The 36-year-old Mario Bakalov calls two countries home. Until he was 10, he lived in Sofia, Bulgaria. Then, he went on to Germany with his family. With a lot of ambition and endurance, he managed to fulfil himself a big dream, by becoming a Lufthansa pilot. From the Airbus A320, he got into the A330 and A340, before hitting the A380, the largest passenger plane on the face of the Earth, as a Senior First Officer.
When Mario Bakalov does not fly towards Hong Kong, San Francisco, or back to the Rhine Main Airport in Frankfurt, he likes coming to Sofia, his second home. Here, the only Bulgarian flight captain employed by Lufthansa is a celebrity, since he landed an A380 at Sofia Airport on October 16th, 2016. For Sofia, it was the first A380 landing ever, and possibly the last one too. That special flight was a PR stunt for Lufthansa’s A380 flights. Since that flight, Bakalov could hardly just enjoy a meal in a restaurant, since everyone would come up to him in order to shoot selfies with the star of the skies.
While in Sofia, he is also a motivational speaker. In front of employees of large companies, he would talk about about reaching goals with an iron will, which is exactly what he did. Companies like these events, since they inspire their staff.
Imanuel Marcus spoke to Mario Bakalov in Sofia.
The Sofia Globe (TSG): October 16th, 2016 was a historic day for you, but also for Sofia, because you, the only Bulgarian Lufthansa pilot, landed one of the airline’s A380s at Sofia Airport. What was that like? How did it feel?
Mario Bakalov: As a five-year-old, I started dreaming of aviation and of becoming a pilot. Now, some 30 years later, I have that profession, with one of the largest airlines, in the largest passenger plane, which I landed in my home city, I must say it felt unique. When I saw all those people at Sofia Airport, who had assembled there and who gave us a very warm welcome, it became a moment I will never forget.
TSG: What was the situation on that runway? Sofia Airport is not J.F.K..
Mario Bakalov: The runway is 3.6 kilometers long, which is enough. There was no problem at all. We often land on shorter runways. We need 2 to 2.5 kilometers. But we did check the taxiways beforehand, since Sofia Airport was not built for aircraft of that kind.
TSG: You initially flew A320s. Then you worked your way up to A330s and A340s, before you became part of the A380 team. How does that bird differ from the other equipment you flew before?
Mario Bakalov: Intriguingly, it operates and reacts like the A320. It is as versatile and agile as a smaller plane. So, you don’t really feel the size while piloting it. O.k., when we take off at the maximum takeoff weight, which is 560 tons, it does show. But the plane is agile indeed, it is equipped with the latest technology, and it is very quiet. While cruising, we can take off our headphones and talk normally, just like we are right now. At the same time you are aware of the responsibility, since you are transporting so many people on such an expensive plane.
TSG: You seem to be the best travelled Bulgarian of all time. How many kilometers have you covered?
Mario Bakalov: Well, let’s do the math. I am at approximately 9,000 flying hours, with a usual speed of around 900 kilometers per hour. This means I must have covered some 8 million kilometers, which is around 20 times the distance from Earth to Moon.
TSG: You have seen countless countries and a lot of beauty. Which of the countries you have seen has impressed you most?
Mario Bakalov: There are so many interesting and contrasty countries. India is one of them. But the country I have always liked most is South Africa. With the A380, I was in Johannesburg several times. But my favourite destination is Cape Town, where I have landed A340s quite often. The area around Cape Town is a fascinating combination, which consists of nice people, an impressive nature, excellent wines, as well as clear and clean air.
TSG: You are both Bulgarian and German. What are the mentality differences, in your opinion? Are there general statements in this regard, which would be valid?
Mario Bakalov: My friends in Germany tell me, I worked like a German, but enjoyed life like a Bulgarian. Sure, they say so to tease me, but there is some truth to that. I have the opportunity to see both worlds and I can praise them both or complain about them. Or I can just pick the positive aspects in both mentalities. I believe the cliché regarding the Germans is accurate. Things do work in Germany and work is being organised well. Also they obey rules, and there is a civil society in which people do something about the environment, or they fight for Human Rights. What I missed in Germany, during the first years, as a juvenile, was a certain kind of heartiness and warmth, which people have more down here, in Bulgaria. The Bulgarians are very hospitable and good at forging friendships.
TSG: Who complains more? The Germans or the Bulgarians?
Mario Bakalov: I believe both peoples complain. What is different, is the way they do it. Among Germans, complaining is like sports. You just do it, without thinking. On the other hand, the Bulgarians pick the issues they complain about.
TSG: There are more and more passengers, many of which suffer from fear of flying. But the overall impression is that flying has become safer. Is this the case?
Mario Bakalov: Yes, this is not just an impression, but it is verifiable statistically. Compared to the 1970s, we are 50 times safer today, which is pretty impressive. In 2016, a total of about 350 people died in aircraft accidents. That is a very small number. It was the safest year of all time. In the 1990s and around the millennium, 1,000 flight accident deaths per year were seen as normal. They said it would not improve, but it did anyway. There are less and less crashes. I did some math and came to the following conclusion: If anyone were to fly his entire life, without interruption, for 70 years, that person would approach the point at which he would be involved in an accident at the end of his life, statistically speaking.
TSG: There are crazy airports on this planet, such as St. Maarten, where you would fly some 20 meters over the heads of bathing tourists, during landing. What was the craziest airport you have landed at?
Mario Bakalov: I don’t land at crazy airports, but very beautiful ones instead. In Cape Town you would cross the Cape of Good Hope and have an awesome view, which the passengers will see as well. I will never forget the approaches I flew down there. Also, the approach towards San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge, Vancouver or Rio de Janeiro are just the right places for approaches.
TSG: Thank you so much.
Photo by Imanuel Marcus