Air India becomes 19th airline in world to fly plane over North pole

Express News Service
BENGALURU: It was only once in August 2019 that an aircraft by an Indian Airline flew over the North Pole. That was a validation flight by Air India aimed at proving to various regulators its prowess to fly over the the northernmost point on the planet. That solo effort has resulted in India getting clearance to fly over this icy, inhospitable region.

Air India on Sunday become the 19th airline in the world to fly its plane over the North Pole. Flight no AI-176, steered by all-women cockpit crew achieved this historic feat. Guiding them every second was Air India’s  Executive Director of Flight Safety, Capt. Nivedita Bhasin. Bhasin already has her name etched in Indian aviation’s history books. When she was just 26 years, became the youngest women pilot in the world to fly a Boeing 737. She also flew the Second Dreamliner flight from Charleston in the US to India.

Sharing her time on the flight, the Captain said, “It was the first Polar flight and also the longest, for Air India, and so I was brought in to monitor all safety related aspects. I travelled as an observer, and carried our spot checks in the cabin and on the ground in San Francisco. During the flight, I kept checking if everything was going on smooth and as per plan. “ she told The New Indian Express. 

Work on the project began in 2016.  “Flying over the North Pole was possible due to years of preparation, by our Training, Operations and Flight Safety department. “ she said. 

So how was the experience? “An exhilarating experience, to say the least. Ït was actually pitch dark and we could see nothing except a few Northern Lights far away. The sky was clear and the stars were shining, “she recalls 

Explaining the challenges of flying in the North Pole, Capt. Bhasin said, “The polar region is very remote, inhospitable and always under ice cover. The crucial part is the inflight diversion, if any, followed by expeditious retrieval of passengers and crew.”

A vital element for any trip to the Polar Region which is 10,000 kms away from the equator is that the levels of radiation present there needs to be continuously monitored. “Since radiation is harmful to health, it is imperative to ensure that it is at a minimum. In case, the radiation levels are high, there is an option of rerouting the flight by avoiding the Polar part. This decision can be taken by the Operations team up to 90 mins before the flight departure time,” she explained.

To minimise risk to its crew, Air India has a limit on such flights and each crew member can travel on a North Pole flight only twice in a month, the Executive Director added. “We have made it today because of rigorous training, safety risk assessment and mitigation efforts. By routing through the North Pole, we cut fuel costs as well as time. Reduction of one hour of travel time saves more than 7 tonnes of fuel  and reduces Carbon emissions,” she added.

The superior make of aircraft over the years too has made such a feat possible. “Planes are now twin-engined as compared to four in the past. Over time, the reliability of engines has improved and there are remote chances of an inflight engine shutdown,” Captain Bhasin said.

Some interesting aspects about a flight that would undertake a Polar trip is that there is an exclusive hotline to a doctor available through satellite phone to help anyone in any emergency. “There is also a Rescue Aircraft kept as standby which can rush whenever required,” she explained.

But was the move to make the first commercial trip by any Indian airline over the Polar region by an all-women team a daring step taken? “Not at all. Indian women have always been big achievers in aviation since 1966 when we had our first pilot Captain Durba Banerjee. Way back in 1985 itself, we had flown the world’s first all-women crew flight ,””she said.