Project Wingman Volunteer

Harefield, UK


I am long haul cabin crew for a UK based airline and Covid-19 has all but decimated the industry I have worked in for 16 years. It went from being normal to almost non existent in a matter of weeks. I was lucky enough to be kept on working and I worked through the tough months of April and May. At the start of April I flew a few times to New York and we were booked to over 100 people each time and barely even 5 would show up. One flight we had no passengers check in, yet we were expecting 100+. 

At the end of April Hong Kong allowed foreign based crew to enter and we were not required to self isolate as our passengers were. In fact ALL passengers arriving into Hong Kong were tested for Covid and they were only allowed to leave the terminal when they had a negative result. I heard people were waiting for 11 hours after the flight from London before they got the all clear to leave. Crew were exempt from this as long as we gave them our contact details. We all woke up to an email telling us that a passenger on our flight had tested positive for Covid 19. The Hong Kong authorities publish a list online of everyone who had arrived and tested positive at the airport along with their names and seat number and I discovered the person in question was in the area I had been working in. We wore a mask and gloves on the flight and our service consisted of giving a paper bag with a sandwich and snacks in in order to keep us out of the cabin and minimise contact with passengers. The majority of customers brought their own food and drinks and wanted nothing from us, including the gentleman who had tested positive.  

It soon became clear the low yielding flights couldn’t last and my airline took the decision to operate as cargo only temporarily. We would operate a few charter flights for the government bringing stranded citizens back to Britain, but we also operated flights for the NHS to collect much needed PPE. In May I flew to Shanghai four times. My airline flew twice a day to Shanghai and once a day to Beijing (which isn’t a regular route) for the NHS. Due to regulations in China about foreign visitors from high risk countries (of which the U.K was one) it meant it was extremely difficult for us to have hotel accommodation overnight. The ruling aviation body agreed to a temporary amendment in which we were permitted to fly to China, fill up with cargo and then come straight home. This meant that crew would be onboard the aircraft for around 27 hours. We would take off around 2pm, arriving back into London around 5pm the next day.    

Even though they were cargo flights, with no passengers, 2 cabin crew were still required to fire watch. On a standard cargo aircraft there are fire extinguishing equipment the pilots can utilise if it is needed but on a standard passenger aircraft cabin crew are physically needed to fight the fires, so 2 were required on the flight to Shanghai which is around 10 and a half hours flight time. Three pilots were also needed, two on duty at all times whilst the third rested. Onboard in the cabin we had 2 more cabin crew and 4 pilots who would rest on the flight over and then operate on the way home. Sometimes we were required to operate out and sometimes we were required to operate home which was quite difficult at times. On the flight we would take turns to fire watch and to walk around the cabin checking everything was in order and also checking on the operating pilots and assisting them. The return crew would rest in the business class seats, however the films were not available so you had to bring your own iPad or a book!   

Once we landed into Shanghai we were temperature checked by someone who came on in a full hazmat suit and once they were happy that our temperatures were ok we had to stand at the front of the aircraft behind the curtain. They would then open the rear doors and a team of people, also in full hazmat suits, would then enter the cabin and start filling it with cargo. The seats were all covered in plastic and ropes (hence why no films as it was a fire hazard) and the team would work in a chain loading and securing the cargo to the seats. Once they had finished loading the cabin and the hold below we would take off again back to London. Twice I was required to operate the return leg and the cabin was full of boxes on the seats.   

On my flights we had masks and aprons which were for the NHS and our pilot calculated we had around 200,000 masks on our flight alone just in the cabin. We were unsure what was in the hold, but we know it was completely full each time. The average flight time home was around 11.45 hours. Once we landed in London we disembarked and went home after being on the aircraft for 27 hours. I never myself complained nor did I hear anyone else do so. We were all extremely proud to be doing all we could to help the NHS. We knew from the media and for me personally from friends who work for the NHS that the PPE was much needed and we were more than happy to do our bit in order to help. We knew a 27 hour day was tiring but we also knew people in the NHS were also doing extremely long shifts and working tirelessly and for us to be able to help meant a lot to each one of us. I operated 4 of these flights (we had to have 4 days off after each one) and my last flight was Hong Kong. Hong Kong was relatively normal at this time which was a relief having arrived from the U.K. We were able to go out and go shopping etc which is something we couldn’t do back home.  

After landing back from Hong Kong I knew that I was on furlough for the rest of June and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I had applied to volunteer at project wingman in Watford General hospital (my local) but the day before my induction I was told that the lounge was unfortunately closing. I received an email out of the blue a week later asking if I would consider other hospitals in the area and I was sent a list of hospitals that needed volunteers. On the list was Harefield. My father and grand father have both been patients there and I had driven passed it many times, so i took a few days to think about it. I was worried that I wouldn’t be helpful enough or that I wouldn’t be of any use but I decided I would try anyway and I went for an induction at Harefield. The lounge is a space for all hospital staff to come and unwind and relax in whilst being treated to a first class service. It’s run entirely by airline staff and relies on donations from many generous businesses and individuals from drinks, to cakes, newspapers and even plants have been donated for the staff. Many of the volunteers give up their time to come and help as well as trying to secure donations and even donating themselves items that they have made or bought.   

I thought I would be in and out at my induction, but I stayed until it closed that evening. I was introduced to my future colleagues and then I was shown around some of the hospital and introduced to some staff who I would interact with on a regular basis. In the lounge I was given a tea and asked to take it to a nurse and that was it, I was in the full swing of it. All of my worries soon disappeared and the hospital staff couldn’t be more welcoming or helpful to us. The staff are so grateful to us for offering the lounge and for giving up our time but to be honest it definitely works both ways. Some of the volunteers at the lounge have been made redundant, some are waiting to go back to work (like myself) and some are waiting to hear their outcome depending on their airline. I know for us it’s been a much needed distraction and has given us a purpose. It’s very easy to stay at home and count down the days, but coming into the lounge and talking to and tending to the staff has given us a much needed boost. I have loved my time at the lounge and I know the NHS staff have really enjoyed us being there for them. They tell us how when they’ve had a bad day and worked for hours with no break to come and sit with a cup of tea, some cake and a chat about anything other than what they have to face at work has been a huge boost for them. It’s been a pleasure to be part of project wingman and to be able to play even a very small part in helping our NHS staff and making them smile and de stress even if for a few minutes. The feeling is certainly mutual.