Virgin Atlantic’s Most Senior Boeing 747 Pilot Retires

Virgin Atlantic has said goodbye to its most senior Boeing 747 pilot. Mike Abu-Nayla has, over 31 years of flying with the airline, clocked up more than 24,500 hours on the 747, making him the most experienced pilot on the team. Could he, in fact, be the most experienced 747 pilot in the world?

Virgin 747
Virgin’s number one 747 pilot has retired in style. Photo: Virgin

An exceptional career

Pilot Mike Abu-Nayla arrived into London Gatwick on VS28 last Saturday morning. Despite landing the Boeing 747 hundreds of times in his career, this was a very special landing for Mike. It was, in fact, his last, as he retires from the Virgin Atlantic team after 31 years of service.

Mike Abu-Nyler
Mike Abu-Nyler has flown more than 24,500 hours on the 747. Photo: Virgin

Holding the position of most senior pilot at the airline is just one of the achievements of this remarkable man. Growing up in Iraq, he began training on the Boeing 747 for Iraq Airways in 1978. However, shortly after qualifying, Saddam Hussein’s regimen barred him from leaving the country, relegating him to working at a desk job for a railway.

Undeterred Mike tried in vain to leave the country legally, but was blocked at every turn. Finally, he found freedom being smuggled out of Iraq in a heavy lorry. He gained Kuwait citizenship and returned to the UK to renew his license, where he found his first UK-based flying job.

Finding an airline to work for

Mike launched his UK career flying Boeing 747s for a startup airline called Highland Express. Flying between Prestwick in Scotland and New Jersey. He had a happy five months at the airline, but it sadly wound up before its first year was out, and Mike was left looking for work once again.

Highland Express
Mike flew for Highland Express for all of five months. Photo: Rob Hodgkins via Flickr

Having applied to a funny sounding startup airline, Mike was offered a permanent job in 1989. Almost simultaneously, the long-established and reputable carrier Air Europe also offered him work. After some debate, Mike plumped for the startup airline, and that airline was Virgin Atlantic. Air Europe went bust in 1991.

By 1990, Mike had been promoted to Captain, the youngest on the Virgin fleet at just 34 years of age. A few years later, he converted to the 747-400, the first aircraft without a flight engineer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Virgin relief flight
Mike flew the Virgin Atlantic relief flight after the Gulf War. Photo: Virgin

One of Mike’s highlights was noted to be his involvement in delivering much-needed aid to Iraq after the Gulf war. The relief flight took place on the 2nd May, 2003, and delivered 60 tons of much needed medical aid to his home nation. This was the first time he’d set foot in Iraq since his daring escape all those years ago.

The final flight

Mike took his very last flight for Virgin on the 16th of January. He departed Gatwick for Orlando, Florida, perfectly on time and with a couple of other senior pilots for good company on the trip. On arrival in Orlando, Virgin Atlantic had laid on a reception for him at the crew hotel.

Virgin reception
Virgin hosted a reception for Mike at the crew hotel. Photo: Virgin

After a good night’s sleep, it was finally time to take the captain’s chair for the very last time. As he touched down in London, he made his last announcement:

“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.”

Virgin says you could hear the huge round of applause through the closed cockpit door.

Over his career, Mike has flown more than 24,500 hours on the Boeing 747. Could he be the most experienced 747 pilot in the world? We’ll leave that to your comments.