Marko Bubalo (32), the Serbian pilot who was honoured to fly the whole Serbian Olympic team back home, says he will never forget that day. Although there was a delay due to technical issues, that didn’t affect the great atmosphere in both the flight deck and the airplane. The mood was cheerful and loud, and the passengers were singing most of the time. A pilot’s job, however, can be far away from milk and honey. Still, apart from huge responsibilities and frequent stressful moments, Marko would never change what he does, and he says: "While you are probably tucked in your bed, I might just happen to be passing above you, and that is a feeling no other job can replace."
Marko, although you are only 32, you were recently privileged to be in the cockpit flying almost the whole Serbian Olympic team back home, more than 100 people. How did that come about?
The company I fly for had preassigned the flight to an all-Serbian crew to show respect for Serbia’s Olympic teams. It came as a total surprise even to me when I saw my schedule, but due to my seniority with the airline, and the fact that I am from Serbia, I was given the honor of serving as the pilot on that particular flight.
Did you have a chance to meet some of the athletes before the flight? What was the atmosphere like in the airplane?
During boarding, I could see them entering the aircraft, and in order to pay my respects to all of them, once we finished all the procedures in the flight deck, I came out and personally greeted them while they were still boarding. Once boarding was completed we were ready for our flight, but unfortunatelly we experienced a small technical issue with the aircraft that had to be fixed prior to taking off. We returned to the gate and had to stay there for some time. That was the time when I actually got the chance to meet most of them and to talk to them about Rio and their experiences at the Olympic games. The atmosphere in the aircraft was very positive. Despite the heat and the delay, they managed to enjoy it and took that time to start celebrating.
Are there any special procedures when there are so many VIPs in the airplane?
In my flying career I have had just a few flights where we had VVIP and VIP passengers on board the aircraft, but never have I had that many on board a single flight. Considering we are inside the flight deck, our main task and priority is to bring the passangers from origin to destination safely and on time. The fact that we had the chance and the privilege to meet those people is the only difference from regular flights. The same goes for the cabin crew, they will always be there for the safety and comfort of each and every passenger on a flight.
Serbia is a small country, but it has so many successful people in different fields, especially sport. A lot of them, just like you, choose to further their careers abroad. What brought you to the Middle East?
Well that’s quite a story to tell . . . I come from a family that is in aviation, both my mother and my father worked in the airline industry, and having travelled a lot with them, I dreamed of studying and living abroad. During the NATO bombing in 1999, I left the country when my parents sent me to the American high school in Malta. Upon finishing high school, I got offers from many Universities in the USA including partial and full scholarships, but all I ever wanted to become was a pilot. I decided to return to Serbia, where I finished pilot academy and at the same time graduated from a University that specialises in marketing. At the time, the aviation industry did not need many pilots, and considering I was young and inexperienced it was very difficult to start somewhere. But I never gave up! I started flying for the Serbian National Airline and remained there for a short while, until I got an offer to move to Afganistan and work for the national airline there.
Straight after signing up I was sent via Istanbul to Kabul. Was I crazy or just brave? That is a question I have asked myself. When we landed I saw a billboard that said Welcome to the land of the brave.We started flying to many different destinations, but on my schedule I noted that the following week I would have a layover in Dubai. I was quite excited and was looking forward to that flight as I had heard a lot of interesting things about Dubai.
I remember it like yesterday, approaching at 10000 feet along the coast and a hazy city full of lights. My heart started pumping faster, and I couldn’t wait for the doors to open to take a fresh breath of that amazing city. Well, little did I know it would feel like an oven, and with all that humidity I felt like someone had poured a bucket of water over my head. Hmm, now I was completely confused. Once we reached the hotel different sorts of exotic smells overwhelmed my senses, and everything was just as I imagined it would be. I went out with my colleagues and discovered the true beauty of Dubai, Dubai as I wanted it to be. You could feel the wealth of the city, the happiness of people who were driving around, and the rush to get to their destinations. That was the moment I felt I wanted to be part of it.
When I got back to Kabul, all I was thinking about was Dubai and how I could get there. I applied to one of the airlines there, and thanks to the great support of my parents and family, as well as my drive and my dedication to get the position, I was accepted. Today, looking back at it at a distance of three years, it is still as amazing as it was, in my eyes, the first time I landed here.
What has your biggest challenge been during a three year period working in the Middle East?
