Air India martyr who took coronavirus head-on even without vaccine shield

Aviation employees have been handicapped by woefully delayed Covid inoculation, especially when vaccination is the straw that the world is clutching at

Air India martyr who took coronavirus head-on even without vaccine shield
Captain GPS Gill (left) and an Air India B787-8 Dreamliner tailfin. Source: Arranged by Plane Vanilla and Wikimedia Commons/John Taggart

"Je dukh mile ta himmat bakshi
Je sukh mile ta nimrata bakshi"

(Give me the courage to face sorrow
Give me humility in happiness)

"You would have to face difficulties, and I want to be strong no matter what difficulties come my way. But this has taken all my strength...whatever I have," said a close relative of Captain GPS Gill in a voice overcome with emotion.

The words linger with you long after the conversation is over and you wonder how God could be so cruel. Captain Gill was just 47 when he was snatched away by the deadly coronavirus. He is survived by his wife and two daughters, one of them being five-year-old and the other nine-year-old. 

"It's very sad. Captain Gill had two young children," said a senior pilot. It is a terrible injustice, you feel. But then, you are immediately drawn to that wonderful Sikh prayer beseeching God to bestow courage to face hardships. During the course of life, you would sometimes be at the crest of joy and would sink to the depths of despair at other times, but staying composed at all times is the most important thing. 

Captain Gill, who used to pilot the magnificent Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, breathed his last on May 14 in Delhi. "Lost another precious soul to Covid today," said the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA), an Air India union of pilots flying narrow-body planes on short- and medium-haul routes.

"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 Gill family to bear this irreparable loss," the ICPA added.   

Captain Gill's demise made it three Air India captains succumbing to Covid in a space of five days, with Captain Amitesh Prasad and Captain Sandeep Rana passing away on May 9 and May 13 respectively. Not just Air India, the entire aviation sector was unnerved. Two more pilot deaths due to Covid in May made the national airline nearly call 'Mayday'. 

The aircrew of the national airline had stayed true to the national duty from the very beginning, fighting the Covid war in the face of debilitating odds, saving families even at the cost of seeing their own families being broken apart. The selfless service is finally taking a toll on the bodies and minds of the nation's intrepid Covid warriors, whom the government, sadly, is yet to recognise as employees eligible for vaccination on priority. 

Also read: Air India's Covid hero who died fighting for India gets emotional farewell

"I wonder if vaccination was given on priority, would it have provided the protection we were looking for? I don't know. In hindsight, I feel it may have saved him," said Captain Gill's relative, while pointing out that Captain Gill had gone for vaccination twice but was pulled out for flight duty and he could not even get his first shot.

Indeed after so many deaths, everyone had risen to the need to get vaccinations. In the absence of assistance from the state governments, despite requests from the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), the Indian airline companies themselves started to inoculate their employees. But it was already too late. 

"I just keep wondering if these people would have been vaccinated, would they have been alive now? Chances are that if all of them were fully vaccinated they should have been here. That is what hurts," said an aviation veteran, adding that global behemoths like Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines had got their employees inoculated with all sincerity. He added that he did not wait for his company to arrange his vaccine, but went and got it on his own when vaccination for those aged 45 years and above was opened by the government at the beginning of April.  

Indeed, everybody who has any link to aviation feels that the aircrew members have been terribly handicapped by woefully delayed vaccinations, especially when vaccination is the straw that the world is clutching at in the face of an adversary, whose weaknesses the best minds of the world have not been able to find out even after over a year's research.

"Pilots are normal people who have not joined the Army. They just want to go for a normal job and come back home to their kids. They had entered a situation that they had never imagined," said Captain Gill's family member, adding that he went on all his rostered flights to whichever place that the company was sending him to till the very end. In spite of not being a soldier, he fought like a soldier in India's Covid battle and died a martyr.     

"With the onset of Covid-19, they started the Vande Bharat flights. If there was a flight to London, he would go, if there was a rescue flight from Shanghai, he would go. He was also getting vaccines from here and there," informed the family member, ruing the fact that pilots do not have the option of working from home even at the height of the pandemic.  

An Air India B787-8 Dreamliner. This is the aircraft type that Captain GPS Gill flew. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/ Zhao

"People who were still in their offices and worked from home during lockdown reaped all the benefits and the frontline people got nothing," said the aviation old-timer Plane Vanilla spoke to. 

Captain Gill joined Air India in 2001. He was with Alliance Air, flying the Boeing 737. Then he was on the Airbus 320 fleet and finally, the B787 fleet. 

Also read -- Covid horror: Air India loses 5th pilot in May, but aviation staff still taken for granted

"Everyone is saying that good people are going. He was a very God-fearing person. He always helped others, always trying to take the role of a person who takes care rather than being taken care of. He was always around for people who needed him and never showed his problems," recollected Captain Gill's relative. The aviation veteran pointed out that Captain Gill was a person who would come to the office even on days off after a flight and help people.  

The delay in vaccinations has cost the aviation employees big time. Nearly 2,000 Air India employees were infected by Covid, 583 hospitalised and 19 groundstaff were dead, according to figures provided by Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri in Parliament on February 11.

This meant that about one-sixth of the national carrier's staff were down with Covid, and these were just figures till February 1. We are in June and one can well imagine the proportion that the problem would have assumed, especially under the circumstances of an alarming second Covid wave in the country and with various strains of the coronavirus on the rampage across the world.

Also read: Covid mayday for Air India as airline loses 4th captain in May

Moreover, we are not even talking about the Covid numbers of private airlines, most of whom, like Air India, have been actively involved in various government initiatives from the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) mega repatriation, air bubble arrangements and Lifeline Udan cargo missions to flights to transport vaccines and other essential supplies across India and also between India and the world. Furthermore, since domestic flights resumed in May last year, the aircrew members have been playing their parts diligently. Operating in the searing heat of the pandemic for such a long time, often doing multiple flights in a short span of time, it is no surprise that the aircrew members are reporting sick more and more.

Captain Gill's colleagues and the Air India management did their bit to save the pilot, trying to find hospital beds with oxygen and also plasma for him. Like an extended family, they provided all the support that Captain Gill needed. But destiny had something else in store and the Air India Covid hero took one last flight, this time to a place far better.

(Cover image source: Arranged by Plane Vanilla and Wikimedia Commons/John Taggart)