Emirates Airlines’ pioneering first officer: Capt Ahmed Al Shamsi

A career in medicine or engineering was the choice facing Ahmed Al Shamsi in 1980. But a friend’s suggestion and the appeal of a short training period led Emirates Airline’s first Emirati first officer to discover his passion for aviation.
Capt Ahmed Al Shamsi at the helm of an aircraft. He survived a first solo flight that was plagued by a faulty repair and a hair-raising landing. Courtesy Capt Ahmed Al Shamsi
Capt Ahmed Al Shamsi at the helm of an aircraft. He survived a first solo flight that was plagued by a faulty repair and a hair-raising landing. Courtesy Capt Ahmed Al Shamsi

A career in medicine or engineering was the choice facing Ahmed Al Shamsi in 1980. But a friend’s suggestion and the appeal of a short training period led Emirates’ groundbreaking first officer to discover his passion for aviation.

Sometimes it is the smallest decision that changes a life forever. And so it was that a friend’s suggestion in 1980 changed Capt Ahmed Al Shamsi’s life.

The then 18-year-old was wondering whether he should train to become a doctor or an engineer. The friend suggested a different path, in aviation.

The teenager did not know much about the options available to him in higher education. He was also not aware about the specialisations in medicine or engineering. Back then, there was a much greater emphasis on the sciences.

“How about we try aviation?” said the friend. “It’s only two years [for the training].”

The relatively short training period, rather than the desire to fly, drew the teenager’s attention and led him to change his mind about his academic options.

“Studying engineering or medicine would take me six to seven years,” Capt Al Shamsi says he remembers thinking at that time.

“But I can start working in aviation in only two years. The fewer years, the better. That was my mentality.”

Today, aged 53, he is one of the most senior captains at Emirates Airline, as well as being the first Emirati officer at the carrier.

The father of three says his earlier plans did not include becoming a pilot. At high school, he was among the top students in his class and he performed well in the science stream.

After graduation, it was time to choose a career path that would probably govern the rest of his life.

Like most teenagers then, Capt Al Shamsi did not have a clear vision of his future. For him, he had to make all the decisions himself because there was no one to seek career advice from.

“My mother was a great supporter, but when I mentioned I wanted to be a pilot, she feared for my life,” he says.

He then decided to train overseas because of the high standards of pilot training.

“It didn’t matter which country as long as it was abroad,” says Capt Al Shamsi with a laugh

So at the age of 18, he left home and flew to study at a flight school in California, in the United States.

He initially struggled to adapt to the new environment and people, but the school soon became his second home.

There were also some misconceptions about flight training, thanks to the febrile imagination of a friend.

“A friend told us that the instructor would ask us to spin the jet several times to see if our head would spin. This was a form of testing our ability to endure being in the air,” says Capt Al Shamsi. The friend also insisted that Capt Al Shamsi would be required to sleep in a black room after becoming a pilot. “It would help us to sleep calmly at night,” the friend said.

But Capt Al Shamsi was sceptical about those claims.

“He [the friend] exaggerated the whole thing,” says Capt Al Shamsi with a laugh.

“Nothing like what he had said happened in our training.”

After a period of pilot training, Capt Al Shamsi was permitted to fly solo.

For his first flight, he flew a Piper Cherokee, a light single-engine propeller aircraft often used for training.

However, there was something wrong about the plane that Capt Al Shamsi would only discover when he was in the air.

“This particular aircraft was recently released from repair,” he says. “I was the next person to touch it.”

After some time in the air, he began to feel heat rising from the cabin floor. “My feet were itching and burning,” he says. When he tried to land the aircraft, he found that the controls were not working well.

“Every time I tried to land, it [the aircraft] would skid to the right for some reason,” he says.

The problem could not be fixed, even with the help from instructors on the ground.

“I made a plan in my mind,” says Capt Al Shamsi, in explaining his decision to follow his instincts. “So I have to land exactly on the centre line.”

Landing far to the left, he swung the aircraft to the right as he hit the brakes until the aircraft stopped – safely – on the centre line of the runway.

“I have been blessed on many occasions,” says Capt Al Shamsi.

Since his first solo flight, flying has become an inseparable part of his life, a passion that has deepened with time.

After graduating from the flight school, Capt Al Shamsi worked for Gulf Air, Bahrain’s national carrier, for nine years.

In 1987, he became the first Emirati first officer to join Emirates Airline, two years after the airline’s founding.

In the early days of Emirates, “we would fly short distances, such as Mumbai, Muscat, Istanbul, and Karachi”, he says.

“Over time, the stress and traffic in aviation have increased tremendously.

“Before, our flights were slow and the distances were short, so our thinking was slow as well.

“But in this day and age, the stress has increased, so has the number of passengers. One has to be aware and cautious of many things simultaneously.”

On the allegedly intentional crash of a Germanwings flight last month by its co-pilot that killed all 150 people on board, Capt Al Shamsi says he was distressed when he heard about that.

Flying is much harder than people think, he says, adding that “this field needs discipline, seriousness and sincerity”.

“As a captain, when I have a doubt about anything, whether it has to do with baggage or passengers, I don’t take off until I clarify every doubt I have,” he says.

Capt Al Shamsi says he has learnt a lot from his career, including discipline, patience, and getting along with people from different cultures.

“I was faced with some situations while flying, but I knew how to react. Thank God, I have retained a good standard all the way through,” he says.

With 35 years of experience in aviation, the Emirates pilot has lost count of the many sunrises and sunsets he has witnessed all these years.

“Seeing the northern lights is really exquisite. It creates a beautiful scenery,” he says.

Besides flying, his other passion is the pursuit of knowledge.

When one of his daughters asked about his retirement, “I told her that I would retire when I know everything. There is no end to self-knowledge”, he says.

aalhameli@thenational.ae

Published: April 15, 2015 04:00 AM

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