Middle East supplement: Profile – back to the front

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Former British Airways Concorde pilot John Downey retired from flying in 2004, but was persuaded to return to the industry and joined Etihad as a Boeing 777 captain, becoming head of corporate safety

What is your background in aviation?

I joined (British Airways' predecessor) BOAC in 1970 after training, flying the (Vickers) VC10 and then the (Boeing) 747. I moved on to Concorde as a first officer and then the (McDonnell Douglas) DC-10 in the mid-1980s. By this stage, I was a management pilot and moved back on to the 747. In my last three years before retiring at the age of 55, I flew the 777.

etihad
 © Etihad

What did you do after retirement?

I did a bit of consultancy for Eurocontrol and focused on my hobby of sailing, but I realised that 55 was too early to retire and began to think I needed a new challenge, so started sending out my CV, including to Etihad. My wife and I knew the Middle East well, and knew what we'd be letting ourselves in for. I don't think we'd have moved to Saudi Arabia, but the lifestyle in Abu Dhabi appealed.

How has your career progressed at Etihad?

I joined Etihad in July 2005 to help set up the 777 fleet. It was a very exciting feeling to be joining a young, ambitious airline - Etihad had about seven aircraft at the time. I spent two and a half years as deputy chief pilot on the 777, and then about a year ago took over as head of corporate safety.

What does that part of the job involve?

I wear two hats. I am responsible for flight safety and also occupational health and safety for the whole organisation, so I have seven full-time employees in my department, but a lot of other pilots who do a part-time job for us. I have the advantage of being able to look at best practice around the world in terms of airline safety culture. The biggest challenge is that we are growing so rapidly, we have to make sure we are developing very effective systems to cope. I'm not focused on every detail of safety. I am a data warehouse for line management. It's a facilitating role. I look at risks and identify hazards and recommend how to mitigate them. Then line management implements the procedures.

What of the future?

It's great to think that you can finish your career with one airline and come out to Abu Dhabi and start from scratch. Because I can continue until I am 65, I still may have the opportunity to fly the Airbus A380. How many pilots can say they have had the chance to fly Concorde and the A380 and lots in between?

You were a national sailing champion in the UK and just missed out on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Do you still sail?

Racing catamarans is my passion and I sail all year round. The sailing water around Abu Dhabi is the best in the world.