Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 July 2019

Portrait of a Nation: The Emirati pilot who flew the Pope and Special Olympics Flame of Hope

Experienced pilot Capt Abdulla Obaid was one of the first Emirati skippers to join Etihad in the early 2000s

Capt Abdulla Obaid, the Emirati pilot who flew the Pope back to Rome, sits in an Etihad Boeing 787 flight simulator at the carrier's headquarters in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National
Capt Abdulla Obaid, the Emirati pilot who flew the Pope back to Rome, sits in an Etihad Boeing 787 flight simulator at the carrier's headquarters in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National

It may only be March, but 2019 is already turning into a very good year for Capt Abdulla Obaid.

First, he was tasked with flying the Pope home from Abu Dhabi, then he ferried the first Flame of Hope torch to leave Washington for the Special Olympics Games to the UAE capital.

Although no stranger to flying VIPs — previous passengers have included royalty and the Manchester City Football Club squad — Capt Obaid’s special missions have been piling up since he flew Pope Francis back to Rome following his first Mass in the region last month.

“Recently, after you guys started putting me in the newspaper, I have been given a few,” says Capt Obaid, 45, an Emirati, from Abu Dhabi.

But it could have all been so different. Capt Obaid was by no means destined to become a pilot. His father had hoped he would join the military, like four of his older brothers had.

Capt Obaid sits in an Etihad Boeing 787 flight simulator at the carrier's headquarters in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National
Capt Obaid sits in an Etihad Boeing 787 flight simulator at the carrier's headquarters in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National

He even enrolled him in a military school from fifth grade onwards. But Capt Obaid was never entirely convinced by the option, and once he graduated from high school he attended university for a while before deciding to become a pilot.

At the time, Abu Dhabi had shares in Gulf Air so he trained with the airline before being offered the opportunity to join Emirates.

“At that time you hardly saw civil pilots from the UAE,” he says.

“The day I saw Etihad started in Abu Dhabi I was happy because it is the national airline and it’s home. So I called them as soon as they started and they said we only fly Airbus, and I only fly Boeing.”

But a year later, he finally had his chance after Etihad bought its first Boeing plane.

“I was contacted by them and I joined. I was batch one, the first batch of pilots to join Etihad’s Boeing fleet,” he says.

At that time, Etihad only around 10 Emirati pilots, most of whom joined from Gulf Air. And the airline was very different.

“There were no fancy buildings. It was all wooden caravans and we would go from classroom to classroom outside. Now, mashallah, it’s fancy and big. It’s a big airline with all these nice facilities. It’s changed a lot,” Capt Obaid says.

Joining as a second officer, he has steadily worked his way up, receiving his command in 2008.

“It’s a good feeling, a big responsibility because I was number two, for a long time. They don’t give you the command until you go through a lot of courses. Once I went through all of them,” he says.

And he has continued to rise through the ranks ever since, becoming a trainer first and then later a pilot examiner. Capt Obaid is currently on a break from working as an examiner to give him more time to fly, which is just as well, given the high profile assignments he has been receiving.

The request to fly the Pope came first. The airline was looking for an experienced Emirati captain to pilot the pontiff’s plane on the return leg to Rome.

Etihad Airways rolled out the red carpet for Pope Francis. Courtesy: Etihad
Etihad Airways rolled out the red carpet for Pope Francis. Courtesy: Etihad

“They called me and said you will fly the Pope. If there was a chance I would have fought for it, but I was lucky to just be offered,” he says.

Captain Obaid and the crew prepared intensively for the flight, practicing the approach to the semi-military airport near the Vatican many times, and undertaking classes to teach them about the protocol.

“They said he’s supposed to go this way and not supposed to shake hands with people, but he always breaks it,” he says.

“In fact, I was shocked because as soon as he walked into the aircraft, he came to the cockpit to shake hands with us. He doesn’t give you the feeling that he’s a very important person. He gives you the feeling that he’s a normal person. It was an honour to meet him.”

The next honour followed quickly after — the chance to be the first to fly the Special Olympics Flame of Hope out of Washington in late February. There were in fact two, one of which was a backup.

“They took many precautions. They even changed the type of aircraft because of safety to be closer to the gate,” says Capt Obaid.

“They blocked the first two rows of economy and put the flames in the middle. They were fixed on a table and the table was fixed to the seat. So whatever happened, the table would not fall down,” he says.

He is now waiting for further details of a special assignment — his third in as many months.

“I don’t know where it is. But [my boss] said I need to send you on these dates.

"It’s been a good year.”

The biog

Family: I am married with four kids, two boys and two girls. The oldest is 16 and the youngest is six.

Favourite book: Aviation books.

Favourite destination: I’m afraid if I say my favourite they will not send me anymore. I like to go to Singapore. I like the culture and people there.

Drives: A Nissan Patrol. I get more parking tickets than speeding tickets.

Favourite Planes: 787 and 777, the ones I fly.

One of his most memorable flights: One of the flights, but with an ex airline, was from Abu Dhabi to Heathrow and over Germany one of the crew told me one of the passengers was about to give birth. I said 'okay, just go and check and we will try to divert somewhere'. The crew member came back a few minutes later and said she already delivered. It was an easy delivery. Luckily for us, one of the crew members was a nurse. We made an announcement to the passengers and everyone was happy. It was one good experience.

Updated: March 7, 2019 01:59 PM

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