Born and bred on the historic Mediterranean island of Malta, Cliff Chetcuti ("Everybody calls me Cliff apart from my Mum when she's angry") has his father to thank for planting the seed which would blossom into his successful flying career.
"As a kid my dad used to take me to the airport," he says. "We used to see the Royal Air Force Nimrods and Harriers flying in and out – Malta was a colony at the time. I fantasised about being a pilot as most boys do."
Further to that, Cliff's father also used to rent apartments to RAF pilots, so he was able to meet and look up to his real-life heroes and aspire to follow in their footsteps.
His adventurous spirit also showed itself at school, where Cliff's troublemaking antics and surprisingly good exam results led his teachers to nickname him. He laughs, "I was always held after school and punished, and my mum gave up in the end. My teacher used to call me 'the submarine'. He said, 'You always do mischievous things underneath the surface, then you come up, you strike and you do well'."
But his behaviour also gave him hero status with the other pupils at his otherwise conservative school.
Unfortunately, after completing his schooling, opportunities to become a pilot on a small island like Malta weren't easy to find. Each time Air Malta advertised, 500 individuals would apply for six positions.
So the dream started to fade and at 16 he joined university as an engineer. "But then," he continues, "while I was in my second year, Air Malta issued another call and I said, 'I'm going to give it my last shot'. And they took me! My mom freaked out because she thought I was throwing away a degree." His father, a headmaster and always very logical, said, "It's your life, your call. If that's what you want to do, then go for it."
As one of 10 chosen from over 400 candidates he was sent to Scotland to the Air Service Training school. "It was a real challenge," he recalls. "I lost quite a bit of weight. After being pampered at home and living with a very close family mentality – living with your parents until you get married – and then to suddenly be on your own…
I was washing my clothes in the shower! I'd never washed clothes before. So it was quite an eye-opener, and it appealed to my character."
The other great challenge came in the form of the training itself. Based at Perth, at the mouth of the River Tay, Cliff and the other candidates were to fly in what the instructors freely admitted would be the toughest environment they would ever have to fly in: snow, cold, high winds and heavy rains.
But the training environment had other demands: "I was trained by ex-RAF pilots," says Cliff, "and one guy even hit me because I dared to challenge him." From this point on his attitude seemed to change, especially on the flight deck. "It used to be that I would rather not stand up for my rights than upset someone, and it was quite difficult then to break that mould."
Becoming an Emirates pilot eventually redressed that imbalance: "I used to see myself as quite an introvert on the job, and joining Emirates made me much more assertive."
Cliff puts this assertion down to the nurturing environment and personal development orientation of the company: "We have a Crew Resource Management (CRM) programme at Emirates and one of the modules is dealing with communication styles. A year after I joined, I applied to be a CRM facilitator. So I was trained to train others, and by default I developed my skills at the same time."
In fact, when asked what he considers to be the one experience that has had the most impact on his life, he says, "Joining Emirates – and I'm not saying that as a 'PR guy'.
"With Air Malta we used to fly to Dubai and I could see the eight Emirates aircraft that they had at the time. My colleague had joined Emirates and had said it was fantastic, so we came on holiday and straightaway you could see that Emirates was going places: you could feel the momentum. Three months after putting my application in, I was selected. That was nearly 15 years ago and those eight aircraft are now 111."
In April last year, Cliff began working on the A380 project. Having already qualified as a Type Rating Examiner (TRE) on the A310 and A330, he applied for the post of CFI380 (Chief Flying Instructor on the A380). Since securing the post he continues to train pilots both in and out of the two Dh10 million state-of-the-art simulators housed in a sterile white chamber at the training college in Garhoud, Dubai.
How many actual flying hours have you done in the A380?
About 70 hours and the rest have been in the simulator. We flew to New York, to Los Angeles and to San Francisco – we did the tour across America on the inaugural flight.
How many A380s are Emirates hoping to finally have?
They plan to have 58, but I'm not sure how many destinations Emirates will be flying to on them.
But quite a few airports are not ready yet, right?
There are quite a few which are ready. We call them 'Code F' airports. It's a bit of a myth that the A380 can't fly to most places. It doesn't have to be a fully Code F airport to land there. Dubai International Airport isn't a Code F airport.
Is that purely for safety?
An airport is standardised Code F when it can accommodate longer wingspans. We can go to most of New York airport, for example, but there are some taxiways that we cannot use.
What's the main difference between flying the A380 and other Emirates aircraft?
In handling characteristics it's very similar to the A340 and A330, however at the back of your mind you know you're flying the A380 so it's very exciting and it just happens to be the largest commercial aircraft with all the hype behind it in the media.
So for us it's a great pleasure. The only challenge is taxiing the aircraft because of the wingspan. But we train for it so the risk is mitigated.
In terms of 'handling' how is the A380?
It handles pretty much the same as the A340, but due to its sheer size it feels smoother and much steadier on the approach. And it's much quieter: the passengers who flew to New York were all impressed with how quiet the cabin is. Those in premium class couldn't even hear the engines start.
Is the flight deck very different?
