First Filipino A380 pilot: Flying a 'gentle giant'

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – At 10:26 pm on Tuesday, October 7, Filipino captain Franklyn Desiderio safely landed the Airbus 380 – Emirates’ flagship aircraft – at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 3.

Desiderio, the first Filipino certified to fly A380, helmed that rare appearance of the world’s largest passenger airliner at a Manila airport, and which left the country at 1:15 am on Wednesday, October 8.

The flight from Dubai – flight EK334 – was a one-off, commercial flight to Manila, to celebrate the Dubai-based Emirates' transfer to NAIA 3. President Benigno Aquino III and other government officials were there to welcome the passengers.

“I’m happy, I’m happy. I can’t describe how happy I’m now,” Desiderio beamed about the opportunity to be part of the rare service of Emirates, for which he is a pilot for about 9 years.

Flying since 16

At 41, Desiderio has been a pilot for 25 years, with over 18 years and 14,000 hours of commercial flying experience. Before flying A380, he was a captain for A330 and A340 airplanes. He has been flying the A380 since January 2014.

Boeing 777 is Emirates passenger airliner that flies to Manila. Emirates started flying between Manila and Dubai in 1990 and as of 2013, the airline welcomed over 820,000 passengers on its 3 daily Dubai-Manila services.

The pilot from Meycauayan, Bulacan first flew a plane when he was 16, and said his fascination for airplanes started when he was very young – from loving the science behind flying an airplane to enjoying the sound those huge engines make.

Eventually, he completed his Bachelor of Science in Aviation Major in Flying at Airlink International Aviation School, and his first job was a flight instructor. “I’m so enthusiastic about flying that I told my parents, 'I’m going to study really hard and I want my solo (flight) immediately,'” he recalled.

Then he joined the country’s flag carrier, Philippine Airlines (PAL), and commanded his first commercial flight, Manila-Catarman-Manila, in January 1997, flying a A320. After about 9 years, he left PAL, and as his wife, Rebecca agreed, the couple and their two children moved to Dubai and Desiderio joined Emirates. “It’s nice to have my family closer,” Desiderio said.

Commanding a ‘gentle giant’

Desiderio called the world’s largest passenger airliner a “gentle giant.”  “It’s so gentle. It flies smoothly. The wide wings do it. It's smooth [flying for long-haul], like our flight from Dubai to Los Angeles which was 16.5 hours,” he described.

Desiderio said, only belatedly he realized he made it as the first Filipino to fly the A380, because he was solely focused completing the training and immediately flying the jet. “I thought it would be similar with other Airbus airplanes, but no. I really had to get deep into my books and study flying it,” Desiderio said.

Desiderio took the rigorous A380 training for 25 days, spread in 2 months late last year, that covered flight, flight operations, and simulation. “Emirates has a very high standard. You have to surpass even the bottommost of that standard,” he said. Desiderio said 2 more Emirates pilots are training now to fly A380.

How is flying the 2-decker Airbus 380 different? Desiderio gleefully said that “they put all the good stuff together.” (IN PHOTOS: Flying in style with Emirates A380)

By good stuff, Desiderio meant that first class passengers can lie down in any of those 14 flat beds; have a massage in private suites; and freshen up onboard at the shower spas. Business class passengers can relax in seats that convert to flat beds up to 87 inches (2 meters long); while those in the economy class can stretch their seats with a pitch of 33 inches.

An on-board lounge with fully-stocked bar and hot and cold canapés are available for both first class and business class passengers. All passengers can enjoy Emirates’ award-winning ICE (information, communication, entertainment) digital widescreen in-flight entertainment system that has over 1,800 channels.

Flying a big passenger airliner like the A380 is indeed a huge responsibility, Desiderio said because there is an increased number of passengers depending on a pilot like him to fly them safely to their destination. “Whatever happens, it’s always the passengers’ welfare first,” he stressed.

Currently, there are 8 Filipino pilots for Emirates – 5 of them, including Desiderio, are Filipino nationals, while two pilots are Filipino-American and one Filipino-Australian. “All together, we’re friends. We’re all brown-skinned. We talk in Filipino,” Desiderio shared.

With his wealth of experience, he plays mentor to his co-pilots and always tries to share whatever he learned from the job. “I didn’t dream to fly [a big airplane like] A380. I only wanted to fly. So, I try to guide them (pilots) to achieve their own dreams,” Desiderio added.

Desiderio said the Filipino pilots and other aviation professionals have come a long way, with many of them based abroad and working for the world’s big-name airlines. But he still encourages aspiring aviation professionals to jumpstart their career in the Philippines.

“There are two kinds of Filipino pilots: first is like me who likes to venture out and discover the world. The other one likes to fly around the Philippines and they’re accomplished as well. We all stand on the same level,” Desiderio said.  

Emirates A380 to return soon?

Asked about flying A380 to a Manila airport (which the Terminal 1 is under renovation while Terminal 3 is starting its full operations), he said that the NAIA 3 runway is long and wide enough, but the airport is not yet 100% A380 qualified. While landing, the airport vehicles were not allowed on the apron at the same time. A smaller airplane was also set up on the taxiway while A380 is approaching to see how it would affect plane traffic on the ground, he added.

While Emirates is the first commercial A380 service to Manila, the A380 first made an appearance during a test flight in 2007. Also, customers of Lufthansa Technik Philippines regularly fly their A380 aircraft to NAIA for much-needed routine maintenance.

A380 flies 517 passengers – a huge volume that can congest the pre-departure holding area but could be remedied if Terminal 3 provides gates with two aerobridges. Most airports that service the A380 have gates with 3 aerobridges specifically designed for the large aircraft.

Desiderio said though that from the approach to landing, “Manila is capable [of accommodating] an A380.” There are limitations but if studied well and given enough time, combining A380 with other traffic – like setting up an A320 while an A380 is taxing or landing – would be possible, Desiderio added.

Emirates A380 fly to 31 destinations like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, New York, and Paris, Desiderio declined to comment though when will A380 starts to regularly commercially fly to Manila.

Desiderio simply said that Tuesday’s one-off service proved that an A380 can operate in and out of Manila.

“I’m hopeful that after today, it would be possible soon. I’ll be writing a good feedback about how the operation went in Manila. And I hope to fly it again soon, back here in Manila,” Desiderio said. – Rappler.com

(Editor's note: An earlier version of the story stated that Capt Desiderio logged 40,000 hours of commercial experience; it is actually 14,000. It also erroneously stated his first command was a Fokker-50 plane; it is A320 plane. Our apologies for the errors.)