Usually their ‘cargo’ comprises VIPs, but lately Captain Majid Akhtar and Captain Vishwas Rai, pilots with the Madhya Pradesh government, have been ferrying samples of suspected COVID-19 patients in their Super King Air B 200.
The eight laboratories in Madhya Pradesh at the time (there are 14 now) were flooded with samples after there was a sudden rise in the number of cases in the state from mid-April, especially in Indore and Bhopal. The authorities decided to ramp up testing, but the labs in the state were not equipped to handle the number of samples being sent in. Moreover, reports of contamination were coming in.
So, in order to expedite diagnoses and treatment, the MP government spoke to labs in other states and managed to get Delhi and Puducherry on board to get faster results.
Akhtar and Rai were called to ferry samples by Ilayaraja T., director, aviation. “Initially, there were apprehensions, given everything we had heard about the virus,” says Akhtar, who has been a pilot with the state government for 25 years. “But it had to be done. It was our time to give back to society.”
The pilots made their first such trip, from Indore to Delhi, on April 12, accompanied by a doctor on board. The samples were covered in triple-layer packaging material and the pilots themselves were asked to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) suits. The flight time from Bhopal to Delhi is almost two hours, and from Bhopal to Puducherry, around three hours. “We aren’t trained to pilot in PPE suits,” says Akhtar. “On the first day, flying in a PPE suit, the heat got to me. I felt dehydrated and dizzy.” The duo has since become used to it and completed four trips, ferried 5,500 samples in all and, on one trip, brought back supplies of hydroxychloroquine, a drug given to COVID-19 patients, and test kits, both in short supply in the state.
The pilots, while on standby, have quarantined themselves at home. “I had spoken to a few doctors about precautions I need to take. I have elderly parents and children at home, so I decided to quarantine myself after the flights,” says Rai, who has been with the state government for 14 years.