Published on September 17th, 2018 | by FII Reader


Flight Of The Pontiff

It had been a long time coming, almost four decades since Ireland received a visiting Pope and whether you’re an admirer or not there was simply no getting away from Pope Francis visit on 25th & 26th of August 2018. We’ve all heard how the country has changed since Pope John Paul arrived here in 1979, the result of an evolving population or other circumstances, nevertheless the Pontiff generally received a warm Irish welcome during his latest two day engagement, the logistics of which must be overwhelming.

Unlike the previous Papal visit to Ireland 39 years ago, this visit was not a State Visit but was treated in every respect as if it was. Every three years an event called the World Meeting of Families is held in a capital city around the globe. Dublin was chosen some time ago by Pope Francis himself, thirty years previous he spent three months in the city studying English and has fond memories of his time here. Another Irish connection never forgotten by the Argentinian born Jesuit is the love and care he and his siblings received as infants from Irish nursing staff.

Popes Flight A320 EI-DSY. Peter Beljaards.

Contrary to popular belief the Vatican does not have its own aircraft on standby for Papal visits but rather calls upon the services of Italian national airline, Alitalia. Protocol usually dictates that the Pope will travel to his destination on board an Alitalia aircraft and if air travel is required during his visit, the national airline of the host country will do the honours and also perform the return flight to Rome.

Popes Flight A320 EI-DSY by Aldo Bidini

And so on Saturday morning Pope Francis and his entourage boarded flight AZ4000, also known as ‘Shepherd One’, Alitalia Airbus A320-200 (EI-DSY) at Leonardo da Vinci – Fiumicino Airport Rome for the flight to Dublin. The year 2008 A320 named ‘Aldo Palazzeschi’ after the Italian writer and poet, is standard Alitalia configuration with 171 seats, not customised in any way. On board the flight, as is usual, Pope Francis mingled with the travelling group made up of thirty Vatican officials and up to seventy journalists from thirty countries.

How is the flight funded? The press corps actually helps subsidize the Pope’s travel. Each member of the squad of journalists who accompany the Pope is asked to pay a Business Class fare for the privilege of sitting in Economy. They are after all gaining exclusive access to the Holy Father throughout his visit. The thirty or so members of the Papal entourage seated ‘up front’ are not expected to put their hands in their own pocket – well maybe just a small donation.

After touchdown, Shepard One, flew the Irish and Vatican flags during taxi to stand. Gregorio Borgia.

A closer look reveals just some of those who make up this ‘flying flock’. Although Pope Francis is widely regarded as a back-to-basics man who has little time for exuberance, as Head of State and leader of a two billion member church, when traveling help is occasionally required. Since Francis became Pope in 2013 he has pared back the numbers who travel on Papal visits. Jettisoning any dead-weight, Francis has slimmed down the entire affair.

Sandro Mariotti, the Pope’s Assistant is a second pair of hands for Francis, like a coiled spring, constantly in a state of readiness. Any gifts the Pope receives, Mariotti bags n’ tags them. Other members of the Papal Household group include Vatican secretaries, the physician and Papal Prefect, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, a.k.a. “Gorgeous George” through good looks and charisma found himself on the cover of Italian Vanity Fair a couple of years back.

Master of ceremonies team is led by Monsignor Guido Marini who’s role is to coordinate the Pope’s liturgical events. John Paul II was fond of colourful celebrations whereas Francis prefers simple and straightforward. The Roman Curia as it’s called are heads of various Vatican administration departments who are on the list of travellers. Secretariat of State and administrators help navigate red-tape when abroad.

La Sala Stampa – the Holy See Press Office is led by Director of Communications, Greg Burke. A native of Missouri, in the US, he was formerly a Fox News correspondent and Time Magazine journalist. No blundering tweets on this man’s watch. And not forgetting the man wearing the purple sash and seemingly glued to the Pope’s hip throughout the weekend visit, Monsignor Mark Miles from Gibraltar, Francis’ Official Translator and ‘wingman’, privy to every whisper and murmur by world leaders and dignitaries.

Although it goes without saying the host country provides 99% of the security requirements for the Pope’s visit, it is not exclusive. For increased close protection the Vatican insists their Head of State is escorted at all times by a combination of Vatican City police and the Pontifical Swiss Guard which has defended the Pope since 1506. Francis enjoys mixing with the locals wherever he goes and this poses a security balancing act – closeness to the people v’s safety. Little it seems, holds him back.

Out of the relatively tiny Vatican City population of 1,000 souls, one lucky Vatican staffer is chosen each time by Francis to accompany him on his travels outside Italy. During the three hour flight to Dublin messages of good will were tweeted by the Pope’s Secretary to Head’s of State of each country the aircraft overflew, including Queen Elizabeth.

