Meet the furloughed Dubai pilots charting a temporary career as butchers

The pilots-turned-butchers, from South Africa, Italy and the UK, have been in their new roles since March

A group of airline pilots in the UAE swapped their joysticks for meat cleavers as they navigate working life as butchers.

The pilots, currently furloughed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, took up the temporary new profession to help fill their free time.

Dressed in white butcher's coats, the four Emirates airline captains don a signature set of epaulets, which makes them hard to miss when passing by the meat counter at several branches of Organic Foods and Cafe in Dubai.

I think initially what I found challenging was being on my feet for eight or nine hours a day. As pilots we’re used to sitting, so during the first few weeks I would go home with really sore feet

Michiel Smit, airline captain

After 24 years flying planes all over the world, Michiel Smit, 43, swapped his cockpit yoke for a set of kitchen knifes after being furloughed in November.

"There is no doubt it’s been a difficult year for so many and travel has been one of the hardest hit, industry-wise,” he told The National.

“I think initially what I found challenging was being on my feet for eight or nine hours a day.

“As pilots we’re used to sitting, so during the first few weeks I would go home with really sore feet.

“I am enjoying the challenge of doing something different. It was hard not flying at first, but I do hope to get back in the cockpit again soon.”

A chance to learn new skills

The pilots-turned-butchers, from South Africa, Italy and the UK, have been working in their new roles on temporary work permits since March.

In November, the airline put some pilots on unpaid leave for 12 months, with the possibility of an early recall, and said it would continue to to provide "accommodation, medical cover and other allowances".

Under the agreement with Organic Foods and Cafe, the four pilots work five days a week, including some weekends, and can be released back to their airline at any time.

Throughout his decades-long career, Mr Smit, from South Africa, flew medical aid and agency workers in and out of war-torn countries with the United Nations.

He came to Dubai in 2008 to work for Emirates on its long-haul fleet and has been with the company ever since.

The father of two said it was a devastating blow when the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted flights globally, but said he was fortunate to still be employed by the airline and have his rent, medical and educational benefits covered.

“The Organic Foods and Cafe team approached me about taking up the role and I was instantly keen but had to make sure we went about it the right way,” he said.

“After securing a No Objection Certificate from my employer, I started work in March.

Pilot Jerome Stubbs serves a customer at the Organic Foods and Café in Cityland Mall Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Pilot Jerome Stubbs serves a customer at the Organic Foods and Cafe in Cityland Mall Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“Being South African I love to braai [barbecue], so it’s good to work with meat and make biltong [dried meat], it's a staple back home. It’s definitely quite challenging to present a cut of meat in a way that makes it look good.”

Waiting to get back into the cockpit

Working alongside Mr Smit is Jerome Stubbs, 50, also a captain.

Although the past few months have been tough not flying, his new venture into all things meat is something different.

“Pilots usually have A-type personalities and need to be doing something all time, so it was really hard to get the motivation to do things at first when I wasn’t flying,” he said.

Pilot Jerome Stubbs was put on unpaid leave for one year in November. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Pilot Jerome Stubbs was put on unpaid leave for one year in November. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“Michiel approached me about the butchery position and I thought 'why not?' I miss flying, and this isn’t something I could forge a career out of, but I’m enjoying learning new things.

“The big challenge is trying to keep pace with the master butchers. I even did extra studying at home.

“The part I love is speaking to customers. They are always intrigued by our uniforms, so it’s a great conversation starter.”

The father of one started his pilot training later than most, when he was 27.

At that time, he owned his own restaurant but wanted to save enough money to go to flight school and follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a commercial pilot.

Living in Dubai for 14 years, he said he hopes to be back in the skies again soon because he is at the “pinnacle of his piloting career” and has a lot more to give.

Jan Pretorius, operations manager for Organic Foods and Cafe, said the link-up with the pilots has been fruitful for the company because the men put forward ideas to help with food waste and portion sizes.

“We approached the pilots because we had mutual friends who were out of work and a lot of these people were regular customers of ours,” he said.

“Over the past year, people the world over have been under a lot of pressure with job losses and salary cuts, so it was just something we thought of doing to help them out while waiting to go back flying.”

Updated: June 6, 2021 03:59 PM

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