It would be quite difficult to pick one thing, but when moving to a new country one definitely faces a lot of challenges. Starting with new surroundings, a new company, and most definitely cultural and religious differences. The Middle East is primarily Muslim, which is different from the Orthodox religion. But as with any other religion, we must pay respect to the locals living here and practicing their beliefs . . . Also I work for an airline that employees people from many different countries, and I must deal with them on a daily basis. Again I can say that if people are open minded enough , they will embrace all the differences and show respect to each and every individual no matter where they come from. Personally, I can say that I am more than happy to learn about my colleagues and their backgrounds, and also quite excited to share things about mine, especially coming from a small country like Serbia.
When you move to another part of the world for a job, although you are surrounded with colleagues, you leave your childhood friends and family at home. Do you feel lonely sometimes, or have you simply gotten used to this kind of life?
Many times I have asked myself the same things, but over time I have learned something: We go abroad in order to find a better way of life, or to achieve our life goals if we believe we cannot find them back home. And that is exactly what I have done. I left my country to prosper in the field I wanted to pursue in life. It might not be home, but surely over time it can become one. Without a doubt I miss my family and friends every day, and I am sure they feel the same, but true friends are always going to be there for me. No matter the distance, or the amount of time we spend together, we think of each other and will never be apart in our thoughts. I feel lonely at times, and that is exactly the time when we dedicate ourselves to communicating through social media networks to make each other feel better about not being close to each other. Thousands of kilometers away we can still talk on skype, while having coffee in each of our houses, and converse as if we were next to each other. Maybe it sounds silly, but trust me, it works!
A lot of young people in Europe are chasing cabin crew jobs abroad, especially where you are now, and that is Dubai. What they don’t know is that it is often not the life they imagine – having fun, traveling, and hanging around with colleagues. Tell us your opinion from the perspective of a pilot.
Well, let’s see. There is the ‘lifestyle’ you see on Facebook, and there is reality. Humans have a tendency to present themselves in the best possible light or how they want to be perceived, and that is exactly what social media such as Facebook does. They hide small details of their ‘lifestyles’ deep inside them. Working in the airline industry is a very responsible job whether you are a cabin crew member or a pilot. Both pilots and cabin crew are there for the safety of each and every passenger they have on board the aircraft. When you have a layover it can be fun and enjoyable, but layovers are used primarily for the crew to rest due to long working hours. That is something people fail to present as that’s not the thing they want others to see. It might sound harsh, but it is an honest response. Young individual crew members want to have fun and enjoy new the destinations they go to, but they are easily forgetting that fatigue is cumulative, and it adds up. Not getting proper rest prior to a flight might affect performance and can jeopardize the safety of all the passengers. I can say to each person who wants to work in the airline industry, that even though it seems fun and interesting it is a VERY responsible job, and the lives of others are in our hands.
Unfortunately, lately we have been witnesses to several plane crashes all around the globe with devastating outcomes. Many suspect that one of the main reasons this happens is pilot fatigue and exhausting schedules that lead to lack of sleep and loss of concentration. Is there any truth to these assumptions?
I am definitely not the expert who can give a proper answer to that question, but as with everything in life, bad things don’t happen on their own. It is a whole chain reaction that leads to a disaster. You mentioned fatigue in your question, I can say that fatigue is not the main reason for most disasters, there are a lot of contributing factors that lead to such sad events. Pilot errors, technical issues with the aircraft, stress, weather, and many more pile up and can lead to devastating outcomes. People who work for airlines prior to showing up for a flight have to make sure that they are fit to do the flight, and by that I mean that they feel ready to perform their duties in a responsible manner. It is on all individuals to report when they are unfit to do the flight in cases of feeling tired, stressed, or emotionally unstable, and no airline will question it as they know the importance of crew being absolutely fit prior to taking off.
Most of us can list the positive aspects of being a pilot. Are there any negative ones?
As I am a very positive person and always look at the glass half full, I find great difficulty in finding any negatives to being a pilot. Yes there are responsibilities, and yes I work day and night, and yes I don’t always have weekends off, but the view from my office is high in the clouds. While you are probably sleeping in your bed, I might just be passing above you, and that is a feeling no other job can replace.
Can you share with us an unusual situation you have faced during a flight?
In the five years I have worked for airlines, I haven’t experienced any unusual situations in flight. Most my flights have gone smoothly, and I hope that they will continue going that way for all time to come.
What would be your message to young people who aim to get a job in aviation one day?
My message for young people is to follow their dreams. If you feel and see yourself working in aviation either as a pilot or cabin crew, you should go for it. Chase your dreams, because you never know what might come out of them. No matter the hard work and responsibility, you will end up enjoying it as much as I do today. As with any other job, it’s a long process, but once you get there you will experience success. Once aviation gets under your skin you will never look for anything different.
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