Having crossed the UK, ‘Shepherd One’ approached Dublin from the southeast and was placed in a hold off Greystones, Co. Wicklow by Air Traffic Control. At 10.27am the A320 touched down on RW28 and taxied to a remote stand. Senior members of the catholic church and Irish Government officials conducted a meet n’ greet with Pope Francis once he stepped off the aircraft.

To ferry the Pope between various venues during the two day visit, Skoda provided three blue Rapid’s for use. A car for the people just as Francis wished, the only modifications were lightly blue-tinted glass and a holder on the passenger front wing for the Papal flag. Each car was issued with a unique registration number to mark the occasion. 182-C-1979 commemorating Pope John Paul’s visit to Ireland, 182-C-2018 marking this year’s event and the primary vehicle, 182-D-9093 which when the digits are inverted, spells the word Pope – sort of. Following his departure, the three Skoda’s will be donated to charity nominated by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, in accordance with the Pope’s wishes.

Before Francis’ inauguration to Pope, his transport of choice was a rather weary looking Renault 4 in Papal white (yes the one with the gear lever sprouting from the dashboard), a gift he received from an old priest friend. Used for getting about Vatican City, Francis, once swore in, defied officials and insisted on continuing to steer his humble personal Popemobile around the city streets.

After an engagement with President Higgins and his wife, Pope Francis visited a number of locations around Dublin City including St. Mary’s Pro Cathedral and a Capuchin Day Centre for the homeless before attending a concert in Croke Park.

Accommodation for both nights was of course in hand. The Pope doesn’t stay in hotels but rather on church property, home-turf so to speak. As mentioned previously, transport for the weekend visit was taken care of by Skoda but that’s only half the story. The Rapid’s task was to shuttle his Holiness round the city but for a more visible approach a suitable Popemobile was required.

The Papal Skoda. Dylan Martinez.

At several public functions including the Phoenix Park gathering on Sunday, a white left-hand drive Dodge Ram complete with rear viewing platform and perspex overhead canopy was used. In keeping with Francis’ wishes the sides of the rear section were completely open, allowing a closeness to the people but a headache for security. For his brief visit to Knock a similar vehicle was used, in this case a modified Isuzu D-Max pick-up performed the task. The Dodge Ram could be seen wearing the registration ‘SCV 1” an acronym, the Latin for “Status Civitatis Vaticanae” meaning “Vatican City”. Road vehicles registered in Vatican City use the prefix SCV followed by a series of digits.

Aer Lingus A321 EI-CPG St. Aidan by Jurgen

As mentioned earlier the national airline of the country being visited by the Pope usually undertakes any internal air travel and the return flight to Rome. Aer Lingus was the airline of choice, although not sure how the airline received that honor, is Aer Lingus still the national airline? The company owner, International Airlines Group certainly isn’t an Irish entity, in fact it’s an Anglo-Spanish multinational holding-company registered in Madrid and headquartered in London. That leaves CityJet who have a lot on their plate at present, appearing to be in the midst of a transformation. Technically this leaves Ryanair as the rightful candidate, has Pope Francis ever flown Ryanair? We are told, he’s a no-frills fan after all.

Sunday morning saw Francis return to Dublin Airport to board a waiting Aer Lingus A321 (EI-CPG) St. Aidan, his chariot to Ireland West – Knock Airport. Departing Dublin at 8.58am the 1999 A321 completed the flight in 31 minutes and encountered inclement weather on approach to Knock. The special flight number EI-1979 was designated to this outbound flight in recognition of Pope John Paul II’s Irish visit. A second Aer Lingus A321 (EI-CPH) St. Dervilla, lifted off from Dublin at 9.10am and shadowed St. Aidan to Knock, acting as a back-up aircraft in the event of a technical issue. Two Aer Lingus A321’s on the ground at Knock Airport made for an interesting sight. Pilots for the ‘juant’ to the West were Capt. Conor O’Dwyer and Capt. Eamon Kearns.

Popes arrives had a rainy Ireland West Airport. By Yui Mok.

The briefest of visits to Knock soon came to an end, Pope Francis, having addressed up to 45,000 well-wishers, made the short journey back to Ireland West Airport where he climbed the steps of the A321 ready for his 11.29am return flight to Dublin. Before signing off from Knock ATC, the pilot concluded his transmission with the word’s “Slan, go raibh maith agat”. Flight EI-2018 made its way east towards the capital and approached north of the city, enabling Francis views of Howth before touching down at 12 noon. Trailing behind almost in its wake, EI-CPH the ‘back-up’ A321 landed at 12.32pm.

