Covid-19: Cargo plane leaves NI with medical aid for India

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By Sara Neill


A cargo plane carrying oxygen generators from Northern Ireland to India left Belfast International Airport on Friday afternoon.


Hospitals in the country are struggling to cope with a second surge of Covid-19 cases. India’s official death toll has surpassed 200,000 but experts believe the actual number may be higher. The shipment, expected to arrive in Delhi over the weekend, also contains 1,000 ventilators from across the UK. The three generators, built in Northern Ireland, are capable of producing 500 litres of oxygen a minute.They are among eight oxygen units built as back-up for local hospitals at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.


Northern Ireland isย the latest in a list of countries to send aid to India, as the situation there worsens. The medical equipment is travelling on an Antonov An-124, a Russian plane originally designed in the 1980s to carry Soviet tanks. Now, the plane is normally used to move outsize freight – things like airplane wings from Bombardier – but has been drafted in to fly medical equipment to India.


The aircraft touched down at Belfast International Airport at 21:30 BST on Thursday, welcomed by Health Minister Robin Swann, deputy chief medical officer Dr Naresh Chada and the few airport crew still on duty.


Selfies for a significant moment

There was a buzz at Belfast International Airport on Thursday evening, something that’s been missing over the past few months. The oxygen generators are bound for India, where hospitals have been overwhelmed by a second wave of coronavirus cases.

Countries around the world have sent aid – now it’s Northern Ireland’s turn. The colossal plane, thought to be the second largest cargo aircraft in the world, dwarfed parked passenger planes nearby. It arrived from Houston, Texas, and is due to leave, full-bellied, on Friday morning after refuelling.


About 20 airport staff watched as it touched down, with warnings given to cover ears from the plane’s roaring engines. Once on the ground, the 13-strong Russian and Ukrainian crew disembarked. On the runway, people took selfies with the Antonov in the background and there was a real feeling that this was a significant moment in history.


The man responsible for refuelling the plane told BBC News NI it would take about two-and-a-half hours to fill it, using 120,000 litres of fuel – an amount that would empty his fuel tanker three times.


To put that in perspective, the average plane taking you to Spain requires about 10 tonnes of fuel; this plane needs 90 tonnes – and even that would only keep it going until it refuels and recrews in Russia later on Friday for a pit stop on the way to Delhi.


The medical equipment took about three hours to load onto the plane, with the oxygen generators loaded through the tail and the ventilators through the nose. The operation is being funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.


Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “This life-saving equipment will support the country’s hospitals as they care for vulnerable Covid patients.


“The UK and India are working together to tackle this pandemic. No-one is safe until we are all safe.”