On Sunday, the eyes of the racing world will be on Abu Dhabi for the season finale of this year's Formula One Grand Prix. For the first time, the stands will be empty with most spectators banned owing to coronavirus restrictions, but there's still an annual tradition that is going ahead – the Etihad Airways Dreamliner flypast.
Just ahead of lights out on the final 55-lap race at Yas Marina Circuit, Etihad's Captain Mohammed Al Tamimi will perform a starting line flyover, navigating a Boeing 787 Dreamliner just a few hundred feet above the ground.
For the Emirati pilot, 38, the adrenalin is building ahead of the big day.
"Usually, when we're flying the bigger aircraft, as soon as we depart we go to 34,000 feet or 36,000 feet. When you fly at 2,000 or 600 feet over the city, it's such a beautiful view and an amazing feeling," the Etihad captain told The National.
Watch: Etihad's Dreamliner fly over Yas Marina Circuit in 2019
"We will definitely notice that there are no crowds as from that height – we can see everything, but we have to do what we have to do. It is Covid-19 and there are precautions by the government," adds the pilot, who has been flying for the UAE's national airline for 15 years.
Despite a lack of spectators, Yas Marina Circuit will be buzzing with the thousands of staff and support crew involved in the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2020, not to mention the drivers themselves. There will also be plenty of eyes on the flypast as television stations around the world live-stream the last race of the season.
Capt Al Tamimi’s low-level flyover will see him pilot the 250-tonne Etihad Dreamliner at 220-knots indicated airspeed. The stunt's success will be the result of months of planning and preparation.
“The planning involves many different stakeholders, including the GCAA, air traffic control, the training department, the flight operations division and other concerned teams,” he says.
For more than two months, the pilot and his team have practised the flypast, first in simulators at the Etihad Aviation Training academy and then with a real-life flight. And while Capt Al Tamimi may be the pilot in command, he knows that the success of the spectacle depends on the entire crew.
“I’m flying the aircraft, but it’s not only me; it’s everyone else in the team. I’m flying it and I’m navigating, but then there’s another training captain acting as my first officer and he’s monitoring me.
“We also have the guys in the back who confirm the timing with us because we have to be on top of the F1 circuit at a certain time, and a certain second,” he says.
One of the most impressive parts of the flypast will be when the Al Fursan aerobatics team join the Etihad jet in the air.
“We have Al Fursan coming in and joining us, flying just 50 feet under our wings; that’s one of the most challenging parts."
The crew will also need to remain on high alert for any changes in weather. Clouds in the air or strong winds can easily throw out their flight time.
“Every day is a different day and every day there’s a different calculation. This affects the timing and we need to be able to adjust it. We don’t use the aircraft for this, we do it manually.”
Getting back in the air
Despite the technicalities, Capt Al Tamimi is thrilled to be piloting this year's flypast. “No matter how many times we practise, it is always challenging and keeps you alert; this is the fun part of it. It really is beautiful fun and a privilege to do it."
The honour is especially poignant in 2020, which has been aviation's most challenging year to date. Earlier this year, Etihad, like most airlines around the world, grounded flights and worked to battle the conditions brought on by coronavirus. As one of the first airlines to restart cargo flights, Etihad was only grounded for one month, and is slowly rebuilding its commercial network.
For Capt Al Tamimi, his day job has also been given a new perspective thanks to the pandemic.
“Often when we fly, we don’t see as many aircraft as we would see before and that’s sad to see,” he says.
“At the end of the day, we’re there to face [the pandemic] as an airline and as a country and I feel honoured when I fly as I know that I’m one of the lucky ones who still have the chance to be up there in the air."