It was the early morning of October 14 when Air Force Chief, ACM Phanphakdee Phatthanakul, stood before the assembled officials and pilots at an airbase near Don Mueang International Airport. The surface of the interaction may have been routine – a manned flight half-way across the globe – but the circumstandances certainly were not.
Taking off at 12.05 a.m. on Sunday, the chosen A340-500 soared into the sky on a 12-and-a-half-hour flight bound for Ben Gurion International Airport in the heart of Tel Aviv, Israel. The purpose of the mission? To bring Thai citizens back to the safety of their homeland amidst ongoing conflict. The return flight was expected to commence at 4.40 a.m. on October 16.
In the mission briefing, Chief Phanphakdee conveyed a reassuring message to his team. The pilots chosen for this operation were qualified and equipped to handle the task. In a professionally cautious move, however, reserve pilots from the country’s premier airlines, Thai Airways, were put on standby, ready to face any unforeseen contingencies.
There was also flexibility in operation plans. If required, the leadership was ready to modify the flight’s duration to a mere eight hours. This rapid response plan aimed to ensure minimal time in transit for the evacuees aboard.
The responsibility for coordination rested primarily with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To keep a close eye on the situation and stay prepared for any developments, regular meetings were convened. Flight safety was a priority, with aircraft routes subject to change in response to airspace closures.
Phanphakdee further reassured that alternative airports were on standby, ready to be pressed into service if necessary. The mission’s strategy also included alternating between military and commercial flights to ensure the swift return of Thai evacuees.
Reports from the ground painted a grim picture. It’s tragic to learn that the crisis claimed the lives of 16 Thai workers in Israel, with a possible eight lives still unconfirmed. A further 16 had suffered injuries. Alarmingly, of the 7,142 Thai workers currently in Israel, an overwhelming majority of 7,058 expressed a heartfelt desire to return home. Only 84 have decided to ride out the storm in Israel. As we keep track, a fortunate 97 individuals have made it, safe and sound, back to Thailand.
As this unprecedented operation unfolds beneath the shared global spotlight, the determined will of the Thai Air Force in the face of adversity remains an inspiration. Let their efforts serve as a beacon of hope amidst these uncertain times.