the first part of the Haj and we had 12 days off before the start of the return Haj. I went home to Chiang Mai to spend time with my wife, while others flew home to their families in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

I must admit that while eating breakfast at the Holiday Inn in Ahmedabad, I had that 10 metre crack in the back wall in my peripheral vision. Hotel staff to whom I spoke didn't seem at all concerned about it. Perhaps, they'd had an opinion from a structural engineer - or perhaps not.

The author, Antony Woodward, is a retired airline pilot formerly based in the Far East, Middle East, and Europe. He is FAA type endorsed on Boeing 727, Lockheed L1011, and Boeing 747-400 series aircraft. He has also been a corporate pilot, instrument flight instructor, and ground instructor with the Australian national flag carrier on Boeing 767 aircraft.

We landed in New Delhi on the 25th January, 2001 after flying almost 8 hours from London Gatwick. The airline had a contract to fly Indian muslims to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj from Bangalore, Madras, and New Delhi.