Johannesburg (CNN) – Even for 2020, with a global pandemic ever occurring and countless travel bans after that, this rescue mission seems a bit far-fetched.
To get about 100 South Africans and a few dozen Zimbabwean students out of China, Air Zimbabwe’s single operational aircraft and diplomatic channels at embassies around the world will be needed – all staged. from a Canadian dining table by a man, armed with just one cell phone.
“That’s me. I’m alone and my phone. I’m new in Canada, so they don’t give me much phone credit here,” says Tertius Myburgh ̵1; a South African commercial pilot who lives. in New Brunswick laughed.
But that phone – and limited credit – is the last hope for a lot of people stuck in China.
“They started contacting me, because I was working in the aviation industry, and they said: ‘How do we get out of here?'” Explained Myburgh, who started listening to comments from everyone. people after South Africa banned tourism in March.
Tertius Myburgh worked in the aviation industry for decades in South Africa as a pilot and operations manager. He recently moved to Canada, where he is running a rental company from his dining room.
Maple Aviation is polite
“Before Covid, you could just contact their civil aviation agency, submit your flight details and – boom – a day or two later, you have a license and you will go” The charter flight process was relatively simple before the pandemic, he added.
But now Myburgh has to navigate the complexities of charter flights in the locked international context – and with the added complexity of the airline industry in trouble.
As the number of paying passengers needing repatriation became clearer, Myburgh used its South African links to rent a Boeing 767, along with its pilots and crew, from Air Zimbabwe. It is also the 30-year-old plane used by former President Robert Mugabe. That plane then unlocked the support of Zimbabwe diplomats.
Myburgh admitted for the first time he saw a business opportunity in response to a plea for help, but he said it was impossible not to get caught up in the personalities and their stories.
“It’s not just them. Their fiance might be in South Africa, it’s husband or wife. Or mother and father.”
With so many calls coming in, he needs a ground partner to help coordinate and foster the diverse group of South Africans and Zimbabweans.
From an early age, he connected with Carmen Johannie – a South African teacher based in Guangzhou.
She spent months trying to return to South Africa, before connecting with Myburgh.
“He sent a message, anyone stuck in China needed to contact him. As soon as I texted him, I immediately knew that he was the keeper and he was. was a man performing and if someone was going to take us home, it would be him, “she said.
After months of waiting to leave China, the group’s final journey was delayed because of last-minute route changes and a faulty engine.
Carmen Johannie is polite
“It was a team effort that we did. And then I realized how many people were relying on us – the pressure was huge.”
Many South Africans need to return home from China, partly due to the cancellation of the South African Airways (SAA) return flight, which was originally scheduled in mid-June.
The SAA and the South African government conducted a high-profile South African evacuation from Wuhan in mid-March. The airline also repatriated citizens from a variety of other countries.
But an additional flight, scheduled for June, has been delayed.
“SAA is ready to transport these passengers from China to South Africa. We need to appreciate that it is under unusual circumstances,” said Tlali Tlali, the airline’s spokesperson, to CNN. said the SAA needed both governments for permission.
“We have asked for permission from the South African government, but we are still waiting for approval from the other end.”
That made Myburgh, Johannie and Air Zimbabwe 767 do something the South African flag carrier could not do. Myburgh credits Zimbabwean diplomats, who are also trying to bring their citizens home for softening the path with Chinese officials.
However, the paperwork is only one of the obstacles.
A complicated trip
Planning a route that can tear frequent passengers, planes and crews embarked on a journey from Zimbabwe in mid-July.
They flew from Harare to Johannesburg, and continued on to Bangkok, before arriving in Kuala Lumpur (KL), where they picked up trapped commercial crews from China. The sailors’ company helped cover the costs of the charter party.
From Kuala Lumpur, they went to Guangzhou, then back to Kuala Lumpur – as they weren’t allowed to take domestic routes in China – and went to Wuhan, to pick up most of the South Africans, before finally shooting back to Johannesburg.
The epic return flight involved more than a hundred South Africans and several dozen Zimbabwean students who were also stranded in China.
Maple Aviation is polite
The Bangkok leg had to be added when the 767’s engine failed – leaving South Africans stuck for another two weeks. Myburgh charged a fee of $ 1,000 for each repatriation; in the end he has to pay for their hotel and meals.
For hundreds of passengers, many of whom have become families, it’s just the latest incident in a long series of disappointments. Some were running out of money at the time, so they helped to raise money in the community.
“You’re waiting for something wrong. So when that happens to the motive – we laughed and really couldn’t do anything else. Our motto was: ‘It is so'” , Johannie said.
A new engine for the 767 has made its own journey: from Harare, to Amsterdam, to Luxor, to Taipei and then to Bangkok.
Myburgh says he has never thought of refunding passengers and unplugging.
“How can I sit in the garden now and drink whiskey and a barbecue because I made it easier for myself, but all of these people are stuck there? It couldn’t have happened that way. – you have to do whatever you can, “he said.
As passengers and crew wait for new engines every day, Myburgh’s credit card bills pile up. He says he has lost “a lot” of money back home, but believes that if he gets over the impossible, future flights could help his business survive. these difficult times.
Then, in mid-July, after months of waiting and weeks of disappointment, Johannie and a group of friends from China finally set off on their way home.
Johannie said: “When we took off from KL, I was really down. And at the same time, it was like the weight of the world pouring off your shoulders. When we landed, it was surreal, yes. a lot of tears, “Johannie said.
The South African government told CNN it is imperative to help all citizens abroad and said it has facilitated the approval of South African flights and quarantine them when landing.
That’s where Johannie and her passengers are currently staying for two weeks, in a large complex east of Johannesburg. They still exchanged WhatsApp messages and waved goodbye from each other from the porch during isolated times. But at least they are home.
Johannie says that their months-long ordeal was over with just one man. A man she has never met.
“I’ve been calling him my guardian angel since day one, because that was literally his. He’s really the only one who can help us,” she said.