A look inside the 747 that evacuated Americans from Wuhan

Jan 30, 2020

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The 201 Americans who have been evacuated from Wuhan, China, this week amid the coronavirus outbreak have returned to the U.S. in a most unusual way: aboard a cargo jet.

Related coverage: Coronavirus cases now outnumber SARS outbreak

The U.S. government chartered for the occasion a Boeing 747 freighter from Kalitta Air, a cargo-only airline based in Ypsilanti, Michigan, instead of a regular passenger airplane. The 747 was fitted with passenger seats for this flight, according to a post by Facebook page Airline Secrets Exposed, which says it publishes submissions from airline insiders.

An image published by the Facebook page shows the main deck of a 747 freighter with several rows of seats in 3-4-3 layout. The image shows at least 200 seats, consistent with what we know about the plane, which had 240 seats installed.

Passengers would have had no windows, since the cargo versions of 747 do not have any on the main deck.

The 747, a 18-year old freighter registered N705CK, stopped in Anchorage to refuel on the way from Wuhan to March Air Reserve Base, near Riverside, California. Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said at a news conference on Wednesday, after the plane had left Alaska, that the plane was able to carry 240 people but only held 201.

“The whole plane erupted into cheers when the crew welcomed them back to the United States,” Zink was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

We have asked Kalitta Air for confirmation of the authenticity of the images, and whether the plane has been decontaminated after landing in Riverside, but haven’t heard back by publication time.

It’s not clear at this time why the government decided to charter a cargo jet specially outfitted with passenger seats, instead of a regular airliner. We do, however, know the 747 has a peculiarity which makes it ideally suited for evacuating potentially contagious people: Its upper deck, where the cockpit is, can be closed off from the passengers on the main deck.

Indeed, according to the AP, the flight crew stayed on the upper deck for the whole flight, sealed off from passengers, and did not get off the plane in China. Flight-tracking site FlightRadar24 shows that the plane landed in Wuhan at 10:14 p.m. local on January 28 and left at 4:54 a.m. the following day. Since the flight crossed the International Date Line eastbound, the plane arrived in Alaska the day before it left China.

Also according to FR24, the 747 has already left California. On Wednesday, it took off from March at 2:28 p.m. and landed about two and a half hours later in Seattle, where it remains at the time of this writing.

Screenshot from Flightradar24

Zink said all passengers had been through two screenings in China and were screened twice more in Anchorage by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Anchorage, they stayed inside the airport’s North Terminal, which according to airport manager Jim Szczesniak is rarely used during the Alaskan winter. It’s separated from the domestic terminal and has its own ventilation systems.

TOPSHOT - Personnel in biological hazard suits await passengers evacuated from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the heart of a growing outbreak of the deadly 2019 Novel Coronavirus shortly after the plane landed at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California on January 29, 2020. - Some 200 US citizens evacuated from Wuhan were met on the tarmac by emergency vehicles and three buses. The Department of Defense said the evacuees will be sent to local hospitals if they are suspected of being infected with the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. The epidemic has killed more than 130 people and spread around the world since it first emerged in a live food market in Wuhan in December. (Photo by Matt HARTMAN / AFP) (Photo by MATT HARTMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Personnel in biological hazard suits await passengers evacuated from Wuhan at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California (Photo by MATT HARTMAN/AFP via Getty Images)


Photographers who saw the 747 land at March said it was met on the tarmac by emergency vehicles and three buses. The Department of Defense said the evacuees will be sent to local hospitals if they are suspected of being infected with the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, which has killed around 170 people and spread around the world since it first emerged in a food market in Wuhan in December. On Thursday, the New York Times reported, authorities found the first case of transmission from person to person in the U.S.  The infected person is the husband of a woman who returned from Wuhan, but was not on the evacuation plane.

Featured photo: The evacuation plane from Wuhan at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on January 28, 2020 (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

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