When it comes to his pilots, Egyptian telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris prefers maple flavour.
Sawiris—the oldest son of construction mogul Onsi Sawiris—built his fortunes as the chairman and CEO of Orascom Telecom. His mobile empire included the Italian firm Wind Telecomunicazioni S.p.A. (known in Canada as Wind Mobile), as well as the Egyptian mobile phone company, Mobinil.
As a member of one of Egypt’s wealthiest and most prominent families, it goes without saying that Sawiris and his family travel in style. His Cairo-based aviation assets (a Bombardier Challenger 300, a Bombardier Global Express XRS and a brand new Gulfstream G650) are registered in the Isle of Man and self-managed under the name YYA Management Ltd. Jet Aviation Business Jets AG, a Swiss-based subsidiary of General Dynamics, supplies flight sup¬port, bulk fuel, maintenance and insurance. Crewmembers, however, are hired and retained by the owner directly.
Sawiris’ three jets are flown by an all-Canadian roster of pilots, most of whom are former members of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
His chief pilot and director of aviation, David Seneshen, said that’s because Sawiris has always been happy with Canadian pilots, and they are a “known commodity.”
A graduate of the aviation program at Trinity Western University in B.C., Seneshen is also ex-Air Force. He served a total of nine years, retiring from 434 Squadron in Greenwood, N.S., flying the CE/CC-144 Challenger under Fighter Group. After that, he spent two years with Bombardier Aerospace in Montreal as a Challenger instructor, FAA examiner and contract pilot. It was the latter position that first took him to Egypt.
“In the late 90s, the (Challenger) 604 was being produced faster than pilots were being trained, so instructors were being contracted out to operators, to assist with basic crewing demands as well as entry into service,” Seneshen told Skies. “Rod Ermen (a fellow pilot who also works for Sawiris) and I left Bombardier and went off to Egypt, to help crew several aircraft managed by Jet Aviation in Zurich. It was a great experience that opened our eyes to the world of VIP aviation. When that particular owner sold his plane to one of his friends in April 1999, we went along with it. The new owner, Naguib Sawiris, asked me to stay on and hire his pilots.”
Fifteen years later, he’s still there. “Initially, I had been living in Montreal with my wife, Jacqueline, and two toddlers, but we immediately moved to Kelowna, B.C., after I took the position. I commuted from Kelowna to Cairo on a month on/month off schedule for two years—the world’s longest com¬mute! The family separation became very difficult, so I accepted the owner’s offer to ‘try’ living in Egypt for one year. The rest is history. My wife’s standing joke is that we’re in the 13th year of a one-year trial,” laughed Seneshen.
When Seneshen set about staffing YYA’s flight department, he looked no further than Canada. “My marching orders from the owner were simple: ‘Take care of it … and preferably nobody older than you.’ It seems funny, but it’s true. Naguib loves youth and energy. I was 32 and looking for pilots of my vintage or younger and who could work well together. When you are on the road for a month, it can become stressful,” he explained. “We wanted great pilots with a strong work ethic who were easy going and team players. With my own personal history at both a flight college and with air force training, it was a must that pilot prospects came from either of those training streams. You go with what you know—we’re Canadian, we are all maple flavour,” he joked.
When Sawiris bought his first Challenger jet in 1999, he was an up-and-coming telecom magnate. “The businesses covered all of northern Africa, across into Jordan, Pakistan, North Korea, as well as Iraq,” explained Seneshen. “Even during the Second Gulf War, we were doing a lot of business flying under the military corridors in and out of the region.”
YYA’s aviation department grew along with the businesses. Originally, Seneshen was employed to fly one Challenger 604. “There were four branches of the Sawiris family all sharing the same jet on a vigorous schedule. That led to a second 604, and then a third, rotating new for old. Over the years, they’ve operated several 604s, a Dassault Falcon 900, a Falcon 7X, a Challenger 605, a Cessna Citation CJ3, a Challenger 300 and a Bombardier Global Express XRS.
