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How a tireless pilot is flying stranded Germans home

April 24, 2020

More than 240,000 German nationals have been repatriated since the coronavirus pandemic began. Captain Holger Feldberg piloted the very first repatriation flight. It was a special experience.

Lufthansa crew
Image: Lufthansa

Holger Feldberg has been a Lufthansa pilot for 35 years. But touching down with his Boeing 747 at Auckland airport at the end of March this year was a first for him. As was the fact that so many Germans were waiting for him to finally return home.

Usually, the German carrier doesn't fly to New Zealand. So for this flight, Feldberg could not rely on navigational data pre-programmed into the board computer. Instead, the 56-year-old had to use a conventional map. "We assessed the risk of using maps for the landing," he said. But it was fine, as he tells DW, adding that this is "how we always used to fly planes."

Feldberg's journey to Auckland was the first leg in a major repatriation mission launched by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas when the coronavirus began spreading globally. Several days after his flight to and from Auckland, Feldberg was back in action, flying German nationals home from Lima, Peru.

So far, more than 240,000 Germans have been repatriated. But speaking to German weekly Bild am Sonntag last weekend, Maas said some 1,000 nationals still remained stranded abroad. The situation is particularly problematic in Pakistan, which has halted all international air traffic until the end of April. Two repatriation flights were organized to get Germans back from there, but many others are still stuck.

Passengers show solidarity

In early March, 21-year-old student Ricarda and a friend flew to New Zealand to visit their former host families. But soon after they arrived, the country went into coronavirus lockdown, and Ricarda's former hosts suggested she return home.

Ricarda started looking for flights. Then, late one night, the German Embassy contacted her, saying she should come to Auckland airport at 5 a.m. the next morning to board a homebound flight. It would be Holger Feldberg's flight.

Ricarda W.
Ricarda was one of the Germans repatriated by he governmentImage: Privat

She arrived at the terminal and quickly noticed a strong sense of solidarity among those waiting. She tells DW how "everyone was so warm. there was one family at the gate that had brought a lot of food; they shared it with all passengers."

Feldberg had come to the gate as well to help the ground crew complete check-in. "It was a special feeling; the gratitude to be on board was even stronger than usual," he said. To speed up the process, boarding cards were filled in by hand.

No one left behind

The cabin crew did their utmost to free up as many seats as possible so that nobody would have to be left behind. Parents took their children on their laps, and emergency seats usually reserved for cabin crew were given to younger passengers.

After a stopover in Tokyo, some passengers gave up their business-class seats so that others could enjoy the last leg of the journey in greater comfort. "We didn't have to leave anyone behind in Auckland, or Lima," said Feldberg. According to him, the planes were packed to maximum capacity, with every available seat taken.

Ricarda recalls captain Feldberg's numerous in-flight announcements. "He spoke to us much more than pilots usually do, and after touching town in Tokyo he described how he could see the new cabin crew approaching," she remembered. In Tokyo, a new cabin crew and pilot took over, flying the hundreds of passengers on board back to Frankfurt.

For now, Holger Feldberg is enjoying his holiday. But once it's over, he's back on call, ready to pilot the next plane to bring stranded Germans back home.

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