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world THE POPE AND PLANES

Meeting the papal pilot: the man who flies Francis around the world

A papal flight is a highlight for every pilot lucky enough to fly one at Italian carrier Alitalia, the pope's standard airline. Alberto Colautti is the pilot who has been granted the privilege of flying the pontiff more often than any other pilot.

Friday 8 December, 2017
Alberto Colautti (centre) talks with Pope Francis during a recent flight.
Alberto Colautti (centre) talks with Pope Francis during a recent flight. Foto:Osservatore Romano-dpa

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Alberto Colautti often comes a bit closer to heaven than other people.

True, he's chief pilot of the Italian carrier Alitalia, so you'd expect that anyways. But he gets closer to heaven on a metaphysical level as well: He regularly flies popes on their visits to the far corners of the globe.

The 56-year-old pilot was in command again this month, when Pope Francis paid a visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh.

"This is a very special flight. Naturally it is a great privilege," he told the German Press Agency dpa in an interview.

So far, Colautti has handled 10 "volo papale," or papal flights. "My first trip was with Pope Benedict XVI to Benin in Africa. The evening beforehand I guess I was just a bit excited," he deadpans.

In the meantime, the native of the northern Italian city Gorizia no longer gets nervous about upcoming flights. Everything runs according to strict protocol. As a rule, the organisation of a papal flight takes three to four months.

The Holy Father does receive a bit of special treatment on board, but otherwise, Colautti says, there is not much difference with normal flights. "We guarantee maximum security and maximum comfort, whether it is a normal passenger, a head of state, or a pope," says the pilot, himself a Catholic.

Of course, the pope must not go through the usual security checks that passengers are subject to. He is often the last one to board the plane, sometimes at a point when it has already been cleared for take-off. In contrast to most heads of state and government, the pontiff does not have his own plane. No Air Force One for the Argentine pontiff.

On the flight to a foreign destination, the pope traditionally flies Alitalia, in a normal plane without any extra features. The return flight is usually managed by a carrier of the country he has just visited. In the case of the recent visit, Francis flew back on the Bangladeshi airline Bimam.

A different crew is always chosen for the each new papal flight. Being Catholic is not a  prerequisite, says Colautti, a former Navy helicopter pilot who by now has logged 14,000 hours' flying time with Alitalia. He does not like the title given him, "pilot of the popes," he says, since, at Alitalia, every pilot is capable of flying a pope as passenger.

Even with their heavenly connections, popes are not spared air turbulence. Nonetheless, every one of them has been safely flown to his destination so far.

Colautti says that the 80-year-old Francis has no fear of flying, but that, among the Vatican entourage, there are a few of those who admit to feeling queasy. Colautti offers courses to counter the fear of flying. He says keeping a cool head is what counts.

"I am considerably calmer in an aeroplane than when I have to give an interview," he admits.

Absolute discretion being the measure of all things, Colautti will not divulge what Francis eats while on board, or which films he watches. The pope sits towards the front of the cabin, with his entourage, including his "foreign minister" Cardinal Pietro Parolin, or his press spokesman.

Further back in the cabin sit the journalists, whom Francis always greets individually with a handshake and a few words. For the press, the flight is not cheap. To Myanmar and Bangladesh and back the journey cost around 4,700 euros (US$5,500). German journalists will point out that it is cheaper flying with Chancellor Angela Merkel than with the pope.

For Alitalia, flying the pope is a huge publicity boon. But, despite everything, the airline has been struggling for years and earlier this year it even had to declare insolvency. At the moment, it is flying thanks to a bridge loan from the Italian government.

- DPA


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