How English rugby player Tony Underwood became a pilot


After growing up in Malaysia, Tony Underwood and the rest of the family returned to England after the death of his father at the age of 13. Underwood settled in the town of Barnard Castle in north-east England and Underwood’s talent as a rugby player was soon apparent to all viewers – he plays for Barnard Castle School.

Tony’s older brother, Rory, was also an accomplished rugby player and, like his brother, Tony went on to play for Leicester Tigers and England. Tony Underwood made his international debut for England against Canada in October 1992 and has won 27 caps over the course of his career.


Underwood started thinking about becoming a pilot

After a 1997 tour of South Africa with the British Lions en route back to the UK, Underwood spent a lot of time on the flight deck. While there he began to wonder if flying was something he could do after rugby.

At the time, Underwood was playing professional rugby for the Newcastle Falcons and decided to pursue flying lessons with a flight school off the ground. Underwood flew up and down the Northumbrian coast and knew right away that a career in commercial aviation was right for him.

After helping the Falcons climb out of the Second Division and win the Premiership, Underwood had achieved just about everything in rugby; Also, at 30, his days as a professional player were drawing to a close.

Underwood requested a time-out

Because the training to earn a professional pilot’s license was very time-consuming, Underwood reached out to Falcons rugby director Rob Andrew and asked if his time could be reduced to give him more free time.

After a game against Sale over the weekend, Andrew called Underwood into his office and hit him with a bomb. Rather than give Underwood time off, Andrew suggested he give up the game of rugby and become an ambassador for the club.

Underwood got a job flying Boeing 737s for easyJet. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flicker.

After his life was turned upside down, Underwood never played rugby again and set about earning his commercial license, which he completed in May 2000. A few months later, in September 2000, Underwood experienced a massive hiatus when easyJet offered him a job. After flying for the Luton-based budget airline. After flying for easyJet for six years, Underwood landed his dream job as a long-haul airliner for Virgin Atlantic. Realizing that he could live anywhere in Europe as long as it was near a decent airport, Underwood and his family moved to Evian-les-Bains, a French resort town on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Underwood joins Emirates as Airbus A380 pilot

The worst came after the financial crisis of 2007-2008 when Underwood’s chances for advancement at Virgin Atlantic came to an abrupt halt. Realizing that he would have to leave if he wanted to advance his career in 2013, he joined Emirates and moved to Dubai to live with his family.

Underwood thought he’d landed his dream job when he started flying long-haul for Virgin Atlantic. Photo: Getty Images.

Underwood, now flying the world as captain on Emirates Airbus A380s, felt privileged to have come this far in his second career, but unlike the camaraderie in rugby, it just became what he did.

Underwood missed the shared purpose of being in a team sport and said he didn’t find flying as fulfilling as playing rugby as his flight crew changed every time they got back to Dubai.

While being interviewed by the about his sporting days and flying career Dartmoor moorland The Underwood newspaper ended the interview brilliantly when he said:

“I definitely benefited from never feeling defined as an athlete or a pilot. It meant I could progress from a rugby ‘star’ to an A380 captain. Wherever I am is where I want to be. I just have to keep going and trying to be the best version of myself I can be.

“It’s a version of myself that caters to my need to be on a team and strive to be the best that it can be while helping others to be the best that they can be . There is great fulfillment and purpose in that, just like in all the best teams I’ve ever worked with.”


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