As another repatriation flight winged its way into Canberra on Tuesday, few would have guessed there was a celebrity at the controls.
Vijay Lama, a pilot, singer, actor and philanthropist, is one of Nepal’s best-known celebrities
He has piloted three repatriation flights to Australia during the pandemic
He is pleading with Australia to help poorer nations like Nepal fight COVID-19
A veteran of 35 years in the air, Captain Vijay Lama has starred in about 40 movies in his Himalayan homeland, and played a pilot in the 2015 Hollywood film, Everest.
He is also a philanthropist, a folk singer, an activist and a social media star — but yesterday his job was to land a Nepal Airlines flight in Canberra, holding 296 passengers evacuated out of Kathmandu.
It was the third and likely final flight organised by the Australian embassy in Nepal, with Nepal Airlines gaining special permission from eight different countries to fly through their airspace to get to Australia.
“This is my hattrick, my third flight here,” Captain Vijay, as he is affectionately known, told the ABC in a video call from the plane’s cockpit.
“It’s an awesome flight!”
While the passengers — a mix of Australian citizens, Nepali expats and three New Zealanders — seemed excited to be returning from a country under strict lockdown, quarantine restrictions prevented Captain Vijay from leaving Canberra Airport.
Instead, he had to settle for watching his passengers depart the Airbus A330.
“I have no words to explain that feeling,” he said.
COVID-19 changes the way we fly
Captain Vijay films and shares his flying adventures with his many fans on social media, including 121,000 YouTube subscribers.
But on this latest flight to Canberra, things operated a little differently to normal.
Three flight crews were used to make the “very long” journey, and they all were dressed in full personal protective equipment.
Some passengers also chose to don their own as a precaution, including disposable paper clothing.
“We are very conscious of the social distancing,” Captain Vijay said.
“The aircraft has eight HEPA filters, which kills germs within three to four seconds, and recycles the entire air inside about 20 times an hour.”
Upon landing, the passengers were not released until health officials gave them the “go signal”, before being transferred to a hotel for two weeks of quarantine.
Captain Vijay said he was glad to bring people to Australia, but was “very, very worried” about Nepal’s growing number of COVID-19 cases — and the impoverished nation’s ability to cope with the pandemic.
“We are still an underdeveloped country where we need a lot of help from the world around,” he said.
While Nepal — a country with a similar population size to Australia — has considerably fewer confirmed cases of the virus at 3,762, that number is growing rapidly as testing increases.
To date, COVID-19 is known to have killed 14 people in Nepal, compared to 102 people in Australia.
“I’m asking for help from all around the world, not only for Nepal, but for all the under-developed countries and developing countries, where we need help now,” Captain Vijay said as he prepared to fly back to his home country.
“Help us, and we’ll come back to you with a bigger help — whatever you need in life.”