Neil Dursley, Chapman Freeborn CCO, shares some of his stories 2020 and moments that struck the most: from falling in love at first sight to receiving a panic call at midnight.

It was February 2020. I was traveling for business to California, Alabama and Canada. I flew from London Heathrow on the British Airways ‘Queen of the Skies’ ‒ the iconic Boeing 747 / 400. I saw spectacular views flying over Greenland. Many hours later, I arrived in Los Angeles to the tragic news that a few hours prior my arrival Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers Legend, had tragically died in a helicopter crash. The mood in California was sombre. 

The year 2020 started with the usual slowdown of cargo movements in January, whilst everything else appeared to be perfectly normal. Our sister company Magma Aviation was operating flights from Germany to Greenville, South Carolina, and Germany to South and North Africa through Nairobi, Kenya. During the peak ‘Flower season’, millions of red roses were being prepared to be flown from Kenya to Europe for Valentine’s Day celebrations ‒ the normal scramble for capacity was in play.

Towards the end of the month, I decided to take my two boys during their half term holiday to Dubai, the UAE, where they were both born. The world was going about its business as normal. In the background, the media was beginning to pick up on a story of some kind of flu virus that appeared to be spreading. We continued our daily lives thinking this was another ‘swine flu’ or another SARS.

In March, we were having internal meetings, focusing on the execution of hiring new resources and expansion in South America and reviewing how we could accelerate the growth globally. On March 3rd I was flying to Frankfurt for an executive committee meeting, not knowing at the time that this would be my last flight for many, many months to come.

In the background, the media was beginning to pick up on a story of some kind of flu virus that appeared to be spreading. We continued our daily lives thinking this was another ‘swine flu’ or another SARS.

The city of Wuhan in China started appearing on every news channel, the virus was now the only news. It had a name, ‘the Coronavirus’, and was causing the COVID-19 disease. The world started to take it seriously, countries around the globe started shutting down and going into lockdowns. In Europe, countries initially hit the hardest were Spain and Italy. Scenes of devastation were unreal; thousands of people were dying daily. France locked down, indications here in the United Kingdom were that we were several weeks behind Spain and Italy.

Having worked with NATO and especially US Forces for many years, I was highly familiar with the acronym PPE. Personal Protective Equipment suddenly exploded into our lives through every source of media and for Chapman Freeborn it became part of our daily lives. We had an enormous surge of enquiries to airlift enormous volumes mostly from Asia to Europe, then from Asia to North America and finally to South America. We were now on daily calls with our teams globally and our brokers were literally working around the clock.

We worked with the group family members that, until Covid, were very successfully expanding their passenger fleets. It was impressive to see the speed in which Avion Express, SmartLynx and KlasJet were able to remove passenger seating and convert their aircraft to freighters to give our clients much needed capacity to move PPE. Our teams in China, where much of the PPE was being sourced, worked closely with Chinese Authorities to ensure we had landing rights, permits and approvals for all of our airlines partners.

Like most people, I was locked in a house. Glued to a monitor, I was trying to find solutions both day and night to support our freight forwarding and direct clients in moving enormous cargo volumes to protect the citizens of the world in the fight for our lives.

One night I received a very unusual panic call. A US military contractor working in Afghanistan had received a call from home informing him that his wife was rushed to hospital with COVID-19. Passenger flights to and from Afghanistan, and around the world, had been grounded. It looked as though he was not going to make it in time.

The world’s largest aircraft is the Ukrainian-manufactured Antonov AN-225 named Mriya. I was first introduced to her in May 2019 when she was quietly sitting in a maintenance hangar in Kiev, having some serious beautification treatment. For me it was the ‘love at first sight’. Little did I know that one year later, our UK office in conjunction with one of our Chinese offices would be the first company on the planet to use the AN-225 for commercial operations. Supporting European governments, we used her to fly a mountain of PPE. Next, we operated the AN-225 to Canada and did multiple sorties working with our sister company Intradco and our GSA partner GTA Canada. We went on to utilize Mriya on multiple occasions, including for flights to the Middle East.

Antonov An-225 Mriya.

