Back in April, I attended the monthly luncheon of The Wings Club, a global society of aviation professionals. The Wings Club was founded in 1942 by luminaries of the aviation industry, including Eddie Rickenbacker, Juan Trippe, Hap Arnold and Fiorello LaGuardia. For more of its history: https://www.wingsclub.org/about/history#
The April luncheon’s guest speaker was Etihad Airways President & CEO James Hogan who gave a great overview of the relatively new company (formed in 2003) and its spectacular growth. The airline, based out of Abu Dhabi, now operates more than 1,000 flights a week to over 120 destinations around the world. In 2015, the airline set up its own partner alliance and the airline was rated as a 5-star airline, along with only a handful of other carriers.
As is usual, the folks at my table were a mix of industry professionals, from NYC Economic Development Corporation, IHI Inc., an aviation attorney, and an employee of Orbis, a great charity that trains eye doctors in poorer nations via their Flying Eye Hospital (https://www.orbis.org/). The luncheons are always a great networking opportunity, especially just in getting to meet very interesting people and learn about what they do.
As with most of the luncheons, when you sign in, you can drop your business card into a large fishbowl for the raffle at the end of the session. In most cases, it’s large model of one of the jets in the guest speaker’s fleet. However, this time it was round trip business class tickets on Etihad to Abu Dhabi from JFK. I laughed while talking with the Orbis rep when I saw them pull out a blue-backed business card similar to mine. Then I really laughed when they called my name! There’s a photo on the Wings Club website: https://www.wingsclub.org/photos/2016-april-luncheon
As a result, in November, Michiko and I decided to use the tickets for a vacation to Dubai and Abu Dhabi for our 15th wedding anniversary. I can’t say enough about Etihad Airways (https://www.etihad.com/en/) and the VIP treatment we received on both flights of our trip. From check-in to onboard the aircraft to leaving the airports, it was white-glove treatment all the way with super-friendly and efficient staff zipping us through security, bringing a beautiful anniversary cake to the lounge, delivering delicious food onboard and whisking us through immigration and customs. Hands down, it was the best airline treatment I’ve ever had!
The flight outbound to Abu Dhabi was on a beautifully appointed A380, seated in the upper deck business class: https://www.seatguru.com/airlines/Etihad_Airways/Etihad_Airways_Airbus_A380.php One of the nice touches I found was the camera view on our entertainment screens—I was able to watch nose, tail and ground cameras of our taxi, takeoff and flight. Especially with the nose camera view, it was like being in the cockpit! The return flight was on a 777, which had slightly older design, but still well above the comfort level of ALL of my commercial flying! It also had nose and ground cameras so that I could watch the takeoff from Abu Dhabi and the landing back at JFK. Michiko called me a plane geek, which I took as a compliment, of course!
We started our trip in Dubai for a few nights and then moved down to Abu Dhabi for a few nights. We had a lot of fun in both cities, but I’m just going to touch on the “aviation” (and I define that somewhat loosely) aspects of our trip.
Our hotel in Dubai was in the Marina district and our balcony overlooked the SkyDive Dubai airstrip where a couple jump planes were in nearly constant motion most days.
At the beginning of our trip, we did a hot air balloon flight out in the Dubai desert via Balloon Adventures Emirates (https://www.ballooning.ae/) . Our van picked us up at 4:30am for the roughly 45 minute drive out towards the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve in a very thick fog. A few other couples joined us in the van, including a couple that worked for the French Embassy. We joined about 50 other folks out at the launch site and were allocated to three giant balloons, with baskets holding about 25 passengers each!
We watched in the morning twilight as the balloons were slowly inflated, creating a wonderful experience of light and color as they took shape and stood up. Then we boarded and within minutes, we were off the ground, lifting away while the other two balloons were still preparing to launch. Our captain, Mike Schaefer from Germany, was on the radio to ATC shortly after launch, getting an altitude restriction and squawk code. We were cleared up to 4,000 feet.
Our initial track took us north northwest from our launch point until Captain Mike brought us up to about 2,000 feet and we started drifting the opposite way, south southeast! As we continued upwards, we watched the other two balloons climbing up below us and behind us. We floated along gently in near silence out over the desert as the sky brightened. Then we saw the first peeks of the sun from behind the mountains in Oman, only about 40km distant.
Eventually we floated over one of the sheikh’s desert palaces and Captain Mike pointed out the gigantic aviary tents for the sheikh’s few hundred falcons!!
