SAA Captain Bruce Finlay gives a first-hand account of the trip to Wuhan, China, to repatriate South Africans from the Covid-19 outbreak city with fellow Port Alfred-trained pilot ‘Mac’ Machaba.
A video clip of the landing into Wuhan by SFO Munzhedzi Machaba, of Port Alfred
SAA put out a request for volunteers to do a special charter for the South African Military to fly to Wuhan and evacuate South African Citizens back to South Africa. The South Africans in Wuhan consisted of mostly students, teachers, South Africans working in China and a few others.
I said I was interested in being a part of the mission to repatriate South Africans from Wuhan and received a call from the head of flight operations at SAA, Lindi Jordaan. She explained that it was a military operation and they would charter the aircraft from SAA to do the flight for the military.
The aircraft was an Airbus A340-600.
SAA withdrew the Aircraft from storage and prepared it for the flight.
The flight was to be led by SAA’s Chief pilot, Captain Vusi Khumalo assisted by Senior First Officer (SFO) Jacob Setlhake.
I, Captain Bruce Finlay, was part of the secondary crew, assisted by Senior First Officer Munzhedzi (Mac) Machaba. Both Mac and I are Port Alfred locals. I presently live there and Mac, who originates from Venda, but spent much of his youth in the town and later attended 43 Airschool where he trained to become a pilot.
Everyone involved in the flight was briefed by the military in the SAA auditorium.
They explained that the aircraft would be divided into several zones. A green zone for the cockpit and pilot crew rest area. A yellow zone, the business class area, where cabin crew, military, and medical personal would rest and operate from, and the red zone, the economy class area, where all the passengers being evacuated would be accommodated.
Before the flight departed from South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa, members of government and military VIPs met all the operating crew members and wished them well and thanked them for volunteering.
On March 10, Captain Khumalo and SFO Setlhake flew the first flight from Johannesburg International to Clark International Airport; just outside Manila in the Philippines.
Because of the length of the flight, a stopover was planned to rest the crews and support personnel before flying to Wuhan and immediately returning to Polokwane in South Africa.
On Friday, March 13, Captain Khumalo handed the flight from Clark International Airport to Wuhan, China, over to myself and SFO Machaba. SFO Machaba did the takeoff out of Clark International and made a smooth landing into Wuhan. The flight took 2 hours and 40 minutes.
We spent about two hours on the ground in Wuhan.
All the passengers were pre-screened before boarding the flight. They had also been tested previously for the virus and kept in quarantine.
Unfortunately, four people had to be left in Wuhan as they did not pass the pre-boarding screening.
At about midnight, Captain Khumalo then made the flight back to Polokwane, assisted by SFO Setlhake and myself and Mac providing in-flight relief.
We landed in the afternoon and were transferred to The Ranch Protea Hotel Resort where we will be spending 21 days of quarantine. The passengers have been separated from the operating crew and military personal and will be staying in a separate section of the lodge.