Maurits Robert van Gelder’s earliest memories as a child was seeing his pilot father dressed and ready for work. The uniform, including a set of epaulets and imposing cap, always sparked his curiosity.
With his dad working on the flight deck and his mother as a cabin manager, aviation was a big part of Mr van Gelder’s childhood. The sky felt like home.
Weekends were spent in the air with his father flying small planes and helicopters. During school holidays, he would often take off with his parents on long-haul flights, back in the days when he could visit his dad in the cockpit.
"I was basically born and bred in aviation," he told The National.
“I would always go on flights with my dad. As soon as I entered the cockpit for the first time my goal was set.
“I knew right then I wanted to fly jets around the world.”
The Abu Dhabi resident, originally from the Netherlands, was so inspired by his father that his dream to follow in his footsteps became a reality in adulthood.
At the age of 18, Mr van Gelder, now 29, enrolled and qualified from flight school.
But less than a decade after graduating, his world came crashing down because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Having been made redundant as a senior first officer with Etihad, he was forced to take on work as a real estate agent.
But the goal is to one day fly again.
A child with sky-high ambitions
From as young as he can remember, flying dominated Mr van Gelder's life.
While most children kicked off their uniforms after school and rushed outside to play with friends, he spent his spare time playing flight-simulation games on his computer.
His father even built a child-size cockpit out of Duplo building blocks for him to practise in.
By the age of 14, Mr van Gelder could “procedurally fly a Boeing 747 or 777”, but because of his age he was not yet licensed.
“Flying is in my blood and comes so natural to me,” he said.
“I honestly never thought I would even have to think about another career path because flying was always my only option.
“When I started flight school I took a loan to pay for it and was in €140,000 [$169,020] worth of debt. I didn’t care about socialising or partying, I was just so committed.
“I graduated after just a year and a half and I was 20 when I qualified to fly commercial planes.”
Four months after completing flight school, he was offered a job in Turkey to fly a commercial Boeing 737-800. And just over three years later, in 2017, he landed a job in Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways.
Mr van Gelder then had the privilege of flying alongside his father, who was a captain with the same company before his retirement in 2018.
“I was 25 and was flying around the world in a Boeing 777-300 to places like the US, South Africa, Australia and the Far East,” he said.
“It was always my dream to fly alongside my father and I finally achieved it.
“I was very happy with my job but, as is typical with me, I’m never really satisfied so I made a new goal to become a captain by the time I was 30.”
'My plan is to get my wings back'
As the years ticked by and he clocked up more flying experience, devastation hit last year when the travel industry ground to a halt because of the Covid-19 virus outbreak.
He was one of hundreds of pilots let go by the airline in July.
“The redundancy came via an email. In that one email my entire world fell apart,” he said.
“For me, it was completely out of the blue because I was flying throughout the pandemic so thought I was safe. I was flying on a reduced salary too.
“I would have taken a 90 per cent pay cut in the pandemic had it meant I could still fly, or even keep my job as a pilot, but that wasn’t an option.
“It’s been so incredibly hard not being able to fly, it’s something I worked so hard for.
"I’ve had to take on work as a real estate agent for now.”
Selling homes is a stop gap
For the past nine months, Mr van Gelder has been selling multimillion-dirham homes and apartments in Abu Dhabi.
But no matter how big the sale or commission, he said nothing will ever compare to the feeling of flying above the clouds in the cockpit.
With an overflow of pilots looking for jobs, he has sent off numerous applications but says "airlines just aren't hiring right now".
“There is so much anxiety with my current job, not knowing when the next commission is coming. I’m stretching my money as far as I can,” he said.
"If I could choose between real estate work and flying, it will always be flying," Mr van Gelder said.
“For now, realty is the only thing I can see myself doing to make money, but it doesn’t make me happy. It’s not my passion.
“My entire life plan was to become a pilot and now my future plan is to get my wings back. It has to happen soon. It can’t not.”