When we think of workspaces, few of us imagine a moving space in one of the most hazardous regions on earth. This space moves horizontally, vertically and in other directions too. This workspace is a civilian helicopter.
Deep in the eastern Himalayan mountains, just south of the Chinese border, is an Indian state which is inhabited by mainly ethnic Tibetan Monpa tribal people, though there is a large number of Indians administering the area too. There are also numerous contingents of military and paramilitary forces there and because of the geographical sensitivity of the area you need a special permit to get in.
This state is called Arunachal Pradesh and there is a population average of roughly 12 people for every square kilometre. Though the snow-capped peaks, stunning waterfalls, alpine forests and verdant fields are stunning to look at, it’s not easy to live here.
People live in clusters of settlements on the mountains and in valleys. But as this area is underdeveloped, many of the windy roads around the mountains are rough. It can take days to get to places. And your road may be blocked by snow or landslides at any moment.
So in an effort to cut down the time it takes to get up and down the mountains, to and from settlements, a helicopter service was started some years ago.
When conditions allow, it travels from the low lying Guwahati at the base of the mountains up around 10,000 feet into an ancient monastery town called Tawang nestling in the Himalayas.
A tiny helipad has been built for it on the outskirts of this sleepy town. A bit of mountain that protrudes is handy for the landing pad but the processing building next to it is little more than a simple low, one-storey cement building with a few seats in it and the necessary security checking machines. That’s all.
The crew operating this helicopter service consists of two pilots and a cabin crew member. It leaves around 10.30am (Indian time) from Guwahati when running and takes just over an hour for the flight. Once it has landed, discharged its passengers and luggage, it loads up, turns around and flies straight back again. All the flights need to happen in the first half of the day before the weather changes and the light fades.
It may seem straight forward, but it is not. This part of the Himalayas is the youngest in this region, which means that they still shift, rise and fall as they have not yet fully settled. So there are earthquakes here in Arunachal Pradesh.
Though the scenery is beautiful, the snow-capped peaks are subject to sudden rain torrents and bitter cold. Any hazardous weather means that the helicopter will get cancelled, and its crew has to go home after waiting at the small airport in Guwahati.
The teams organising a flight in the low and high land never know until the day if it will fly and are always at the mercy of the weather. Imagine planning to go to work and never knowing if you are going to be able to actually work that day!
This means that everyone involved with the flight operation develops stoic resilience and gets used to living according to the weather conditions. They constantly monitor the forecasts around the clock. For instance, during the summer monsoons when it rains incessantly every day, flights cannot operate for days on end. This causes work disruption for the flight teams and bookers. That stoic resilience becomes more necessary than ever.
Only a few of those who buy tickets are travelling for fun. Passengers, who are not allowed to carry more than 10kg of luggage, are often working or attending meetings. There may be medical reasons for travel or perhaps someone in Tawang has been taken ill suddenly with altitude sickness, for instance, and needs to be brought down to the plains for medical treatment. Tourists visiting the region may be on deadlines with international flights booked. Everyone, not just the crew, is dependent on the elements.
While the flight over the Himalayas is memorable, it has not always been as safe as it is now. In 2011, there was a crash near Tawang that killed five people, including the chief minister of the state. That same year, another M1-172 helicopter was dashed to pieces injuring 23 and killing 17.
Now, to reduce the risk that beset earlier flights, the captain flies partially over neighbouring kingdom Bhutan for part of the journey.
So when I flew back from Arunachal Pradesh after working there recently, I was grateful to the crew for piloting me safely but most of all, I was grateful to the sun for shining and to the rain for staying away!