Riverview newcomer helps South Africans get home from China
Former charter pilot navigates red tape, pays out of pocket to get 'desperate' teachers, students
A newcomer to New Brunswick is being hailed as a hero by some of the 166 South Africans and Zimbabweans he recently repatriated from China.
"We made it, Tertius Myburgh," wrote Carmen Johannie on Facebook.
"Thank you over and over."
Johannie was one of a group of stranded teachers, wrote her mother Patricia Johannie-Hattle. Among them were two pregnant women, a six-month-old baby and people whose visas were no longer valid because of COVID-19 job losses.
Myburgh is a fellow South African expat, who organized a charter flight to get them home, using a laptop and cell phone from his kitchen in Riverview.
The flight touched down in Africa a couple of weeks ago and the passengers just got out of quarantine.
Myburgh said he's embarrassed by the messages he's been getting on social media.
"It's been overwhelming to say the least," he said.
But it has also given him a tremendous sense of accomplishment for having done something that "great powers" couldn't do.
"Something for the greater good of people who had zero opportunity with anybody else but me."
He credited his Canadian location and phone number as an important part of what put him in the unique position to make the whole thing possible.
"It bought me legitimacy," he said.
"My name meant nothing to them. I don't even have a website."
"If I was trying to do this out of South Africa, nobody would have taken me seriously."
"It's funny how life works," he reflected.
Myburgh only moved to the Moncton area in December to be near Transport Canada's regional office while trying to get operating approval for the South African charter flight company CemAir.
Those efforts ground to a halt as the pandemic hit.
So, Myburgh had time on his hands when he found out his former high school principal and his former science teacher were stuck in Myanmar during the lockdown.
Knowing about Myburgh's experience in the aviation industry as a commercial pilot and CemAir's former operations director, his former teachers, who'd been on a pleasure trip when the lockdown started, approached him for advice.
There were only a handful of people needing repatriation from Myanmar, said Myburgh, adding it would have cost about a million dollars to hire a private jet. The only way to get them out would be on a larger plane making another stop.
He started "scratching around" for other possible passengers and made cold calls to cruise lines.
He found ships docked in the Philippines and Malaysia that had South African crew members needing passage home.
His business contacts at Air Zimbabwe gave him a good price for a Boeing 767 and crew.
With the help of a fuel supply company called Wanafly Aviation, a repatriation operation, dubbed Maple Aviation, was launched.
Myburgh planned a direct flight from Harare to Myanmar, where they'd stop for fuel and his former teachers could board, before flying on to Manila, to pick up the seafarers.
When people saw what he had pulled off, "handling all the logistics and red tape and getting landing clearances at all these places," things really took off.
"Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people" were contacting him.
Because of the time zone differences, "it was 24-7 chaos," he said.
Myburgh organized a few more repatriation flights out of the Philippines before attempting to get the South African teachers and Zimbabwean students out of China.
It was a high-pressure situation, he said, because if their visas had expired they could be imprisoned.
He found Thai nationals at the embassy in Johannesburg who needed to get home. That paid for half of the flight to China.
And he charged the passengers in China $1,000 each.
But when the plane landed in Bangkok, its left engine was leaking oil.
It took three weeks to figure out the problem, get a new engine and continue on to Guangzhou and Wuhan.
People were in desperate situations during this time, living on airport floors and running out of money to pay for overpriced food.
Additionally, the Chinese authorities were "getting cross" with him.
"Now I'm sitting with basically a humanitarian problem due to our delay. I've got fiancés calling me — parents, girlfriends, boyfriends — crying over the phone."
"Eventually you get to know everyone's personal story," he said.
It may have made his own life easier to call the whole thing off and refund their fares, but that was no solution.
"It might have bought them a week or two using their ticket money to stay alive there, but what would they do after that?"
"I just couldn't leave them there."
Myburgh said he ended up paying for about $200,000 in hotel fees for the crew and passengers with his credit card.
He had to get his bank to increase his credit limit.
Banking authorities in South Africa took note and froze his account, thinking he was laundering money.
It took some effort to convince them it was a legitimate venture, he said with a laugh.
Myburgh said he never expected the repatriation charter flights to make money.
And he "had an inclination" it might be "quite a task."
In total, he said his flights picked up about 1,800 people from 24 different places in Asia, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, China and the Maldives.
But the "massive mission" to China "ruined him" financially.
Still, he has no regrets and he's optimistic he'll bounce back.
He expects to recoup the funds that went into the engine replacement on upcoming flights for Air Zimbabwe. He said he's organized one to New Zealand this weekend.
As for his credit card bill and depleted savings…
"I can make that back with hard work during the years that come. I'm not too worried."
with files from Maritime Noon