January 20, 2020
When flight VS28 arrived into London Gatwick on Saturday morning, it marked the end of an extraordinary career for Captain Mike Abu-Nayla. He’s been flying our Boeing 747s for over 30 years and holds the coveted number one position in our pilot seniority list.
We joined Mike on his last trip, to Orlando in Florida, and discovered more of his incredible story along the way. How he was smuggled out of Iraq in the back of a lorry, before returning to the country 22 years later as commander of an historic flight, and how he’s probably flown more hours on the 747 than anyone else in history. It’s quite a tale, with plenty of twists and turns. Here’s how it all unfolded, from his formative years in the Middle East to the final trip of his 46 year flying career…
Mike was born in Baghdad in Iraq in 1955, the son of landowners and orange grove farmers. Growing up with his nine brothers and four sisters he enjoyed an excellent education, in a country that boasted a great standard of living, good public transport and a national health service. As a young boy, he’d been impressed by the stories told by a distant cousin who was a pilot in the Iraqi Air Force. However, his own air force ambitions were thwarted by his pacifist parents who were against their children having a military career. So Mike turned his attention to becoming an airline pilot instead.
It was Mike’s brother who saw an advert for an Iraqi Airways sponsorship programme and suggested Mike apply. He was successful and sent to Scotland where he earned his commercial pilot license. His first job after qualifying was to fly the Boeing 727 for Iraqi Airways. In 1978 Mike transferred to the Boeing 747, an aircraft he was to fly for the rest of his career. But that nearly didn’t happen.
During his ATPL course with the Oxford Aviation Training School, Kidlington, Mike received a worrying message from his family telling him not to return. Saddam Hussein had started his notorious Ba’ath Party purge and one of Mike’s brothers and five cousins had already been arrested. Mike never saw his brother again. Despite this he made the decision to return to Iraq to be with his family and resume his flying career. But after just one flight, as punishment he was grounded and sent to work as a paper shuffling clerk at the railway company. Here he became something of a curiosity among the railway workers, who used to come and gawk at the airline pilot. But it was a situation that couldn’t last and Mike applied three times to leave Iraq and move to Kuwait, requests that were met with hostility. His final application led to him being bundled into the back of a car in handcuffs and taken away to be questioned by the secret police. After interrogating him they offered to pay for his sick mother’s medical treatment in exchange for him joining the secret police! When he declined their offer they told him to forget ever leaving the country. And that’s when he decided to take things into his own hands.
A distant cousin gave Mike the break that would change everything. He had a business that involved driving heavy lorries with shipping containers across the Iraq/Kuwait border, and he offered to smuggle Mike over the border hidden in the driver’s bunk. After five months in Kuwait, a friend from his days at Iraqi Airways vouched that Mike was his brother-in-law and managed to arrange a visa. Shortly after he was offered a job as a pilot for Kuwait Airways. Before he could fly, he first had to travel to the UK to renew his license on the 747, but found himself stranded after the airline reneged on its contract. Mike then had a brief period flying for Air Lanka before being recruited for an exciting new airline…
It was now 1987, and Mike took on a role flying the Boeing 747 with a start-up airline called Highland Express. This airline – with its distinctive livery based on the Scottish flag – flew between Prestwick and Newark, New Jersey. It proved to be an ill fated venture. In December, just five months after its first flight, Highland Express was declared bankrupt, and the aircraft was repossessed.
Highland Express is linked to our own story by its founder, Randolf Fields, an American lawyer. Three years before he started Highland Express, he’d talked a young music mogul into starting another airline. Shortly afterwards the pair fell out and Randolf sold his share for £125,000. That partner was Richard Branson and the airline Virgin Atlantic.
After the demise of Highland Express, Mike briefly worked for an agency supplying pilots to other airlines, but was once again looking for a permanent job. He applied to Virgin Atlantic and was successful, but on the same day he received that offer, he was also offered a role with Air Europe. Unsure which to pick, he sought the advice of his friend, a sage old retired BA captain. After hastily scribbling down some numbers on a napkin, the captain declared Air Europe’s short-haul routes would mean more trips to the airport and an increase in the running costs of his car! So based on how often he’d have to change his brake pads, Mike went with his friend’s recommendation and joined Virgin Atlantic, the tiny start-up airline nobody thought would last. He rejected Air Europe, the successful, established carrier. They went bust in 1991.
Mike began his flying career at Virgin Atlantic in 1989, at a time when we had just two aircraft and two routes. The company culture suited him down to the ground: very professional but also relaxed and fun. He was enjoying the atmosphere on the line, the cool brand, and the continued growth of the fledgling airline, and made up his mind to stay. A year later at the age of 34, he was promoted to captain – the youngest on our fleet.
