Air India One's new livery, pure white covering upper fuselage with a running tricolour strip

Air India has handpicked 40 of its senior-most pilots, who will be deputed to fly the specially customised aircraft to be used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind, and Vice President Venkaiah Naidu.

These pilots have been chosen less than a month after the national airline invited applications for the roles, on May 15. In official parlance, they will be deputed for Special Extra Section Flight operations.

The 40 pilots will be flying the two Boeing 777 aircraft, which are expected to be commissioned in July this year. Currently, the VVIPs fly Air India's B747 planes that have the call sign 'Air India One'. The new aircraft will also carry the same code.

The B777 planes, which had a price tag of $190 million, will be fitted with sophisticated defence systems, called Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) Self-Protection Suites (SPS).

Interestingly, pilots from Indian Air Force were earlier supposed to be deputed to fly the new aircraft. But plans changed.

The Benefits

The Air India pilots selected for the high-profile jobs will enjoy benefits that are unprecedented in the industry.

While they will continue to be on the payroll of Air India, and will keep getting allowances and annual increments, the pilots will also be guaranteed 70 hours of flying allowance along with overtime.

Irrespective of their flying time, the 40 selected aviators will also get a fixed layover allowance of $1,200 each per month. Apart from this, they will also receive allowances they accrued as examiners and instructors.

Applicants had to be commanders flying Boeing 777 jet, Line Training Captains, Type Rating Instructors or Designated Examiners.

"The pilots will undertake only IAF flight duties and they shall undertake Air India flights only for the purpose of meeting license currency requirements, if needed," said the Air India notice inviting applications.

This will translate to, says a senior industry executive, "monthly pay of Rs 8 lakh, plus all the allowances mentioned in the notice. This is a great posting as it comes with hardly any flying hours."

In other words, they could be the highest-paid pilots in the country.

But do two B777 aircraft need 40 senior pilots? "Twelve pilots are more than enough for two 777 aircraft," says the executive. 

The Aircraft

The present planes carrying the dignitaries didn't have any defence systems. 

"These were normal B777 and B747 aircraft. There were no military hardware or top-secret configuration. The planes were used commercially. When the PM had to fly, they would reconfigure the cabin for him," said a senior executive from the industry. 

The new aircraft, on the other hand, will come 'loaded.' The systems will include missile warning sensors, counter-measure dispensing systems, guardian laster transmitter assemblies and Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suites.

With the kind of configuration, it wasn't a surprise that Indian Air Force pilots were initially picked for the duty.

"The IAF had sent four pilots from the ‘Comm squadron’ to train with Air India," said a senior executive.

The primary role of the Communication Squadron of the IAF, formed in 1947, is to \convey VVIPs/VIPs of India and visiting foreign heads of states and Governments.

"It’s not clear why the IAF pilots left midway. They had enough time to train the IAF pilots," added the executive quoted above.