It was nearly midnight when Diego Benedetto, an Italian pilot working with China Eastern, flew back to Wuhan from Beijing at the end of a busy week.
After all the passengers exited the Boeing 737, Benedetto powered off the control panel and walked out of the cockpit, which he considers the best office in the world.
Having been a pilot for more than 40 years, Benedetto settled in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei Province in 2018. He flies four to five days a week, with his flight schedule changing each week. Benedetto embraces the erratic schedule.
"The only constant thing in my life is change. But I think that the more we embrace change, the more comfortable we are in life," said the 59-year-old Italian. "And, please don't tell my company, but I would fly for free because I love it!"
As China's airline sector took off over the past decade, flying schools in the country were unable to recruit and train enough pilots. According to the Civil Aviation Administration of China, between 2010 and 2019, the number of foreign captains flying with Chinese airlines more than doubled to over 1,500. And Benedetto is one of the many who grabbed a new career opportunity here.
When Benedetto, who had been an air force pilot and then worked for commercial airlines in Europe and the Middle East, thought about his next job in his 50s, the country over 8,000 km away from his hometown came to his mind.
"I wanted to work in a place where the economy is good and where there would be no crisis. China seemed to be the best place for me," said Benedetto. After a long hiring procedure and a thorough inspection in Wuhan in 2017, he moved to the city with his family the next year.
"The salary here in China is higher than other places, but they really expect top performance, always top level. And it is matching my way of thinking and doing. So I accepted the challenge," Benedetto said.
Before every flight, Benedetto and his colleagues have to do an alcohol test and get their blood pressure checked. And every six months, they have to take a series of examinations in a simulator that lasts for four hours each time.
"We have to handle all kinds of emergencies in the tests such as engine fires, electrical failures, rapid depressurization and bad weather. We have to show we are good at everything. If we make a mistake or fail the exam, we can't fly," Benedetto said.
"Here in China, everybody puts a lot of energy into their work and life, so I want to do my best. I really like it here," he added.
In 1983, when Benedetto visited China for the first time as part of an official delegation of the air force, he never imagined that one day he would embrace a new life in the country.
"I hope to stay here as long as possible," he said, adding that he has discovered a wonderful world here in China.
The web-like network of subways and shared bikes make it more convenient for him to move around the city of Wuhan. In his spare time, Benedetto accompanies Markus, his six-year-old son, to go jogging and cycling in the park nearby, and sometimes to go shopping in Hanjie, a local pedestrian shopping street.
To Benedetto, mobile phones seem more versatile here. With several quick clicks, deliverymen will knock on his door in 20 minutes with the bread and milk he ordered online. And it takes seconds for him to book a taxi to take Markus to the primary school over 10 km away from home the next day. Though he speaks little Chinese, translation applications can help him understand and chat with others.
At the beginning of 2020 when Wuhan was reeling from COVID-19 with outbound flights and trains suspended, Benedetto was transferred to Shanghai, where he could carry on flying. Then he had to go to Europe to renew his flying license. But because of the pandemic there, the family of three was unable to come back to China until September last year.
"When I took off from Wuhan airports again, I was so happy and proud. And walking onto the streets, I saw something different in the eyes of the people around me. They seemed to me to be stronger than before," said Benedetto.
NEW PHASE OF LIFE
Everything seemed perfect, but then came a bolt from the blue. In October 2020, his wife suddenly passed away due to a pulmonary embolism.
"My son and I have entered a different phase of life. I've been studying how to be a good parent and what is important for my son," he added.
As a captain, Benedetto is usually away for days on end and does not get to see his son. However hard it is, he managed to find a balance between work and family with his "box theory," or "compartmentalization."
"When I set out for work, I close the box of my son and open the box of the aircraft. And inside the box of the aircraft, I don't think about anything else. Then, I close the box of the aircraft and open the box of my son again," said Benedetto, who hires nannies to take care of his son when he flies. "I want to be professional, and I have to keep working to provide him with a better future."
"Diego is a hard worker. After his wife's death, he needs to take care of his son alone, but his work was not affected at all. Though the work hours of captains are irregular, he never asks for leave," said Xu Xiaolin, director of foreign pilots office in China Eastern's Wuhan company.
At major Chinese airports, the numbers of flights are back to pre-pandemic levels. Though there are currently fewer passengers per flight and limited international flights, Benedetto is optimistic about the future.
"We have vaccines and the economy is doing better, so I think the industry will bounce back quite soon, maybe in less than a year. New airplanes are being delivered to China Eastern, so I hope I will still be needed," he said.
He will turn 60 in November, and his contract with China Eastern has been extended until May 2022.
Even though he is close to the age limit for a passenger plane pilot, he wants to stay in top shape, both physically and technically, so that his flying career can last as long as possible.
Meanwhile, Benedetto has also started checking out other job opportunities. He said the seed of who he is today can be traced back to his military service in Italy, where he learned the value of pushing himself beyond his comfort zone.
"When the end comes for me, I want to know that I have used every single drop of my life. No laziness, no shortcuts, no escaping from my responsibilities or from difficult challenges. I want to feel that I have faced everything with maximum energy," said the captain.