Air New Zealand Boeing 777 Captain Jeff Romeril was the pilot in command of the flight that evacuated New Zealanders from Wuhan last month. He writes here about his unusual duty.
Winston Peters made the call: the New Zealand government would provide support in evacuating New Zealand citizens and residents from Wuhan. Given that China was unlikely to clear a military aircraft into their airspace, Air New Zealand was asked to assist and ASAP. Out of the blue like that you could only imagine what wheels were turning, not only in Air New Zealand but within several government agencies and other organisations that would be required to assist.
The task: to fly a Boeing 777-200 Auckland – Hong Kong - Wuhan - Auckland. A re-jig of aircraft scheduling released NZ-OKE for the flight. The sectors Hong Kong – Wuhan - Auckland had to be flown in one duty period. Slipping a crew anywhere en route was not a planned option and was to be used as a contingency only, as directed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT). Crew were contacted and asked to volunteer. At this stage little was known on what possible quarantine would be required post flight, so understandably the search for crew went beyond the call lines. Five pilots were required, two of whom needed to be captains, and the fifth pilot for a standby in Hong Kong. For the greatest flexibility three captains (one of whom was RHS (right hand seat) qualified), one first officer and one second officer were selected.
Joining me on the flight deck were Captain Mark Rammell, Captain Steve Marks, First Officer Jonathan Powles and Second Officer Rahal Oza. Additional crew consisted of 12 cabin crew, a company doctor, ground engineer and two traffic ground staff. Three St Johns ambulance staff would also join us in Hong Kong.
In preparation, a simulator session was organised, trip kits for relevant charts, takeoff and landing performance data sourced, Civil Aviation Authority and union permissions sought for the extension of duty time needed for the nearly 18 hour, two sector planned duty. A trip captain or mission commander was appointed to co-ordinate where necessary. This included being invited to listen in on the regular teleconference calls that were required to update and identify issues that needed to be solved. The participants included key Air New Zealand managers, MFAT, the Ministry of Health, Immigration New Zealand, Customs, the Ministry for Primary Industries, St John, New Zealand Police and Auckland Airport.
The crew positioned to Hong Kong via Cathay Pacific as Air New Zealand had ceased flying there only one day prior. A day’s rest ensued. A decision had been made to delay the flight 12 hours to pass through Wuhan at night. As Wuhan airport was in isolation mode this was purely for diplomatic requirements, so an evening departure from Hong Kong was required. The aircraft had been prepared in Auckland; navigation section had loaded the electronic flight bags and our iPads with the latest Jeppesen navigation data and moving map for Wuhan airport. It arrived in Hong Kong with hundreds of litres of antimicrobial sanitising gel and thousands of various face masks and surgical gloves for crew and passenger use. As an additional precaution, the business class section was reserved for use as a safe isolation zone for the crew and extra support staff we had. No passengers or additional MFAT staff boarding in Wuhan had access to this zone. The fifth pilot was included in the crew as an additional mitigation for fatigue.
The flight Hong Kong - Wuhan was uneventful and on time. Air traffic control (ATC) was clearly aware of our unique flight as well wishes and expeditious handling were offered. At Wuhan airport a normal air bridge gate was used. We had tankered fuel into Wuhan so only a top up of 33 tonnes was required and delivered. Some New Zealand aid medical supplies were offloaded and then, after an inspection of all cargo bays, the doors were closed. No baggage was loaded as all evacuees were permitted carry-on only. The Chinese authorities required all crew passports and removed these to be processed. The passengers started arriving after an hour, having gone through an arduous day of numerous checkpoint screenings transporting themselves to the airport and at the airport itself. We were expecting 260 passengers but a number of them couldn’t get to the airport on time or had chosen not to evacuate. We ended up with 199 evacuees. A final health check was carried out by our St John staff before boarding. Unfortunately one person was denied boarding due to a high body temperature.
At the two hour point, which was our planned turnaround, we were 90 percent ready. The last few passengers and the return of our passports took another two hours. We were now pushing our latest time of departure for a direct flight to Auckland. Finally all doors closed and, after one of the slowest push backs ever experienced, we were on our way. On taxi out we were number three to Iranian and Russian evacuee flights. Take off was achieved with 16 minutes to spare on our maximum 20 hour duty day extension.
The flight home had special flight planning considerations as diverting the aircraft to our normal EDTO (extended diversion time operations) alternates would have caused some major complications. Hong Kong, Darwin and Brisbane were the selected EDTO alternates and Brisbane the primary for any duty time issues, as a relief crew had been prepositioned there. As we had experienced out of Hong Kong, Air Traffic Control were helpful and many directs received, including from Auckland domestic boundary direct to the final fix for approach into Auckland with high speed approved. We arrived at our remote gate with 26 minutes to spare. However, disembarking the passengers took nearly as long as boarding as they were boarded onto special buses or, for the Australian contingent, escorted to their aircraft parked next to us. After a quick operational debrief we deplaned two hours after arrival.
During the flight we had ample support from our ops control and relevant information was shared. There was no requirement for the crew to self-quarantine post flight, taxis were provided to get us home and reassurance given that stand down provisions, as per the special scheduling agreement and standard contract provisions for duty extension had been made.
At the time of writing, there are no planned further flights into Wuhan.
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