I was just doing my job, says SAA chief pilot who evacuated South Africans from Wuhan

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SAA’s chief pilot, Captain Vusi Khumalo (left), and senior first officer Jacob Setlhake were responsible for the aircraft and crew that repatriated 114 South Africans from Wuhan in China last week. Picture: Supplied
SAA’s chief pilot, Captain Vusi Khumalo (left), and senior first officer Jacob Setlhake were responsible for the aircraft and crew that repatriated 114 South Africans from Wuhan in China last week. Picture: Supplied

SAA’s modest chief pilot, Captain Vusi Khumalo, brushes aside any adulation and emphasises that the mission was a team effort

It’s been a little over a week since SAA chief pilot, Captain Vusi Khumalo, led an aircraft crew tasked with the historic evacuation of more than 100 South Africans who had been stuck in Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic – and, despite being in quarantine, he is as busy as ever.

Between the temperature checks and medical tests he has to undergo routinely for 21 days at the Ranch Resort near Polokwane in Limpopo – the quarantine site for him and the 146 passengers aboard the special charter flight ZS-SND which landed at Polokwane International Airport last week – it was still “business as usual” for him.

“I’m mostly on my emails during the day. I may be here, but I am in contact with work. It’s more like I’m working from home, so I’m still in touch with pilots and do teleconferencing daily,” he said, as City Press settled in for a telephonic interview with him last week.

Aboard the Airbus A340-600 were also the cabin crew, medical staff and SA National Defence Force personnel.

The 54-year-old chuckled, brushing aside the interest and buzz surrounding him since it was made public that he would be leading the flight bringing the 114 South African nationals back from Wuhan.

“I was just doing my job,” he said repeatedly, insisting: “It was my country duty. I couldn’t ask someone else to do what I wouldn’t do.”

Last week he briefly interacted, for the first time, with some of the nationals he flew back into the country.

“Yesterday [Tuesday] somebody came to me in the dining room and said: ‘Are you the guy who flew us?’ I said yes. He said: ‘Thank you so much, some of us have been struggling in our dormitories for like 45 days and we were so worried and frustrated.’ I said: ‘That’s what I do for a living, that’s my job.’

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Military officials on the ground at the Protea Hotels The Ranch resort in Limpopo. Picture: Chante Schatz, News24

“But I wasn’t the only one on the mission, obviously. I was the captain, but people don’t realise how many days we spent preparing for the flight and how many people were involved,” Khumalo said, shifting the focus from himself.

Indeed, Khumalo wasn’t alone – he was assisted by senior first officer (SFO) Jacob Setlhake, and secondary crew, Captain Bruce Finlay assisted by SFO Munzhedzi Machaba.

Aboard the Airbus A340-600 were also the cabin crew, medical staff and SA National Defence Force personnel.

A passion for flight

Khumalo started his career as a pilot at SAA in January 1994. Before that, he had had his first stint of commercial flying at Bop Air – or rather, Bophuthatswana Airways -- in 1987.

His love for flying, however, dates back even further.

He recalls the first time he saw an aircraft, a moment that changed the trajectory of his life which, up until then, seemed certain to go towards his being a lawyer.

“I was in Standard 7 [Grade 9], and was sitting in the classroom at our school in Tlhabane in Rustenburg, and this chopper flew over our school and landed in a nearby field. I told my best friend: ‘I think the chopper has landed and I’m going to rush out of class as the teacher is still busy. Are you going to come with me?’

It’s been a little over a week since SAA chief pilot, Captain Vusi Khumalo, led an aircraft crew tasked with the historic evacuation of more than 100 South Africans who had been stuck in Wuhan

“He said: ‘You rush and I’ll follow you.’ So I just rushed outside. There was this Coca-Cola chopper that landed and the pilot got out and started pumping fuel in it and after that he took off. And I asked my friend: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be a pilot? That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.’”

And now, 26 years later, he is chief pilot at the national carrier. But it didn’t come easily.

“I had to move from Mahikeng to attend the nearest flying school. In fact, my first lesson was the first time I had been to an airport! During my high school years, I worked in a library and I’d always make sure the librarian would get aviation books.

While I was still in high school one of my relatives also got me books on flying and aerodynamics – all the different lessons. I discovered that those would be the same books I was going to be using in flying school for my pilot licence,” he said.

Country duty

Back on the subject of what made him volunteer to be part of the crew bringing back the locals from Wuhan, a trip that posed potential risk as it would involve exposing himself to Wuhan where the outbreak of Covid-19 first took hold, he said the decision was a no-brainer.

“It’s a national crisis – it doesn’t just involve me, it affects everybody. Anyone can catch this virus. Even when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa was going to fetch people there [from Wuhan], I kind of knew SAA was the only airline with the capability to fly all the way to China non-stop and come back non-stop. I was expecting it might happen. I was already preparing myself for when I got the call,” he said.

Read: Cabinet's crisis plans to deal with coronavirus likely to include travel bans

But the father of six did concede that it was hard explaining his decision to his family.

“It’s a very difficult one. Obviously family will ask: why you? You’re the chief pilot. Why can’t you send somebody else? But I explained that it was part of my national duty and my job at SAA.

I cannot send people to a place I cannot go to myself. I always want to be part of the solution. People highlight the negative and don’t think around solutions or look at the positive aspects of life and how they can make a difference.”

Life in lockdown

While he won’t be taking to the skies for a few weeks, he said his days were anything but slow.

“They’re going pretty fast. There’s a whole lot of stuff I’m doing. I basically can take my office with me wherever I go. I do get calls in the morning from the pilots or when decisions need to be taken at night. I still take those calls.

My phone is always on – I deal with those back-to-back. I may not have the freedom to go where I need to go, but I know I’m here for a reason and a season, and once it’s done I go back to my life,” he said.

The rest of the crew who undertook the mission with him were also still in “good spirits”, he said.

“I have such respect for them because they weren’t forced to take the mission, but came forward to put themselves out there. It’s something they can be very proud of. We are here and we did it.

It’s probably one of those missions you’ll remember for the rest of your life. There’ll be different diseases in the future, and it might be somebody else’s turn to do what we did. But this will definitely be memorable.”

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