Video: Emirates, Etihad, flydubai and Air Arabia break aviation record

All four of the UAE’s major airlines flew in formation over the country on December 2nd, 2018, to honour National Day, overcoming major logistics challenges in the process.
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Emirates, Etihad, flydubai, and Air Arabia celebrated the UAE’s 47th National Day on December 2nd with a formation flight along the length of the country, accompanied by seven Al Fursan aerobatic display jets from the UAE Air Force.

See the footage below:

The flypast was a world-first and a UAE civil aviation milestone, involving more than 11 aircraft (a flydubai Boeing 737 MAX 8 (Zayed 1), an Air Arabia Airbus A320 (Zayed 2), an Etihad Airways Airbus A380 (Zayed 3) and an Emirates Airline Airbus A380 (Zayed 4), as well as seven Al Fursan aerobatic display jets from the UAE Air Force and several photography planes).

All of the commercial aircraft within the formation were emblazoned with ‘Year of Zayed’ decals. It was also the first time this unique combination of aircraft types ever flew in formation.

The aircraft were commanded by Captain Adrian Smith from flydubai, Captain Nadhem Al Hamad from Air Arabia, Captain Richard Dyson from Etihad Airways and Captain Abbas Shaban from Emirates Airline.

The Al Fursan team was led by Lieutenant Colonel Nasser Al Obaidli.

The logistics behind the event

The carefully choreographed ‘stair step’ aerial formation began in the afternoon at 1300hrs, when the aircraft took-off from Dubai World Central Al Maktoum International Airport.

Once all of the aircraft established their holding positions with altitudes ranging from 2,000 feet to 5,000 feet, with a 1,000 foot vertical separation, the formation commenced.

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Over the skies of Ras Al Khaimah, each aircraft adjusted its speed and turned to achieve a trail formation. The aircraft then descended into their positions and vertical separation was reduced to 300 feet.

Flying first in the ‘Year of Zayed’ formation was flydubai, cruising at an altitude of 1,000 feet and an airspeed of 210 knots, closely followed by Air Arabia, in line astern and stepped up at an altitude of 1,300 feet.

Next came the Etihad Airbus A380 double-decker, trailing the first two aircraft  and flying at 1,600 feet, stepped up by the Emirates Airbus A380 flying at the highest altitude at 1,900 feet to make room for the seven Al Fursan jets set in an arrow formation, ready to release their signature smoke trails in the colours of the UAE flag.

Together, the UAE carrier formation flew along the coastline of the UAE, starting at Ras Al Khaimah, continuing on to Um Al Quwain and Ajman, and then passing landmarks including the Sharjah Corniche, Dubai’s Palm and World Islands with the Burj Khalifa skyline in the background, and finally crossing the Abu Dhabi Corniche and the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, where all aircraft then split and continued on to their respective airports for landing.

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“His Highness Sheikh Zayed was a true pioneer and one of the most inspirational leaders of our time. It is fitting that on UAE National Day, such a spectacular aerial display be done to honour his legacy,” said HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman and Chief Executive, Emirates Airline & Group, and Chairman of flydubai.

“I am immensely proud of all of the teams across every airline, the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority, and all the organisations who came together to plan and execute today’s unprecedented flight formation which will go down as an extraordinary moment for UAE civil aviation,” he added.

While the aerial formation flight may appear to be a straightforward assignment, the mission was actually planned more than five months in advance due to the complexity of the formation and the number of aircraft involved.

With a primary focus on flight safety, the meticulous technical planning and co-ordination involved all four airlines and multiple regulatory stakeholders.

The success of the formation flight was made possible by the collaboration between the pilots and flight operation managers from each airline, the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), UAE Ministry of Defence, air traffic controllers, the Abu Dhabi Department of Transportation and Civil Aviation Authorities from other UAE emirates, amongst others.

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All stakeholders worked together to identify suitable locations for the flight formation patterns, taking into account air traffic, areas overflown, route planning, visibility, and potential wind and weather conditions.

The entire formation route was protected from any passing traffic within a Temporary Restricted Area controlled by the GCAA.

Meetings were held to establish each airline’s position within the formation and precise visual reference points were drawn up so each aircraft could safely join and hold their plotted position. In addition, all pilots went through rigorous flight simulation exercises.

A rehearsal flight was done on 8 November 2018 to ensure that the formation positions worked appropriately with the Al Fursan air display team.

The test-run ‘Year of Zayed’ formation also included two helicopters and an Aero L-39 Albatross chase plane from the Latvian based Baltic Bees aerobatic display team to film every detail and aspect of the formation.