Flying Stranded Citizens Home: Captain Titli Thind's Vande Bharat Mission - by Alisha Vasudev

By #COVIDHeroes

Alisha Vasudev

Captain Thind looks out of her window at home in Mumbai. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

When people from all over the world stayed home for the fear of contracting the virus, Captain Thind put her life on the line and flew stranded citizens home as part of the Vande Bharat Mission.

Getting dressed in uniform, Captain Thind wears her shoes in her room. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

When her airline reached out to their crew to volunteer to operate repatriation flights, Captain Thind spent a couple of days debating this decision with her family.

It wasn’t an easy decision, given the uncertainty of the situation and lack of knowledge about the COVID-19 virus. In the end, however, she knew what she had to do.

Captain Thind in front of the Indian flag at Mumbai’s Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

Initially, in the repatriation effort, citizens had to register themselves with Indian Missions in their countries of residence, following which preference was given to the people in dire need of returning home - those who had lost a family member, had medical concerns, had been laid off, or were students.

It was expected to continue until March 2021.

Dr. Kavita Kapoor, Captain Thind’s grandmother sits on the balcony of their home in Mumbai. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

Dr. Kavita Kapoor, Captain Thind’s grandmother, worried about the uncertain times Titli was flying under. However, being the wife of an Indian Air Force pilot, she understood her granddaughter’s call to duty.

An artist, designer, and someone very active for her age, Dr. Kapoor felt a great degree of isolation the pandemic brought with it.

While Titli was away flying or quarantining at home, Dr. Kapoor busied herself by identifying thirty deserving families in Mumbai's Geeta Nagar and providing them with rations and funds to get through the lockdown.

What uniform while flying during the pandemic looks like. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

As Captain Thind and her fellow crew members geared up to fly, at a time when little was known about the virus - except for the alarming rate at which it could spread and take lives - new protocols were put in place, extensive training given, and personal protective equipment was provided by the airline

Wearing PPE on repatriation flights, the crew regulated food and water intake in an attempt to avoid using restrooms until after the flight had landed and all passengers had deplaned.

Sometimes, de-boarding wasn’t always an option, and they would turn around and fly home the same day.

Captain Thind wears the epaulettes that form a part of her uniform. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

Currently with Air India Express, Captain Thind has been flying for twelve years. She is the first woman airline pilot in her family.

Holding a badge that belonged to her father, Captain Thind has it pinned on her flight bag at all times. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

Hailing from a family of pilots, Captain Thind’s flight bag has her father’s badge pinned on it, at all times. She also wears an aviator watch given by him to her in 2008, when she got her first job as a pilot with Jet Airways. She considers it her good luck charm.

Sitting on her desk and writing; Captain Thind spends most of her waking hours during isolation days here. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

In order to be well balanced in her room during multiple isolation periods, Captain Thind organized her living spaces into rest and productivity zones.

Inspired by a video titled Lockdown Productivity: Spaceship You, this method helped Captain Thind’s days not be a blur as she read, ate, wrote, played guitar and chatted with friends, all while seated on her desk.

Dancing to Joni Mitchell in her room, music has been an important means of getting through isolation for Captain Thind. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

Dancing to Joni Mitchell in her room, music has been an important means of getting through isolation for Captain Thind.

Other than isolating in her room between flights, Captain Thind spends time alone on the roof of her building. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

Initially, since very little was known about the virus and how it spread, Captain Thind took all sorts of precautions to limit her interaction with others.

More recently, since there is a greater understanding of how the virus spreads and how viral loads work, Captain Thind gets to spend some isolation time outside her room too.

An Air India flight after having taken off from Mumbai’s Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

A pilot with Air India Express, Captain Thind recalled how over 1,60,000 expats had registered on the Department of Non-Resident Keralite Affairs portal by the end of April 2020, expressing an interest in returning home during what was increasingly becoming an uncertain time.

As of 19th December 2020, 3.9 million passengers have been repatriated to India thanks to the Vande Bharat Mission.

By its seventh phase of repatriation flights, the Vande Bharat Mission had twenty-three active air bubbles under which flights operated, since all commercial international air operations were suspended till the end of 2020.

Captain Thind watches a movie, while in bed. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

During her early isolation periods, Captain Thind realized that the act of making her bed or not made a big difference to how she spent her day.

Learning from a video where US Navy Admiral William McRaven talks about how the simple act of making one’s bed can make a huge difference, Captain Thind saw a drastic shift in her productivity by doing this first thing in the morning.

Dr. Kapoor sketching in her living room in Mumbai. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

Dr. Kapoor felt strongly about how more people needed to step up and share resources with those who were going through a tough time during the lockdown.

Through her social work efforts, she came across people from younger generations who provided food and other resources to those who were making long journeys home and was greatly impressed by them.

Captain Thind returns home after running errands. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

On 20th March 2020, Captain Thind was put under a two-week home quarantine in Mumbai as 20 passengers on a flight she flew to Mangalore had tested positive for COVID-19. The Government of Karnataka proactively kept in touch to monitor any symptoms and provide her assistance as needed.

With restrictions imposed on everyone on 24th March, a friend ensured rations were made available to Captain Thind and her grandmother.

A photograph of Captain Thind’s father sits on her dressing table at home. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

A photograph of Captain Thind’s father sits on her dressing table at home.

Captain Thind greets her partner, also a pilot, at a coffee shop at Mumbai airport. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

Being at similar exposure levels, Captain Thind and her partner, who have both flown repatriation flights, can follow a different set of protocols when it comes to isolation and quarantine as compared to those followed at home.

Captain Thind in front of Mumbai’s Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport departures area. (2020) by Alisha Vasudev#COVIDHeroes

While Captain Thind is based out of Mumbai, she has regularly been operating repatriation flights out of other cities having a greater influx of people returning home.

The efforts of the airline and their crews have been critical to the high volume of citizens who have been brought home.

Credits: Story

Artist: Alisha Vasudev

Alisha Vasudev is a documentary photographer and earth scientist whose photography practice seeks to explore human-environment relationships, while understanding interdependencies that exist between ecology and life as we know it today. Atmospheric science and weather play an integral role in her practice.

With a background in development studies, Alisha often collaborates with non-profits to document livelihoods, rural development, gender and sport. She is a member of Diversify Photo, Authority Collective and the 2021 Women Photograph Mentorship Class.

Project location: Mumbai, India

#my2020hero is an initiative by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation (CPB) to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of real-life heroes by sharing their stories.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
A Brief History of Vaccination
Centuries of life-saving science summed up
View theme
Google apps