Inside Pope Francis’s ‘Shepherd One’ flight to the UAE

The National was on board the pontiff’s aircraft for his landmark trip to the Arabian Peninsula

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When Pope Francis boarded his Alitalia Boeing B777 at around 4.30pm on Sunday in Rome, preparing to make his historic visit to the Arabian Peninsula, it was raining. As he touched down just hours later at Abu Dhabi airport in his "Shepherd One" aircraft, on which The National was on board, he was met by more showers on a rare wet evening in the Emirati capital.

Shortly after takeoff and when the seatbelt sign had been switched off, the pontiff pulled back the grey curtain separating him from the press corps gathered in economy class. Dressed in white and sporting his famous smile, the Pope moved comfortably through the aisle to address the weather situation.

Unfazed, he said that it could be a sign of good fortune.

"It will be a brief trip," the pontiff told his audience on the flight, referring to the landmark three-day visit, the first by the head of the Catholic church to the region. "They told me it's raining in Abu Dhabi. This, in some places, is seen as a blessing, let's hope it goes this way.”

When he landed, he met Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and then Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar University and Chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders.

But before he did, The National secured a rare insight into Pope Francis' world aboard his flight.

As excitement built in the UAE about his visit, the pontiff delivered his regular Sunday address from the Vatican before being whisked away to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport where his airliner was waiting for him.

Inside the Alitalia aircraft, a group of journalists including writers, photographers and videographers set up equipment and typed away furiously as they waited for the final passenger.

Just short of 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time, the sound of a helicopter filtered through the plane windows. Pope Francis had arrived.

The Pope took the time to speak to journalists one-on-one, blessing rosaries and accepting gifts. Although he was formal with the new media arrivals, he greeted veteran Vatican reporters with the typical Italian kiss on each cheek.

The flight is operated by the Italian national carrier but it is clear this was not any ordinary economy class ticket.

In the bathroom sat a small basket of Ferragamo face mist and hand towels, headrests on the aircraft’s seats were emblazoned with the Vatican emblem. The menu for the flight was also a cut above the usual warmed up fare.

The Pope gifted members of the press copies of an icon found in the monastery of Bose, a Catholic community located in northwestern Italy. The icon depicts a young monk carrying an older one on his shoulders. He spoke about this to a crowd of young worshippers in 2018. "In this icon there's a young monk carrying an elderly monk on his shoulders...a youth who is capable of taking upon himself the dreams of the elderly, take them forward, and make them flourish," he said.

The passengers were then handed coffee with a selection of Ferrero Rocher by the attentive and well-mannered flight staff. As the flight continued, a sense of camaraderie grew among the press corps, with Italian speakers translating for non-Italian speakers.

As journalists tried unsuccessfully to connect to Alitalia’s unreliable WiFi system, the Pope retired to the front of the plane, in business class, where he remained for the duration of the flight.

Although he was in good spirits, the pontiff’s gruelling itinerary, which will next take him to Morocco in March, has put a visible strain on the 82-year-old leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who moved at a slower pace than he did in recent years.

As the plane made its way to the UAE, telegrams were sent to each country that "Shepherd One" – the call sign for any aircraft carrying the Pope on board – passed over. As the plane made its way over Egypt, the papal telegram to the country's president read: "To his excellency Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. I extend cordial greetings to your excellency and the people of Egypt as I fly over your country on my way to the United Arab Emirates for a pastoral visit. Invoking the blessing of the almighty upon the nation, I pray that he may all grant you peace and joy."

He then sent a telegram to Saudi Arabia's King Salman as the plane passed over the kingdom's territory. It read: "To his majesty Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. I offer best wishes and the assurance of my prayers as many journey to the United Arab Emirates takes me over Saudi Arabia. Entrusting your majesty and the people of Saudi Arabia to the almighty, I willingly invoke upon you the blessings of joy and peace."

By 8pm, and after a lunch worthy of an Italian trattoria, the cabin lights dimmed and the only sounds floating through the aisle were the gentle rustling of pages and the light tapping of fingers on keyboards as members of the media prepared for the coming days.

Before long, more trays of food were being passed around, filled with cheeses, quiches, tiny pizzas and more coffee.

As the plane taxied towards the main airport building, the press corps bounced up ready to disembark from the back of the plane while Pope Francis made his way off by the front steps.

And so began one of the most important and historic visits to the Gulf by a religious figure in modern history.