Motivated by a sense of ‘unbuntu’ and armed with years of aviation experience and a credit card, one South African ex-pat has helped to bring home hundreds of young teachers and students stranded across the world – all during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tertius Myburgh, from Johannesburg and a commercial pilot who left South Africa last year to take up a job in New Brunswick, Canada found himself caught up in the middle of a problem about how to find a way to bring back fellow citizens when the world was busy shutting down airports, grounding fleets and going into complete lockdown.
“This all started when I was approached to help by my former high school headmaster from Hoerskool Florida. He got in touch with me on Facebook and asked if I could help him, his sister and my former science teacher. They had all gone on a trip to Myanmar and could not get back home.”
“My first suggestion was to hire a private jet but that was totally unaffordable. So it started with the three of them and they made contact with four more South Africans also there and that was seven in total. So here I was faced with this problem or where am I going to find an aircraft and somehow put more people on the plane to make this whole exercise more cost-effective.”
Myburgh went to work and started making contact with his aviation network and was able to negotiate a deal with Air Zimbabwe. He leased a Boeing 767, plus its pilots and its crew. Ironically it turned out to be the same 30-year-old plane that had been used by former President Robert Mugabe from time to time.
It was the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and people overseas were really hoping the South African government was going to send their aircraft to pick them up. “I knew there was no ways those seven in Myanmar were ever going to be fetched. There were a few repatriation flights from places like Washington but it took a while for those left behind to realise that SAA is not coming, “he said.
So then Myburgh looked at the cruise liners also stuck in Manila and in the Philippines and asked if they were keen to get involved. They told him that they needed to get all the South Africans and Zimbabweans working for them off as it was costing them money. A cruise ship called ‘Sea Princess’ that had 160 South Africans and Zimbabweans on board agreed to send them home. The first repatriation flight left Harare on its way to Manila with Myanmar as the fuel stop.
“Of course we loaded the seven in there, picked up the others and flew back to SA” said Myburgh. Little did he know that this was just the start. In the end Maple Aviation was going to organise a further four flights.
He continued to receive calls and requests from Asian embassies asking for assistance, either to get their citizens back or from South African embassies asking for help to get our citizens stuck all over Asia – Vietnam, Cambodia, Maldives, Hong Kong and Singapore – home. He had found a way to cover his costs with people travelling in and out.
“Those in Hong Kong and Singapore were allowed to travel to Malaysia and stay over in transit – so our flights became like a taxi service as not one of the countries had numbers that could warrant a full flight , each country had a few, it was a hop stop pick up – and that was how we did it.
“What I did at each location was to nominate a person to be an organiser. They had to get everyone together, registered, cleared and handle all the logistics. You have to remember I have no staff – I created the name Maple Aviation as to help with the repatriation flights.”
“Those that helped I allowed to fly for free,” he said.
THE CHINA FLIGHT
It quickly became clear that the situation in China was really bad for some. These were teachers and students who had lost their jobs, their visas had expired and in some cases, they had to give up their accommodation – they were destitute, sleeping in the streets with no income.
Myburgh said eventually in mid-July a flight left with a full load of Thai nationals who wanted to get to Bangkok. From there the route was headed to China to collect a group and return.
But the aircraft broke down in Bangkok. There was an oil leak in the left engine – the main shaft that drives the compress blades inside the engine had to be sent for repair to a registered Pratt and Whitney. That engine had to go from Harare, to Amsterdam, to Luxor, to Taipei and then back to Bangkok.
Onboard was a group of 120 passengers that had been picked up from Guangzhou – as the aircraft was not allowed to fly domestically – the flight plan meant they had to come out and then fly back in to Wuhan.
At this point, Myburgh heaps praise for the help and assistance received by the Zimbabwean embassies in China.
“People don’t understand how difficult it is for Air Zimbabwe to do anything because of the sanctions. This is an airline that is totally unappreciated. The perception is that is not world-class when I have to tell you that they are. The crew is phemonimal. Their flight ops and planning is second to none. You have to think of the history of this airline. Has there ever been a crash?
He said he had leased the aircraft because he wanted to be in control of the costs so every hour he would pay a certain amount as he wanted to give the savings back to the citizens who wanted to get out.
While the engine got fixed Myburgh had to make a plan to look after his stranded passengers – all 120 of them. Again with the help of the Zimbabwean diplomats, he managed to get them into a hotel at a good rate.
But them there was a problem with the finances. “You have to understand this meant that amount of R200 000 rand was going through my credit card every week and after a few times, the SA Reserve bank froze the account. They thought I was laundering money.”
“I did charge passengers anything from $1 100 per seat per person and if the person was not able to pay we made a plan and never left anyone behind. The aim was to assist at minimal cost and to get as many people out.”
“I would never have been able to do this with the help and assistance of the Zimbabwe diplomatic counterparts in China. You have no idea of the red tape involved, the landing permits etc. In the end, it is all about relationships. Each time they sent a representative down to the airports to oversee everything to make sure that their citizens were handled correctly and they also looked after our South African citizens. That is the real ubuntu when fellow African countries step in to help each other.”
“People ask why I did it. It was not to make money. After the first, it snowballed and you feel compelled to carry on. It’s our human nature to try and assist for the greater good. When you get a photo of a person or a thank you and you see them back home and the joy of being with their families it puts it all into perspective. The real detail will have to go into a book.”
Heidi Gibson is the editor of World Airnews magazine.