Day in the life: Pilot project takes flight

Andrew Masterson, 50, is flight operations manager for helidubai, a premier helicopter service specialising in aerial filming and photography. As one of only two approved filming pilots with Universal and Hollywood studios in the UAE, he has worked on films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Furious 7. The Irishman has been flying since he was 15, when he saved up his pocket money to pay for flying lessons. His first job in the UAE back in 1996 was flying helicopters to offshore oil rigs. Mr Masterson helped to set up helidubai 10 years ago, primarily to provide the Burj Al Arab with helicopter services.

5am

I wake up with the sunrise, because my youngest likes to get up early to chat. My wife and I have three boys aged 17, 10 and eight, so I drop them at their school bus stops and drop my wife at work before going on to our offices at Dubai International Airport. I don’t tend to eat breakfast. If anything, it’s a coffee and sandwich on the way.


8am

My secretary and I go over emails and operation details that have to be signed off. I work on the roster and discuss with the other guys what we have on that day. Today I’m getting ready for a flight at the Burj Al Arab – checking who the passengers are, and their weights. The Burj Al Arab clients are quite mixed. It’s popular because it’s on someone’s once in a lifetime list or there are film stars and VIPs being sponsored for a photography shoot.

10.45am

I land at the Burj 15 minutes before the flight is due, have a chat with security and the clients come up to the helipad. I’ve flown people such as Roger Federer, Bill Clinton, Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise – he was very popular during his stay while filming Mission Impossible 4. Other well-known people includes Bill Gates, Morgan Freeman and Jamie Oliver, who was a lot of fun, as well as Colin Farrell – a fellow Dubliner. Pick a name, I’ve seen so many over the years. To be honest, they all blend into one. Our company policy is that everybody gets treated the same. Inevitably clients have photographs taken on the helideck, then I explain where we’re going.

11am

We fly around the Marina area then towards Jebel Ali. The port there is the largest man-made port in the world. Unless you see it from the air, you can’t really visualise how big it is. The part of Dubai I love flying over most is the Creek. Nineteen years ago I was on my way to start a new job in China when I met my wife for the first time in Dubai, and I’ve lived here ever since. When I arrived, Dubai was still a small town. Now it’s a city within a city, whereas the Creek retains its character. We take our boys down there a lot, they love looking at the dhows. And from the air you get a different perspective.

12.30

It takes 10 minutes to fly back to the airport. My wife makes my lunch, which is normally fresh wraps with salad or similar. It’s an open-plan office so we all sit facing each other. The senior pilots are all the managers, including myself, then we have the junior pilots working their way up through the system. I’m also a trainer and examiner, so after lunch I discuss training requirements for the next month with our training captain.

3pm

We do aerial filming in the morning or afternoon when the sun’s not too high. The new Dubai opera house is being built next to the Burj Khalifa and every three weeks we shoot that whole area – a combination of video and stills from different angles and heights. The photographers are providing the owner and the client at Emaar a timeline of changes to the building’s development, to document its progression. I might also be doing aerial filming for documentaries for the BBC, National Geographic or CNN. We tend to sit with the people we work with. I have a good relationship with Emmy- award winning cameramen who’ve done everything from Mission: Impossible to Harry Potter. You never know what each day will bring.

4.30pm

I’m wrapping up for the day. We do night flying, but it’s very much on-demand. If I hadn’t already been out in the helicopter for most of the day (I can only legally fly a maximum of seven hours a day), then I might pick somebody up at the Burj Al Arab and take them to Emirates Palace. I wait for a couple of hours while they have their meeting or dinner and bring them back.

5pm

It’s a five-minute drive from the office to my home in Rashidiya. My wife and I split [duties] up to do homework with the boys. If the weather’s warm I’ll take the boys for a swim on our compound and get them to bed by 7pm. My wife and I eat after that, usually something Asian or we might have a BBQ. Then we relax in front of the TV. I’ll read for half an hour and be in bed by 9.30pm.

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