Meet the Emirati captain flying the Pope home

Captain Abdulla Obaid is thought to be the first Emirati to fly the pontiff

Captain Abdulla Obaid will be taking the controls to fly Pope Francis home. Courtesy: Etihad
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As an experienced pilot Captain Abdulla Obaid is used to flying distinguished guests around the world to exotic destinations.

But this lunchtime, the 45-year-old will welcome on board his Boeing 787 Dreamliner one of his most prominent passengers yet — Pope Francis.

In an interview with The National, the proud skipper — the first Emirati to pilot the pontiff — said he was humbled by the enormous privilege.

Etihad Airways rolled out the red carpet for Pope Francis. Courtesy: Etihad

The six-hour flight will cross over the Arabian Gulf and parts of the Mediterranean before setting a course for Italy and Vatican City.

“I feel special because to my knowledge I will be the first Emirati pilot to fly his Holiness the Pope," said Captain Obaid.

“It makes me proud, excited and also thankful to my company for giving me the opportunity."

Pope Francis held  a public Mass for more than 130,000 people at Sports Zayed City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

His Holiness arrived in the Emirates on an Alitalia flight late on Sunday evening, but is returning to Italy on the UAE's national carrier, Etihad.

Inside the Boeing jet, Pope Francis will be seated up front, with the rest of his entourage and the many journalists covering his trip seated towards the rear.

Captain Obaid started his flying career 20 years ago with Gulf Air.

“As an Emirati, I'm really happy because it’s the first time he [the Pope] has visited this country and this part of the world.

“He started with my country, which makes me proud. Our leadership has always encouraged us to be tolerant of other religions and cultures and this visit is a clear message to us all that it is a very peaceful country where everyone can be together.”

The Etihad crew for the Pope's return flight to Italy

Captain Obaid said he had been flying for Etihad Airways for 13 years and pilots both the Boeing 777 and the 787 Dreamliner.

He said today's aircraft was essentially a standard 787 with a few small changes, including the addition of the Vatican logo on the plane's door and headrests.

“It’s a little bit different,” Captain Obaid said. “During the flight we don’t make any announcements and keep disturbing the passengers.

“If there is anything we need to advise them we will tell them through the crew.”

I feel special because to my knowledge I will be the first Emirati pilot to fly his Holiness the Pope

Etihad, which screened the Pope's Mass in the UAE on board its screens and in its airline lounges worldwide, started preparing for the flight back to Italy a week ago.

Its pilots prepared for the trip through a combination of simulator flights and several  meetings and briefings.

Captain Obaid said there were no official plans for him to meet the pontiff, but that he remained hopeful.

Captain Abdulla Obaid (left) with Captain Christoph Schippell. Courtesy: Etihad 

“I cannot disturb him unless he gives me the chance,” he said. “But if it’s up to me, of course, I want to meet him.

"This isn't going to be like a normal day at work. From Etihad's point of view, we are now fully ready — from the flight crew to the cabin crew. I am really excited."