x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Emirati pilots make their mark

The two men could not have taken more different paths to becoming pilots, yet the job has brought equal measures of purpose and responsibility for both.

Ebrahim Haidar, left, and Mohamed al Menhali are now cadet pilots for Etihad.
Ebrahim Haidar, left, and Mohamed al Menhali are now cadet pilots for Etihad.

When Ebrahim Haidar first received the crisp, white uniform of a cadet pilot, he could not wait to wear it. "I was so happy that once I went down from the uniform store in Abu Dhabi, I changed in the car," he said, laughing and hiding his face in his hands.

"Then I was driving everywhere. I went home and my mum hugged me. And she was crying. It was very emotional." After graduating in February, that uniform now carries two stripes on each shoulder and a set of gold wings over the left breast pocket. The 25-year-old Emirati, along with his colleague Mohamed al Menhali, were members of Etihad Airway's first class of second officers. They are among 97 national pilots in the airline, which is trying to reach an Emiratisation rate of five per cent by the end of the year.

A career in the aviation sector is an unconventional choice for Emiratis, most of whom prefer careers in the public sector. Although their paths into piloting could not have been more different, both take pride in their accomplishments. "You can't really find a local pilot that easily in our society, so the first thing you get is respect," said Mr al Menhali, 22. Now a second officer, the pilot programme gave him a sense of purpose after a false start in banking.

"I joined the bank because I was sitting at home doing nothing," he said, recalling that his father told him: "You have to do something; you can't just sit at home." Banking, however, was not for him. "I'm not an office guy, sitting around and doing paperwork and stuff," he said. "I'm not that type of person." It was then that he saw Etihad's advert seeking trainees from the Emirati community. At first, the decision to switch careers was controversial in his family, who feared the worst.

His mother was sceptical. "Yeah, in a month or two then you will quit as usual," she told him. But Mr al Menhali replied: "No mum, I really like what I'm doing." When he graduated, his mother was proud. "She went and told everyone she knows that 'my son is a pilot at Etihad' and everything. It was a really happy moment for me." Mr Haidar, on the other hand, has been fascinated by aircraft since childhood. "My father was in the army, in the air force, and since I was a kid his friends came to my house and started chatting about the daily job, about the manoeuvres they do and the technique," he says.

"When I was 12 years old, my father purchased for me a flight simulator." From that point on, he loved everything connected with aviation, but the gap between simulation and the real thing seemed unbridgeable because of the cost of the training. "Especially here in the Gulf," he said. "People need to travel abroad and pay half a million or something in Europe." Nevertheless, his love of aviation drove him to enrol in a technical course to study hyperbola in engines and airplane circuits. Afterwards, he took a job at Gamco, which later became Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies.

One day, a supervisor came to him and said: "We're about to establish a programme for pilots, and we need locals with an aviation background. Why don't you join us and try your luck?" He made it and underwent the 70-week on-the-ground training programme before he was allowed to sit with a pilot and co-pilot in a cockpit. "For me, before the first flight, I had an impression that being a pilot was very easy. On the way back, just switch on the autopilot and that's it."

But now he knows better. "Everyone was looking at their watches and they wanted to fly on time. I saw the passengers talking and some kids were yelling; at that moment, I really felt how responsible the job was," he said. "The stress level at that moment was like a volcano." Mr al Menhali concedes he was shocked that he passed the course. "I'll be honest, at the beginning, I wasn't really expecting myself to graduate," he said.

"Aviation is not easy. Commercial pilots are really hard to find, and for us to be graduated as the first batch of local people, it's a really big thing. And, I don't know. I can't say it. I'm speechless." jgerson@thenational.ae