There are now eight pilots on the roster, including Seneshen, working a one month on, one month off duty rotation. All of them are captains and all of the pilots are Canadian; seven are ex-RCAF, including four former Snowbirds. Age-wise, most of them are in their mid-40s, with the youngest being 31-year-old Jeff Dittmer, an aviation graduate from the University of Fraser Valley who gained his prior flying experience in Whitehorse, Yukon.
Seneshen said the crew was handpicked based on capability, but more importantly on character. “Capability was easy to assess. Would I let my wife and kids fly with this guy? I mean, if the chips were down in an emergency and this pilot was alone at the controls, could he calmly and professionally do the job? I can honestly say yes, all of these guys are truly professional and have a great calm grip on the plane and overall safety. As far as character…you can teach almost anyone to fly, but really we hire for character.”
Reminiscent of the military, the YYA flight department is structured like a squadron. Dittmer is the crew scheduler and lead pilot on the Challenger 300 aircraft. Rodney Ermen takes the lead role for the Global, and Seneshen himself fills those shoes for the G650. He said the system is empowering: “There’s somebody who can take the lead and ownership of each aircraft with the crews on that machine. Everyone reports to him (snags, galley breakage, stains, etc.) and all the little things get taken care of, rather than everything coming to me,” he explained.
Collectively, pilots fly anywhere from 30 to 60 hours per month, depending upon the season. In summer, the jets fly the owners and their friends between international business and vacation hot spots, and to various family members in London, Paris, Miami, New York and Cairo. September is always busy, filled with long haul international flying that was held off all summer.
Recently, Sawiris sold much of his original empire, retain¬ing several companies that were dear to him, and starting new divisions under OTMT (Orascom Telecom Media and Technology). His portfolio is also diversified with mining, hotel and tourism holdings.
“It’s a private operation; we’re not commercial in any way,” said Seneshen. “These are private non-revenue flights, so it is easy to get to know the family and their friends and cater travel details to each passenger.”
When it comes to flying into multiple destinations around the world, Seneshen noted another benefit of hiring an all- Canadian pilot team: “The Canadian passport is definitely one of the easiest ones to travel on. It is pretty friendly and opens many doors.”
The brand new Gulfstream G650, registration M-USIK, is the newest addition to the YYA fleet, coming online in November 2013. Seneshen said the luxurious new jet will eventually replace the Challenger 300, so for the time being the flight department is stretched a bit thin in terms of staffing with only eight pilots.
“When the 650 came on, Naguib asked me if I could manage three planes with two sets of crews. That way, if he did decide to sell one of the planes later, he wouldn’t have to let anyone go,” explained Seneshen.
The G650—built by Gulfstream in Savannah, Ga., and com¬pleted in Long Beach, Calif.—is capable of flying non-stop from Cairo to Los Angeles. “I flew the green delivery coast to coast at Mach 0.92, from Savannah to Long Beach against a headwind, in four hours flat. It’s almost delta-winged compared to my past aircraft; the wing surface is huge and smooth as glass. It’s so fast!”
Gulfstream bills the G650 as being the “gold stan¬dard in business aviation.” According to the OEM, the ultra-long-range jet carries eight passengers and four crewmembers on legs of up to 7,000 nautical miles, reaching speeds of up to Mach 0.925.
Standard equipment on the G650 includes an enhanced vision system (EVS), heads-up display (HUD), and a synthetic vision primary flight display. Sawiris’ jet also boasts a number of other advanced technology features that were personalized for him during the completion process, including a full digital entertainment suite—multiple HDMI inputs, multiple Apple TVs, a 4TB Apple server, dual full spectrum RGBa LED lighting systems, three large HD bulkhead monitors with eight HD in-seat monitors, and—as the registration M-USIK implies—an incredible sound system that includes eight sub-woofers, six of which are housed in seat pedestals.