As we descended, the wind started us drifting back towards the north northwest and our breakfast sport. We came down and skimmed the surface of the dunes, maybe 5-10’ off the ground as Captain Mike looked for a suitable spot to set down, then we went up again so that we could head south southeast once more and he was able to pick a good landing site, maneuvering expertly to a pretty gentle, skidding stop.
Antique Land Rovers picked us up and brought us to the breakfast area where large carpets and pillows were laid out for us. We had a great little falconry demonstration and then a delicious breakfast before returning to our van for the ride back to Dubai.
(I’ve tried to pinpoint the flight landmarks here: Started here: https://firstname.lastname@example.org,55.578703,1388m/data=!3m1!1e3 and flew NNW over the 6 green fields before gaining altitude to fly SSE, over Al Maha Safari Foodcourt (Google Earth: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Al+Maha+Safari+Foodcourtemail@example.com,55.6221997,1381m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0xec0b011604fb8d87!8m2!3d24.8451707!4d55.6213532 where we would have breakfast after landing, but first flew over one of the Sheikh’s desert palaces with his massive aviaries for something like 400 falcons!!) (Empty Quarter)
The next morning, Michiko and I did a private falconry experience with Royal Shaheen Events (https://royalshaheen.ae/ )(the same folks who had brought the falcon out to the ballooning). Bryan, a former conservation officer from South Africa, picked us up pre-dawn at our hotel, with a male Greater Spotted Eagle named Khaimah in the back of the jeep, for the drive back out to the conservation area. Along the way, he stopped in at the camel racetrack and explained to us a little about camel racing and we saw a number of them heading out for morning practice.
Out into the desert conservation area, Bryan brought us to the spot they use for the falconry, where his assistant Rahid was waiting with other birds at a spot that had a nice carpet and coffee set laid out for us. After the welcoming (and welcomed!) Arabic coffee and dates, Bryan and Rahid began introducing us to the birds we’d be working with that morning, besides Khaimah:
- Romeo, a male Saker falcon
- Gamora, a female Gyr/Peregrine falcon
- Sally, a female Harris hawk
- Cersei, a female Desert Eagle Owl
Rahid demonstrated the lure on a stick, swinging it to keep it away from the falcon until he finally let the falcon hit it and bring it to ground. Then Bryan fitted us with a mangalah, which is what Arabic falconers use instead of a gauntlet—it resembles an open-ended cuff that protects the hand but allows the fingers to breathe. Michiko and I each got to fly each of the birds from our fist, either to/from a perch or to/from each other, tempting the birds with little bits of quail on our mangalahs. I’ve been fortunate to do a half-day of hawking in Scotland (Gleneagles, home of British School of Falconry) and in Vermont (Equinox, American campus of British School of Falconry) but this was the first time I had been able to handle a number of different species. It was a truly awe-inspiring and magical chance to work with these beautiful creatures! (Someday if I’m able to retire with some time on my hands, I’d love to take up falconry!)
All too soon, Bryan was driving us back towards the city, but we stopped by the Falcon & Heritage Sports Centre in Dubai. It’s not a well-advertised spot, but for me, it was walking into a slice of heaven as it’s the home of the falcon souk (market). https://www.visitdubai.com/en/pois/falcon-and-heritage-sports-centre Bryan took us into a number of shops that had all sorts of falconry gear, but most amazingly, falcons, eagles and hawks for sale. Assuming I’d have been able to get it back into the country, I could have bought a gorgeous Peregrine or Gyr or Saker falcon! All of the birds have their own passports and Bryan explained that they all travel Business or First Class on airlines—they cover the seat with a protective cloth and the birds sit on a perch on the seat, hooded.
Later in the week, down in Abu Dhabi, we took a tour of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. It was amazing, from the waiting room, to the triage room, a demonstration of trimming a white Gyrfalcon’s talons and beak to seeing a surgery underway. We also got to visit the (highly stinky) molting building where the birds spend time each year changing out their feathers (and their coloring, hence why falcon passports don’t contain photos). At the end of the tour, our guide offered everyone the opportunity to hold a falcon and be photographed. Oddly enough, no one volunteered to feed one of the falcons so I shot my hand up and spent 10 minutes holding a good sized chunk of quail while a Saker falcon tore into lunch!
Lest you think it was solely falconry-related trip, we also did a number of other cultural/sightseeing activities including the gold souks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi (amazingly beautiful holy site), an abra ride across the river in Dubai to the Old Souk (in search of the spice souk), three afternoon teas (including one where my cappuccino came dusted with actual gold!), the produce souk and the date souk.