Countries around the world were struggling with their supply chains. Passenger fleets were mostly grounded. Much of the world's commerce was moving in passenger aircraft bellies until COVID-19 hit. 

Our parent company Avia Solutions Group took a bold decision to purchase a Boeing 747/400 F ‘Nose Loader’ to add to the fleet of Magma and operated by Air Atlanta Icelandic in support of the high demand from our clients. With the fleet expansion, we were able to support more clients and added critical routings including Dubai, Hong Kong, Barcelona, and Doncaster. We later added regular flights to Rockford, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Georgia, Mumbai, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

The world’s largest aircraft is the Ukrainian-manufactured Antonov AN-225 named Mriya. I was first introduced to her in May 2019 when she was quietly sitting in a maintenance hangar in Kiev, having some serious beautification treatment. For me it was the ‘love at first sight’. Little did I know that one year later, our UK office in conjunction with one of our Chinese offices would be the first company on the planet to use the AN-225 for commercial operations.

Our Passenger teams were working day and night to support repatriations of tens of thousands of workers and crews. Every night I would receive calls, WhatsApp messages, and multiple emails asking to approve movements for clients who were frantically trying to get their employees home. We worked with some of the world’s largest oil companies to ensure their staff were safe from harm.

One night I received a very unusual panic call. A US military contractor working in Afghanistan had received a call from home informing him that his wife was rushed to hospital with COVID-19. Passenger flights to and from Afghanistan, and around the world, had been grounded. It looked as though he was not going to make it in time. I called upon friends and contacts in our industry to find any solutions possible. We considered flying this guy on a ‘N’ registered 747/44Freighter which was in route to Afghanistan but going onwards to Asia before returning to the United States. We ultimately worked closely with one of our competitors and between us successfully reunited this husband and wife. The best news is that she recovered fully.

Our Humanitarian teams also were working around the clock, helping multiple non-governmental organizations and their freight-forwarding partners to move much needed supplies to impoverished countries. Not shying away from some of the most difficult airports in the world and with many wide-body freighters deployed in support of the Western World, our team managed to find innovative solutions that quite frankly no other company could even imagine.

The Onboard Courier (OBC) team of Chapman Freeborn also reached legendary status. Initially, with borders closing around the world and passenger flights being grounded, you can imagine how difficult it would be to fly an OBC shipment anywhere. The team came up with plans to ensure business continuity and stunned all of us by finding legitimate ways to move critical shipments on a global scale.

Behind all of our outstanding products is an incredibly dedicated team of professionals. The ‘unsung heroes’, our finance teams, kept funds moving to ensure flights could operate smoothly and without delay; our IT teams kept our systems running day and night; our Marketing teams ensured that we reached out to many new clients to support their efforts; our Human Resources teams helped all of us maintain sanity; our Business Intelligence teams ensured our data was accurate, on time and meaningful to support our clients; our Compliance teams supported a high tempo organisation to make the right decisions; our legal team of superstars ensured our contracts were reviewed and did not cause us or our clients issues.

Having joined Chapman Freeborn in April 2019, this past year has been like no other before. I’m extremely proud of the family that I’m a small part of. It’s very easy to look at the Covid story as a hugely negative one. We cannot overlook the fact that thousands of our fellow beings have lost their lives and others lost their loved ones. But I’m proud to be a part of a company that has gone above and beyond to support and protect thousands if not millions in every corner of the world by ‘KEEP THEM FLYING’, maintaining a consistent supply chain and being the world leader in air charter. 

My Covid Story is not over. We are now ready, prepared and waiting for the next surge. It will likely require a global effort to support countries and non-governmental organizations in delivering vaccines across the world.

I am eternally grateful for the support of Avia Solutions Group and all of our sister companies, all of my team at Chapman Freeborn, our clients, our airline partners, the ground handlers around the world, the trucking companies that we use, our GSA partners.

We are all very fortunate to be in a position to support. None of us would ever have known what benefit our skill sets would bring to the world prior to Covid or how we could so rapidly adapt to what is now the new normal.

Stay safe, KEEP THEM FLYING and remember ‒ WE ARE STRONGER TOGETHER.