But, despite this impressive equipment list, Seneshen said the G650’s cockpit design leaves much to be desired. “The screens are beautiful and the synthetic vision and HUD are great, but the noise, ergonomics, and lack of storage is frustrating,” he said. “Those coming onto the G650 from competitor types expected better in all these areas. This is one of the loudest cockpits I have ever flown. It is mainly air noise, and it has been added to the queue by Gulfstream to be fixed. The G650 is unfortunately also not a true ‘black cockpit’ concept, and the checklist still has a ‘test it until it breaks’ style. It’s reminiscent of when engineers made checklists, rather than having pilot input toward efficiently creating a flow, deleting unnecessary repeated testing, and relying on the airplane tell you when there is a malfunction. This could also be easily cleaned up.”
He added that Gulfstream’s defence against these criticisms (which he said are universal by non- Gulfstream pilots) is that the OEM wanted a common type rating between the G550s and G650s, so they left the G550 cockpit controls and indications mainly the same. “That may be true, but it gives no relief during day-to-day ops or 14-hour legs.”
The common type rating was never granted, “and quite rightly so,” according to Seneshen. “It is a completely different fly-by-wire aircraft than the G550.”
Despite these small points, the overall “wow factor” is still there on every flight.
“The nuisances we get in the cockpit never make it to the owner,” said Seneshen. “He received everything he bought the G650 for—ultimate speed for maximum distance in secure luxury. It has truly exceeded our expectations.” The G650 is 20 per cent faster in almost every instance, saving one hour of airtime out of every five hours flown in Sawiris’ other aircraft. “Climbing at .90 or .91 maintaining 1,000 feet per minute in the FL300-400 range, to cruise at .92, is eye-watering,” laughed Seneshen. “We are routinely questioned by ATC to confirm our Mach number. We are more than happy to!”
Flying for Naguib Sawiris is a job that never gets boring.
“We all like the variety of flying in corporate aviation—the type of flying, and the locations we go to,” said Seneshen. “Whether short European hops or deep into Africa, the Caribbean, Europe or long haul to Brazil, we’re flying new equipment, for an opera¬tion with deep enough pockets to do what needs to be done properly, in training, planning and maintenance. If the OEM rec¬ommends a procedure or we get snagged, we make best efforts to it get it done right away. It helps having multiple aircraft, of course, and all pilots are dual-trained and current.”
He added that the variety of the job keeps the crewmembers interested and engaged. “Some of my pilot friends (at home in Canada) seem bored,” said Seneshen. “Many have second jobs on the side for variety and enjoyment. That’s what keeps us young, I think. We have so much fun on the road—it’s tough to call it work sometimes. I’m flying with my friends. I may be their boss on paper, but there’s no authoritarian standard. It’s a team effort, and everyone pulls their weight. We all scrub the toilets, vacuum, clean, oil engines and fuel the jets.”
He admitted that Canadian pilots who come to fly in Egypt do go through a period of culture shock. “It really takes a lot of patience and concentration to fly over here. When Arab control¬lers get stressed or flustered, they start shouting on the radio, with already poor radio quality and thick accents. It takes time to develop an ear for it, and patience. I’d have to say that com¬munication is the most prevalent workplace difference.”
So, what’s it like flying for a high-profile business tycoon? Seneshen said Sawiris is more of a minimalist and a man of few words—but what he does say makes an impact. “I learned early that when taking him a problem, I should always offer several solutions as well, and he’ll make a decision on the spot every time. That’s how he gets things done. He’s a gracious guy, and he gives credit and praise when it is due.”
These days, Seneshen and his family are in Cairo, although his son attends high school in the U.K. The rest of the company’s pilots still commute between Canada and their respective aircraft’s location, rotating on a monthly schedule. YYA also employs four VVIP-experienced flight attendants who hail from around the world, led by Alyson Griffiths.
“We’re all blessed. We see the world,” concluded Seneshen. Reflecting on his career path, he said he never imagined living outside Canada. “In life, you take an open door, and if it works out that’s wonderful. But if you never take that step, you don’t know what’s on the other side.”