We are no heroes, says Mission Wuhan pilot | Sunday Observer

We are no heroes, says Mission Wuhan pilot

The national carrier, SriLankan Airlines embarked on a humanitarian mission on February 1 to bring trapped SriLankan citizens home from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus which continues to claim the lives of many, mainly in China.

Sixteen SriLankan crew members put duty first when they flew to Wuhan to bring home 33 Sri Lankans stranded in Wuhan overcoming medical concerns. Tight planning and coordinating with a skeleton staff at the Chinese airport were a part of the hazardous project.

While Sri Lankans from other cities in China were able to return, it was not so for the 33 trapped in Wuhan.

This decision received a fair deal of criticism as there were obvious risks attached to the mission. However, on February 1, a flight carrying the 33 Sri Lankans, including four children, from Wuhan as well as the 16 crew landed safely at the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport.

The students were immediately quarantined at the Diyatalawa Army Camp and the Sri Lankan Airlines crew that flew the mercy mission to Wuhan met the press last week in Colombo. They spoke about the mission going into details of the extraordinary flight as well as about the precautions taken to prevent the virus from spreading in Sri Lanka.

The mission headed by Captain Chaminda de Zoysa comprised 16 members including the engineers, crew and a medical officer. Unlike the regular flights, the UL1423 had on­ board twice the crew capacity given the sensitivity of the mission.

“Everything was done in the name of bringing our own back to the country,” Sri Lankan Airlines Chief Officer, Service Delivery Capt. Rajind Ranatunga said, adding that the flight was planned in only four days.

SriLankan Airlines does not fly to Wuhan and this, in addition to the longer route as well as the inability to stay in the airport for longer than was necessary, involved a great deal of planning. Clearance was a major concern as were fuel and logistics. The flight also carried an additional set of crew members.

“There was no ground handling available in China,” he said, adding, “We didn’t have any of the staff based in China at this station, so we had to get third-party help and they were also working with a skeleton staff.”

Despite these challenges, the crew was kept on standby until clearance was given and left for Wuhan as soon as it was possible.

However, before leaving, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), who provided the crew with Ebola protection gear, briefed them on how to wear and remove the kit as well as how to handle the passengers and meals.

Extending their gratitude to the SLAF, Ranatunga said that the SLAF Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Explosive Wing was more than happy to help the airline with the resources at their disposal.

The support of the SLAF was vital in this mission as SriLankan Airlines was relatively unprepared for a mission of this scale.

While the SriLankan Airlines crew who volunteered to place themselves at risk and fly to Wuhan were hailed as heroes, they revealed that they did not feel that it was the case.

“We are no heroes. We were just doing our jobs,” Chief Pilot A330/A320 Capt. Chaminda De Zoysa said, adding that his spouse had doubts about the trip to Wuhan at first.

“I asked her who would go if our two children were there. My wife then said that it was not an issue and that I should go,” he asserted.

Despite the crew’s insistence that the mission was merely a part of their job, Ranatunga did admit that the flight was not entirely conventional. Travelling from point A to point B certainly was, but the safety measures taken by the crew made the flight extraordinary.

One of the main concerns about bringing home the Sri Lankans was a fear of the coronavirus spreading in Sri Lanka. However, the crew offered assurances that all measures would be taken to ensure that this did not happen. According to SriLankan Airlines Group Medical Officer Dr. Anoma Jayasinghe, the airline worked with the Quarantine Department and the Health Ministry, adhering to their guidelines as well as those of the World Health Organization (WHO).

“When the WHO declares a public health emergency of international concern, every passenger or crew member who comes through the airport needs to declare their illness,” she said. According to Ranatunga, the Chinese authorities did not allow any passenger suspected of having any illness to board the flight and only those deemed fit to travel were allowed on board.

“It took four hours to board 33 passengers because it was such a stringent check by the Chinese,” he explained.

While the crew had to wear the Ebola protection gear for 12 hours, meals were served in disposable containers so they could be easily discarded as soon as the flight landed in the country.

According to the crew, the decision to land in Mattala, as opposed to the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), was made by the Government. The reason for this was that it was far easier to set up necessary cleaning and quarantine facilities on the tarmac of the Mattala airport.

It was also easier to make the trip to the Diyatalawa Army Camp from Mattala as opposed to Colombo. While the trip was made by road, there was no risk to the public as all precautions were taken and a special convoy of vehicles was used to transport the passengers to the Army camp.

They guaranteed that all precautions were taken to ensure that carriers of the virus would not enter the country and the airline continues to follow WHO guidelines on preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

They also thanked all parties who made the mercy mission a success, including the relevant authorities, the Sri Lanka Ambassador to China, Sri Lanka Air Force and airport staff. 

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