x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Dubai plane-spotter Joe McGrath sits on cloud nine

Aircraft have always fascinated the man behind the voice of the Red Bull Air Race, so his job is a labour of love.

ABU DHABI // Even as a boy in Ireland, Joe McGrath was obsessed with aircraft. The youngest of 15 siblings 10 sisters and four brothers he would stare at the sky in his hometown of Birr, County Offaly, in the hope of spotting a plane. "Even though there were no planes for a million miles, I used to see the white lines of their trail and that brought me great joy," he said.

The family moved to England, and Mr McGrath began a journey that would see him become a master of ceremonies and commentator for the Red Bull Air Race - in which 15 daredevil pilots test the limits of human precision and state-of-the-art technology by navigating obstacle courses in their planes. This year's championship takes off in Abu Dhabi next month. In England, Mr McGrath studied mechanical engineering. In 1984, he was given a job working for an aircraft maintenance company. Then he got the opportunity to fly around London for a radio show on an occassional basis, updating listeners on the city's traffic.

When the chief traffic reporter quit, the station asked him if he wanted a shot at the job. Two other candidates for the position travelling to the station for interviews got lost en route - just as London was experiencing a massive traffic jam that extended from Gatwick to Heathrow airports. "It was a gridlock the distance from Abu Dhabi to Dubai and they said I had to go on air for an hour and a half of broadcasting," Mr McGrath recalled. "When I landed there was a phone call asking if I wanted to do it full-time. I asked them, 'Hang on, you are going to pay me to fly around?'."

He was, he quips, "in the right plane at the right time". That led to more radio jobs, albeit on the ground, but Mr McGrath continued to look for an opportunity to get back into flying. In 2001, he moved his family to Melbourne, Australia, where he worked for a consulting company. Travelling between London and Melbourne offered him the chance to visit his brother in Dubai during stopovers. He liked Dubai, and decided to relocate again.

In the UAE, Mr McGrath was hired as an operations manager for Atlas Television. Then the opportunity to join the Red Bull Air Race came up. McGrath joined the race team in 2004, when it was in its second year. He replaced a Dutch commentator whose main experience was in windsurfing. "They asked me to go down and tell him a little bit about planes," said Mr McGrath. "He was just going 'Wow, wow, wow'."

Since then, Mr McGrath has spent 80 days a year with the air race, flying more than 190,000 kilometres anually. He does not mind hanging around airports, having jetlag or eating bad airline food, because he loves planes. The pilots compete for the fastest times in an eight-race series, which takes place in six cities. The championship finishes in Barcelona in October. The job often sees Mr McGrath sharing the commentary platform with overseas counterparts. As the planes prepared to compete over the Douro river in Porto in last year's penultimate round, the Portuguese commentator asked Mr McGrath if he would like to own one of the magnificent flying machines.

He would love to, replied McGrath, but he was already married. Spending much of the year criss-crossing the world and talking about planes non-stop, Mr McGrath has travelled a long way from County Offaly. He has started his own company - in addition to the air race, he is the announcer at the Al Ain Air Show each January. "Now I can go away when I want," said Mr McGrath. "And I can ride planes and talk about them all the time."

@Email:sbhattacharya@thenational.ae