The Papal entourage was back on the road making its way to the main event of the weekend, the Pope’s mass at the Phoenix Park, Dublin. With security heightened, road closures and traffic diversions a ring was placed around the venue. The Dodge Ram Popemobile was in its element passing through the crowds gathered for the 3pm start. The alter design for this world televised ceremony was the work of former ‘Saw Doctor’ band member, Johnny Donnelly the form of which was based on the Claddagh Ring and was described as ‘an Almighty Creation’.

Unseasonal weather forced many to remain indoors, the reduced numbers did nothing to dampen the Pontiffs spirits. Where the man found the energy the whistle-stop weekend visit commanded was surely divine in nature.

As the afternoon became evening, once again Pope Francis found himself at Dublin Airport. Among the well-wishers to see him off, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin and Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin were but a few. Entering Aer Lingus A321, EI-CPG, Francis turned to the large contingent of Gardaí, airport security and dignitaries and gave them his blessing, final farewell completed. Removing his Papal cap, there was just time to meet pilots, Capt. Steve Kelly and Capt. Shane Kearney along with the cabin crew before assuming his position in row one.

Aer Lingus A321 EI-CPH St. Dervilla by Aldo Bidini

As Aer Lingus A321, St. Aidan was readied for departure, regular visitors to Dublin Airport were busy taxiing, with movements in keeping with a summer Sunday evening. Once the flight crew signalled their intentions to depart, Dublin Air Traffic Control paused all aircraft movements, allowing the Papal Plane to make its way to the threshold of Runway 28. Without delay EI-CPG accelerated down the runway to become airborne at 6.46pm. Flight EI-2408 passed over the mountains of Wicklow before making the Irish Sea off Brittas Bay. Flying in a south easterly direction across South Wales and England.

The Pope held a press conference on the flight back to Roma Ciampino Airport. Gregorio Borgia.

Travelling back to Rome’s Ciampino Airport with Pope Francis, 126 individuals, including Vatican officials, security staff and a large compliment of International journalists. As is normal practice for Pope Francis during return flights to Rome, a special press conference is held with the privileged on board. Accompanying journalists experience an exclusive interview with His Holiness.

But before the matter of business, the inflight service was sampled. On the menu, a traditional Irish meal, including Toons mozzarella with fresh leek salad and sun-dried tomato tartar with basil pesto as a starter. Mains consisted a choice of smoked salmon with cabbage or basil pesto risotto, followed by passion fruit mousse for desert.

After the meal, Aer Lingus Chief Strategy & Planning Officer Greg Kaldahl and Chief Technical Officer Fergus Wilson presented the Pontiff with several gifts on behalf of Aer Lingus. Included, a scale model of an Aer Lingus De Havilland DH84 Dragon (EI-ABI), the airline’s first aircraft. Pope Francis also received a replica of the Celtic Crucifix from 800AD which John Paul II received during his flight back to Rome in 1979 on board Aer Lingus B747-100, St. Patrick (EI-ASI).

Accustomed to receiving gifts, some more expensive than others, Pope Francis takes each feat of generosity in his stride. One high-profile exchange was a present of a Lamborghini Huracan from the Italian supercar manufacturer in 2017. Complete in cassock-matching white, the flamboyant sportscar was blessed by Francis after he added his signature to the bonnet. Retailing at approximately €180,000 the Pope had no intentions of roaring around the cobbled streets of Rome in the spectacular motor. Instead, straight to Sotheby’s to be auctioned off, (for significantly more than its base value) the proceeds going to three of the Pontiff’s favoured charities. A fund rebuilding homes and churches for Christians chased out of Iraq by Islamic State terrorists, an association helping victims of human trafficking in Italy and two organisations active in Africa aimed at supporting vulnerable women and children.

Once ‘Shepherd One’ was on the ground at Ciampino Airport, the second Aer Lingus A321 (EI-CPH) following behind ‘just in case’, broke off and performed a 180 degree turn and set course for Dublin.

A demanding schedule for the Pontiff completed. Another successful VIP visit to our shores and there have been several in recent years. Planning and logistics regarding his movements for the entire weekend, as one would expect, were performed with precision. A momentous occasion for the country and the man himself……….Another chapter in Irish history.

Words by Aidan Nolan – Airliner Experience

Photos by Aldo Bidini, Jurgen, Peter Beljaards, Autocar, Skoda Ireland, Dylan Martinez, Gonzalo Fuentes, Gregorio Borgia, Yui Mok & Stefano Rellandini.

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