It's much more hi-tech, but very intuitive. The interface is more like Windows. Before, you had buttons to take you to the flight management system, but now you have a trackball like a PC with a cursor on the screen and drop-down menus.
Is the time needed for take-off longer in such a large plane?
No, because the wings are also much bigger. We categorise aircraft based on their landing speeds. For example, the A380 lands at the same speed as the A340, around 220km/h.
Is it less affected by turbulence?
My subjective feel is that it rides turbulence better than the smaller aircraft due to the fact its wings are
so big and because there is more mass to move.
With its rapid expansion, Emirates must be very hungry for pilots…
People know how lucrative it is to fly for Emirates, so we don't have a problem attracting pilots. And we have a very low attrition rate; I think it's less than one per cent now. The job of a pilot in Emirates is one of the most sought-after in the world. I would challenge anyone to find me a better job in terms of the equipment we fly, the excitement, the routes we do, the training we provide. I think it's a fantastic job.
Are there many Emirati pilots in the training system?
Yes. There is a nationalisation programme for the whole of Emirates and we encourage nationals to apply
to join us as cadets. We send them to Australia and they return as qualified commercial pilots and we then train them on the equipment we fly.
How many pilots are currently being trained on the A380?
We are up to course number five and each course has eight pilots, but that doesn't include the trainers, obviously.
Do you have family in Dubai?
My wife is from Malta. She was raised in Canada but she lived in Malta for six months, and I have two boys, 15 and 13 – the youngest was born in Dubai. I've been here nearly 15 years. I enjoy the cultural diversity here.
When you hear them [kids] talk they are very culturally aware, but at the same time indifferent to culture – it's about the person, not the culture. Back home it's very ethnic. Anyone who comes from outside is never Maltese.
I find that kids from Dubai tend to socialise much quicker than kids from Malta. They are much quicker to become social but much slower to become close friends, because Dubai is very temporary.
What has most affected you?
Two things: I had a major surgery for a congenital illness, which changed the way I looked at life. With my friends I was the guy who took risks: if there was a mountain, I would climb it; if there was a cliff, I would jump into the sea.
And then I had my first son. Fatherhood changed the way I look at life completely: I had to plan for my kids and I had to be more careful.
Who has been your greatest role model?
My dad. He is very analytical and never jumps to conclusions: you're always innocent until proven guilty. He will say nothing while you say your side. Then he will go away, research and come back and tell you what should
It's a style I try to use when I manage. I try not to be impulsive, to gather information and once I know about the processes and data then I will propose my position. I'd rather have
a slow decision than a poor one.
Is your mother the opposite?
My mother is the more emotional side of me. She speaks what she thinks. And she's the best cook, especially her granita.
What would you say is your most valued possession?
In Maltese we say, "I tie my heart to nothing except my family." I don't bond to material things except that
my wife gave me a collage of pictures she collected from my baptism throughout my life, and I would never part with that.
But I think it's me: when we sold our last house my wife got quite emotional, but I said,
"It's a house – we're all still here." There has to be an emotional side to a materialistic thing for me to hold onto it.
What do you do to escape when you're not working?
Photography. And I love sailing – a friend of mine has a beautiful boat and it's so good to be able to go away with a soulmate and
be comfortable with each other's silence.
Do you get the opportunity to do either often?
Photography, quite often. And every year we go to Sicily and sail around the islands there. I haven't done much photography around the UAE. I find the colours back home much richer and more to my style of photography. I like people and architecture – especially the old architecture in Malta.
What are you most grateful for?
My family and my close friends. I value good friendship. I would rather lose money than lose a friendship.
What's been the greatest moment in your
life so far?
From a family point of view, my wife and children, and from
a career point of view, I would say the A380 programme.
What alternate career would you have liked?
A structural engineer. Last week I was in Emirates Towers and there is a framework inside. I just stood there and looked at it and wondered how long it took the engineer to calculate the forces on it.
When I drive over Garhoud Bridge I wonder how much time the engineer spent calculating how much concrete and steel was needed to take 'x' number of cars in 'y' amount of time. That always fascinates me. If I could put my life on hold and then continue again, I would complete my engineering course, and then come back to Emirates.
Where would you most like to visit?
India. Since there is no stopover at any destination in India that we fly to, I have not got a chance to sightsee.
But I have heard so much about Goa and the south.
How do you define success?
The people I see as successful are those who leave a good legacy: Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Pope John Paul, Nelson Mandela…
In terms of that definition, would you call yourself successful?
I do charity work. I help orphanages back home, and I used to help in Dhaka at a place called Uttara. The orphanage was called Families for Children and it's a Canadian organisation. I bought them some computers and spent a week with
them teaching them how to use one. They didn't even have a typewriter.
I created a website for them and put their pictures up on the internet, and they stood in line just to see the pictures on the computer. I thought, "If only my kids could see this. They don't know how spoilt they are." I used to request Dhaka flights so I could go to the orphanage. And it's one thing
I would like to pursue again once my life isn't as busy as it is now.
For more information Families For Children, visit: http://www. families forchildren.ca/
Gordon Torbet is a Dubai-based freelance writer