Staff stories: When Mary met Mandela

By: Dave Gunner

July 18, 2018

It was the year 2000 and, in a huge coup, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced Nelson Mandela onto the stage of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. His speech was everything you’d expect a Mandela speech to be. Impassioned, inspiring and, in parts, amusing. The main message was hard hitting as he spoke of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa and how they needed more funding to combat the disease. But he ended on a lighter note with a charming story about the time a very feisty four-year-old girl came to meet him the day before his 75th birthday. After asking him a series of questions about his age and time in jail she declared ‘you are a stupid old man, aren’t you?’  Mr Mandela finished his conference speech by asking the audience to be more tactful if his words hadn’t lived up to their expectations. It was a triumphant end to a triumphant speech.

Watching this on the telly in her South London home, as she got ready to go to work, was Mary Chaffey, one of our flight service managers. Mary has flown for us since she was cabin crew on our very first flight in 1984. In that time she has come across many VIPs but watching Mandela that afternoon reminded her of the time she caught a glimpse of him as she was checking out of her crew hotel in Johannesburg. He was being ushered through reception, and as the lift doors closed, Mary couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to speak to the great man in person. She was about to find out.

Later that day when Mary got to work, she was checking in for the late flight to New York and was told that she had a very special customer onboard – Nelson Mandela. He was flying from the Labour Party Conference to address the United Nations in New York.

He was 82 at the time and quite frail. Because of this, he had to sit on the lower deck of the 747 in Upper Class and was accompanied by his doctor, security staff and personal assistant, Zelda la Grange.

“I just didn’t know what to say to the great man,” said Mary. “I thought I should mention that I’d visited Robben Island… no, that would be wrong. How about complimenting him on the garden that Alan Titchmarsh made for him? That seemed superficial. I ended up saying that I’d seen the Labour Party Conference and how much I’d enjoyed the story about the little girl. I asked if it was true, he told me it was. I then asked him if he’d be putting in a similar appearance at the Conservative Party conference to which he replied, with a chuckle ‘I don’t think so’.”

Mary also remembers Mr Mandela asking for tea with warm milk during the flight. At the time our aircraft didn’t have the ability to warm milk. This caused Mary to try all sorts of ways to make it happen and she ended up heating it in an oven. A good example of Virgin Atlantic inventiveness.

Getting Mandela off the aircraft was more problematic. The ground staff and security wanted him off first and quickly, but he walked very slowly. When all the other customers realised he was onboard everyone wanted to shake his hand. The security people were having a nightmare, he was happily chatting to the other customers, and it took ages to get him to the door of the aircraft. Then just as he was about to disembark, he spotted a pregnant lady and stopped for a lengthy chat.

It was a flight Mary will never forget. ‘Whenever anyone asks me who is the most famous person I’ve ever carried I always say, without hesitation, Nelson Mandela,” says Mary. “Although there were no photographs allowed he was so lovely, and I’m grateful I can look back on a conversation where I made him laugh.”


Dave Gunner

Dave Gunner

I love telling the story of our people, our planes, our places and our planet through Ruby Blog.

Categories: Our Experience