“Flypast is a precision flight, you have to be at a certain point at a certain time,” says Etihad Airways captain Mohammed Al Tamimi as he prepares to navigate a Boeing 787 simulator at the airline's training academy.
It is one of the many practice sessions to pull off the perfect aerial display on the final day of this year's Formula One Grand Prix at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit, where they will be joined by Al Fursan aerobatics team who will whizz across the sky leaving a trail of red, white, green and black streaks.
For the dazzling feats they accomplish in the air, four veteran Etihad pilots do three months of rigorous training on the ground. It involves simulator sessions, flight rehearsals with Al Fursan jets, failure and contingency planning, and risk assessments.
Al Tamimi, head of the Boeing fleet at the airline, has been doing flypasts since 2019. He will be the pilot-in-command on Sunday when thousands of excited race-goers will have their eyes fixed on the annual tradition, which has been taking place since the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix began in 2009.
“When I do flypasts, I feel excited but stressed. It's a bit of challenge. But it's also fun,” says Al Tamimi, 40.
The Boeing 787-9 aircraft will be flown at only 600 feet above the ground, taking off and landing at Abu Dhabi Airport, with a total flight duration of about an hour.
A regular flight is more than 30,000 feet above the ground but on Sunday, the pilots will steer the aircraft at a low altitude above the crowds. The formation of the jets is discussed and decided ahead of time with Al Fursan team, depending on the safety of the area.
“It's totally different than a regular flight,” he says.
“In a regular flight, situation awareness is also high, but in Formula One, everyone in the world is just watching you. You have to be focused 100 per cent to give your best and to be at that exact point at the exact time.”
Captain Abdulla Saleh will join him as his deputy, captain Mimmo Catalano will ensure timeliness and captain Driss Moussaoui will be responsible for communicating with Al Fursan team and air traffic control.
Saleh, who will be marking his fifth year participating in the flypast, has celebrated several aerial achievements. He was at the controls when Etihad flew Pope Francis back to Rome from the UAE in 2019. He ferried the Special Olympics Flame of Hope to the Emirates and he also led the first flight between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv.
“Flying for Formula One is very enjoyable. It doesn't matter how many times I've done it, every time I do it, it’s like my first time. I enjoy it,” says the Emirati pilot, who has worked with the airline since 2005.
“My team and I support each other. It's not an easy manoeuvre but teamwork makes it simple,” he says.
Catalano, the technical pilot for the Boeing 787 fleet in Etihad Airways, explains the significance of time and accuracy.
“The timing role is very important because we pass when the national anthem finishes, at that exact moment. If the timing calculation is not correct, that means we will pass either before or after that. So, it is very important to be accurate in order for the show to be nice,” said the Italian pilot who also has worked with Etihad since 2005.
“I do some calculations and I also take advantage of the technology we have on board. I communicate with the pilot in command the speed to fly in order to pass at the right time,” he says.
“There are a lot of mixed feelings inside the cockpit during this event. Stress is one of them. But once we pass and the time is correct, we are all happy.”
Meanwhile, Moussaoui, who has been participating in flypasts since 2019, is responsible for communication and co-ordination with the Al Fursan team. The experienced pilot has been with Etihad since it commenced operations in 2003.
“Etihad for me is like family. I've been here since day one,” says the Moroccan pilot who has 19,000 hours of flying under his belt.
The annual tradition has been evolving over the years, says Al Tamimi.
“We used to do flypasts with an Airbus A380 and we changed to a Boeing 787 and an A380 with Al Fursan jets. Then we got back to doing them with Boeing 787 aircraft and Al Fursan jets.
“As an Emirati captain, I'm proud and privileged to participate in such an event, an international event. I have to make sure this thing is successful, and that we present ourselves and Etihad Airways for everyone in the best way ever.”
Scroll through the gallery below to see photos of last year's Abu Dhabi F1 flypast