Uli Nees

Dialogue with an Adventist Lufthansa pilot from Germany

Uli Nees is a Seventh-day Adventist with a career that is rather unique to Adventists: he is a commercial pilot for Lufthansa, flying Airbus 340s. Although he spends much of his work life up in the air, soaring over the clouds and looking down at the sea, mountain peaks, rivers, and large cities, he firmly has his grounding where it really matters: in the faith he chose to accept years ago and in the path he has consistently tried to follow, testifying to others about the joy of Adventism.

Uli was born in a non-Adventist family in Alzenau, Germany. His father, who loved to study God’s Word, heard the Lord’s call and joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church when Uli was three or four years old, and he was a consistent force in shaping young Uli’s early faith and life. His mother did not become an Adventist until much later, in her 50s. Going to school on Sabbath was mandatory, something Uli overcame by the strength of his faith and commitment to a prayer life. His father took him along to church in spite of the discouraging attitude of his mother, and Uli enjoyed the experience of church fellowship and Bible study. The friendly environment, worship, and fellowship there led him to the decision to surrender his life to Jesus.

Uli completed his baccalaureate (German Abitur) degree in his native town. Instead of choosing the army, he opted for 16 months of public service as a conscientious objector. After completing this alternative to military service, Uli set out to reach the dreams of his youth: he always wanted to fly. He enrolled in Lufthansa’s flight school, completing the theoretical part in Bremen, Germany, and the practical in Phoenix, Arizona. Returning to Germany, he finished his rating (an aircraft-specific training) and became a pilot for Boeing 727s. In 1990, he became a captain on the Airbus 320, flying that plane until 2000, when he moved to fly Airbus 340s and later also Airbus 330s. During this period, he also functioned as a training and check captain, assisting and testing pilots to become captains.

Uli Nees is married to Dagmar, and the couple have two daughters, Astrid and Anke.

Why did you choose to become an Adventist?

My father’s faith and life influenced me as a child. As I grew up, having studied the teachings of the Bible, I arrived at the conclusion that the Adventist way of living, believing, and articulating one’s faith is the closest expression of the teachings of God’s Word.

How did you become interested in the line of work you are doing — that of a pilot? We don’t have too many Adventist pilots.

I think I inherited the desire to fly from my father. He always wanted to be a pilot, but because of World War II, he could never see his dream fulfilled. When I was 10 years old, he gave me a little airplane that I could assemble myself, and we continued to build more and more model-aircraft together.

One day, my mother, who was working in the city council, met a pilot who lived in the same town. He related to my mother that his passion and hobby was to fly remote-controlled model airplanes. After a nice chat, she shared my dream of becoming a pilot, and learned that there is a place where Lufthansa regularly organizes a test for candidates.

When did you decide to become a pilot?

I was 18 when I applied at the evaluation center. They asked for my latest grades, provided a round-trip ticket to Hamburg, and allowed me to take the test. Out of 18 applicants in my test group, they selected four, including me.

Who shaped your life in a special way?

My parents shaped my life a lot. My grandmother, who basically raised us and spent a lot of time with us, had a significant influence on my life in terms of making good choices and leading a responsible, frugal life.

Did you have a role model?

As a teenager, I read books about pilots, such as Lindbergh, and books about test pilots and war pilots, whose stories have fascinated me. Perhaps there were several persons who served as models. When you fly, you are with a certain crew for a few days (a shift), working with one captain. There were several captains whom I highly respected, and I tried to learn as much as possible from them. Their honesty and modesty, which stood in clear contrast to the bossy attitude of the professionally-poor ones, who were playing the captains, provided an example that I wanted to emulate.

What motivated you to always stay fresh in your daily routine?

Flying is an occupation where you cannot afford inattention or laziness. Alertness and freshness are a must in this profession. They come with the job. I always liked to fly, since I started flight training. I think I would have flown even for no pay. I still do fly with a private plane, a single-engine four-seat Grumman Tiger, which I own together with two other friends. Regardless of what I fly or where I fly to, I make sure that I am fresh and alert.

Have you ever experienced crisis situations?