After a flight in 1992, Mike bumped into a CAA inspector he’d previously flown with. The conversation took a dark turn when he revealed the CAA were predicting Virgin Atlantic would go out of business by Christmas. Concerned, Mike went home and started planning how he’d pay his mortgage should that happen. As a result, he rented a café in London’s Westbourne Grove and started a Brazilian coffee shop along with his Brazilian wife Silvia. Following its success, the pair opened a restaurant, Rodizio Rico, the UK’s first churrascaria. They now own restaurants in Islington and at the O2 in London, as well as in Birmingham, plus a fourth opening soon in Coventry. We’re happy to report that the CAA inspector’s predictions were off the mark and just two years later Mike was one of our first pilots to convert to our new fleet of Boeing 747-400s. Unlike the previous versions of the aircraft, the 400 has no flight engineer onboard, and the change took a while to get used to. Our engineers are known for being total professionals with a fantastic sense of humour, and Mike missed their company on board.
There’s no hesitation when Mike is asked about the best moment of his career: The 2nd May 2003 relief flight to Iraq. Just after the first Gulf war, Richard wanted to help ease the developing humanitarian crisis, and agreed to fly 60 tonnes of much needed medical aid to the country. Mike was honoured to be asked to captain this historic flight, the first to land in Iraq after the war. The flight plan took Mike from Kuwait airspace to Iraq, the reverse of the route he took to escape all those years ago, and back to his country of birth, to set foot on Iraqi soil for the first time since he fled.
When the day came the weather was perfect, but Mike admits to being a bit cautious. The country was still a war zone, and there were lots of trigger-happy people on the ground. In the cockpit, an RAF pilot advised the flight deck what speeds and heights to fly to avoid missiles, rockets and gunfire, before they performed a spiral let down over the airfield to land. For Mike, stepping out of the plane after 20 years away was a highly emotional moment. Sadly, the planned three-day visit had to be cut short for security reasons, but there was just enough time to stroll through the deserted Basra International terminal building. It was full of heavy wooden furniture, with no natural or electric light, and felt odd, dark and empty. As he left, Mike’s thoughts turned to the future and he hoped his flight would mark a turning point for the country and the start of real change.
Fast forward to 16 January 2020, and Mike’s last trip is to Orlando in Florida. With him on the flight deck are senior first officer Daniel Manzari and third pilot Captain Carl Biltcliffe “making the tea”. Much to Mike’s delight, the flight departs Gatwick one minute early. It’s relaxed, there are plenty of stories to tell, and throughout the journey the cabin crew all visit the cockpit to spend a bit of time with the departing captain. After landing, a reception is waiting for him at the crew hotel, followed by a couple of celebratory drinks at the bar and an early night. The next morning there’s time for a quick visit to the gym, before gathering with the rest of the crew for the final flight back to Gatwick – Mike’s last ever flight as captain.
Although we can’t prove it, with over 24,500 hours on the aircraft type, we think Mike may have spent more time flying the 747 than any other pilot in history. His plans for retirement? There’s the restaurants to keep an eye on. Plans to spend more time in Brazil (our new São Paulo route and retiree benefits will help greatly here!)
It’s impossible to calculate how many times Mike has crossed the Atlantic, or how many people he’s delivered safely to the other side of the world. Over his 30 years at Virgin Atlantic, this friendly, quietly spoken man – who’s witnessed so much in his lifetime and held enormous responsibility in his hands – has gained lifelong friends and huge respect. On Saturday morning he turned off the giant engines of the 747 for the final time. After 454 customers he’d just safely flown home disembarked, Mike made his way off the aircraft and into what we hope is a long and happy retirement.
We’ll leave the last word to Mike. Here’s a transcript of his final announcement. You could hear the huge round of applause through the locked cockpit door.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Welcome to London Gatwick, and as you heard earlier on, after 31 years of flying for Virgin Atlantic and 46 years of flying, it’s time to say goodbye. That was my last landing and my last flight with Virgin Atlantic. I am retiring at the age of 65. It was my pleasure to serve my beloved Virgin Atlantic and of course the many customers that I’ve flown over the years. So for one last time, I would like to thank you for flying Virgin Atlantic and wish you all the very best. Thank you”.
With huge thanks to Jennifer Ramsaran-Johnson for organising the Orlando celebrations and to Carlos Garcia and Carl Biltlciffe for help with the photography.