In my career, since 1977, I have never had one single serious problem. There was only one engine failure on the ground, as a result of which we had to cancel the flight. I consider it providential that the failure occurred before takeoff. Otherwise, my flights were as normal as possible. Once I had an unruly passenger who caused a forced intermediate landing, but nothing else worth mentioning. These incidents reminded me that I do not have everything in my own hands. We double-check everything, we control many detailed aspects of a flight, but it is good to be reminded that there is a God who is above you and whom you can trust, even in extreme situations.

What gives you the most satisfaction in this work?

The most rewarding area of my professional experience proved to be the instruction of other people, especially helping them finish their training. I remember a particular case when somebody was actually giving up near the end of his training. I talked to him, encouraged him, and three weeks later he passed his final check and became a captain.

What do you consider to be the biggest achievement in your life?

I am not sure if this is an achievement, but the fact that I came to find out who God is and what He means to me is the most satisfying discovery I have made in my life. My discovery is not an achievement, it’s God’s gift. But if I think of a particular experience, there is one that made a significant difference in my church life. Once, after going off-blocks in Frankfurt, I did something that I had never done before, and checked the passenger list. My eyes stopped at the name of Robert Folkenberg.* I went up to him and approached him, saying that I still remembered one of his sermons from the time he visited Germany at a camp meeting. He was returning from a mission trip in Kenya. Our informal conversation resulted in an invitation to my church and a mission project to Africa, during which some of our church members experienced the joy of sharing the gospel with others and helping those who are in special need. I am not a big speaker; however, being part of such a project, I preached a whole evangelistic series, which turned out to be a special blessing in my own life as well.

How do you manage to balance life, the demands of your profession, and your own spiritual life as a Seventh-day Adventist?

One of my priorities is to be at home for Sabbath. However, during my career, I sometimes spent Sabbaths in other cities. I always looked for a church that was closest to my hotel and enjoyed being part of a worldwide family. Keeping close to God’s Word and His children helps us to live better.

As a pilot, how do you manage to keep the Sabbath?

In the beginning of my career, unfortunately, I did not try hard. Later however, as a result of a pastoral visit, I arrived at the conclusion that I have to do everything that depends on me to keep the Sabbath. The pastor of our church talked to me about it, and I realized that I should not take Sabbath-keeping lightly. I started to pray, together with many people from my church, to have Saturdays off.

Initially, it worked by talking to the person who was making the monthly schedule for the short-range flights (Airbus 320). For the long-range flights (Airbus 340/330), there were several people preparing the schedule. When there were frequent changes in the personnel of the scheduling department, I wrote a letter to all of the responsible persons, and they kept it on their desk, reminding them that I am a Seventh-day Adventist and I want to be free on Sabbaths. In the last two years, computers scheduled the pilots for the flights, and it became more and more complicated, but I talked to the person who was responsible for short-term replanning and asked for replacement. I took those flights that nobody wanted to take, but as a result, I could honor God’s commandment and keep the Sabbath.

How were you able to balance your many travels with family life?

My wife knew that she was marrying a pilot. She agreed to that. When our first daughter was born, I wanted to take them home from the hospital, but I was called in to fly. Now that I have retired, some people ask us about how we are getting along, since I am at home most of the time. Many years ago, there was a period when I stayed at home for a longer time, and my wife told me after a while that it was time for me to go flying again. She adjusted her schedule so that she could accomplish household chores when I was away. Praise God, we are doing very well.

What type of skills and attitudes prepare a person to work successfully as a pilot?

You need to have technical knowledge, a good grasp of mathematics, and good orientation and geometry are important. You also have to be able to work as a team. It is a huge difference from military pilots. Here you have to fly in a team. You will have to learn to work with a great variety of people whom you cannot choose, so you have to be able to get along and interact with them and integrate them into the crew with their own initiatives. Sometimes they have better ideas than you do. That realization is important in any line of work.

If readers (university students and young professionals) are interested in this line of work, what steps should they take?

They have to think about it seriously. Sabbath-observance can be a real challenge. If they already have a family, they will have to be able to cope with being separated from their loved ones for a couple of days each week.

It is not a common job; I would not recommend it on a wide scale. Had I known all the implications at the beginning, I would perhaps not have chosen it, despite all my dreams of becoming a pilot.

Barna Magyarosi (Ph.D., Bucharest University) is director of the education department at the Euro-Africa Division in Bern, Switzerland. E-mail: barna.magyarosi@euroafrica.org.

Uli Nees: cptuli@gmx.net.

* Robert Folkenberg was president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists from 1990-99.