He has flown some of the world’s most advanced business jets and wears multiple caps — of an advisor, flight instructor on the GulfStream G650 simulator and examiner in the Emirates-CAE Flight Training Centre in Dubai. With over 54 years of experience in the in the field of flight instruction Jean Liardon has trained pilots from across the world to reach the highest levels of precision in aviation technology.

At 77 years, he clocks 12-hour work days quite easily, walks 10,000 steps, replies to almost 100 emails a day and travels around the world on technical flights at the bat of an eyelid. With 27 years of commercial flying experience on the Gulfstream aircraft, the world’s most technologically advanced business jet, Liardon is a powerhouse of energy inside a simulator, and even outside of it.

When I meet him early one morning at his apartment in the precincts of Wafi overlooking Dubai’s ever-charming skyline, Jean has a lot on his mind, only this time it’s not aviation related. The Swiss septuagenarian has been in news in Europe recently for his book, Voir Un Ami Voler — les dernières années de Jacques Brel (To See a Friend Fly — The last years of the life of Jacques Brel). An iconic Belgian singer, songwriter, poet, actor and director, Jacques has a huge following around the world, once influencing the likes of Scott Walker, David Bowie, Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra.

The book, in French, captures the friendship Jean and Jacques shared during their flights together, especially in the last nine years of Jacques’ life, before he succumbed to cancer in 1978. ‘I was Jacques’ flight instructor and while flying together we became good friends. The last years of Jacques’ life were extremely rich in travel adventures and I have tried to portray him as a man completely different from his public persona,’ says Jean, who has co-authored the book with Swiss author and journalist Arnaud Bedat.

Jean before a portrait of Jacques Brel in Brussels

The title of the book echoes one of Jacques’ most moving songs, Voir Un Ami Pleurer (To See a Friend Cry). It is a personal memoir of the man whose life philosophy touched Jean in different ways. ‘Jacques filled my life with a lot of love and emotion,’ says Jean.

After a successful launch in Switzerland, France, Belgium Canada earlier this year, the book was officially launched last week at the Alliance Francaise Dubai. ‘It is a best-seller, in its category, and although it is in French, the feedback from around the world has been great,’ says Jean.

He admits that working on the book was difficult owing to Bedat and his work commitments. ‘We spent many long hours debating the content and the wording, but I am glad it all finally came together so well. Launching the book in Dubai has been very important to me as Dubai is home now and has a hugely active French community.’

Jean met Jacques in 1969 when the latter had come to Jean’s aviation school in Switzerland to learn flying. ‘Jacques had a flying license, but wanted to go in for an advanced training. He wanted to travel around the world,’ says Jean. ‘I remember the director of my flying school telling me there was someone who wanted to meet me. I recognised Jacques at once. It was like having Frank Sinatra standing in front of you.

‘Jacques was a surprisingly good student. He was committed and from 1970 he was there throughout the lessons from January to April.’

Preparing to fly with the singer Jacques Brel in the latter’s Learjet

First as an instructor and later as his friend, Jean flew with Jacques across Europe. ‘Once we flew together to Greenland, and the landing gear of the aircraft hit a block of ice damaging the equipment. We were stranded in a place called Narsarsuaq, grounded for three days. At times like this, Jacques spoke a lot about himself, in complete isolation, and revealed a different side to his life,’ says Jean.

Unlike Jacques, who took up flying much later in life, Jean’s love for flying goes back to his early years.

Growing up in Berne, he looked up to his father who was also in aviation and enjoyed the adventures of Tintin. Like Herge’s hero, he wanted to explore the world, undertaking an adventure every time. ‘My life is no less exciting than Tintin’s,’ he exclaims. ‘I think I did manage to visit all the places that Tintin did.’

Jean received his flying licence in 1959 and the first time he flew into Dubai commercially was in 1995. But it was only much later — in 2003 — when he visited Dubai again as a flight instructor for Jet Aviation, that he heard about the state-of-the-art aviation training college being set up just next to the Dubai tennis stadium.

‘I’m a huge fan of tennis and was there at the Dubai tennis championships in February 2003 when I saw the flight training school getting ready for business aviation. I told a friend I was keen to be part of it,’ says Jean.

Jean looking dapper in his uniform in his early days as a pilot

His wife Jane picks up the thread of the conversation. ‘I still remember that phone call we received while in France,’ she says. Jean answered it and turned around and told me, ‘darling, they want us to go to Dubai. Our family was right there, listening in, and I remember walking out in the rain with Jean singing Dubai Dubai!’ Jean told me it was a good occasion for me to come and see the place, which he believed had an energy like nowhere else in the world.’

In November 2003 when the couple landed in the emirate, the first thing that they were struck by was the heat. ‘Well, everything was different, it was quite the culture shock,’ remembers Jane. ‘

While Jean was getting busier at work, I tried exploring the city. I once even tried to walk across the road in Garhoud and it was so busy that I was literally close to tears. There was a man who saw my plight and came to save my life. He stood on the other side of the street and shouted, ‘when I say go, you run’.

‘I also started making friends with complete strangers, and much to my surprise, some of them have become lifelong friends now. There were two wonderful Emirati ladies I met during my early days in Dubai who invited me to local weddings. I went there, dressed in my European finery, and very soon became the official wedding lady, accompanying these women to their family weddings.’

For Jean, the last 15 years in Dubai, have been extremely significant. The Gulfstream, a hugely expensive long-distance jet, can fly to 51,000 feet at 7,500 nautical miles. There are around 1,500 such aircraft in operation around the world and are used by VIPs, governments and private companies.

Jean's early days as a flight instructor

While Jean still goes on technical flights to grant the fit-to-fly certificate to the long-distance aircraft, his primary responsibility is to train pilots for the Gulfstream fleets. ‘It’s a challenge to keep up with the technology but because I have flown the aircraft for so many years now, I am well equipped to understand it. Everything now is touch screen and computer controlled,’ he says.

For Jean, there are no fixed work hours. ‘On the simulator, you can learn by day or night. So, my schedule can change depending on training hours. I could get into a simulator late at night and stay in for six to seven hours. There is a whole lot of admin work also that needs to be done before and after training.’

Mornings, for Jean, usually starts very early. ‘He is up by six usually, rarely after seven,’ says Jane. ‘He needs an hour to catch up on news on the television, check his mails and has a very light breakfast, usually Arabic bread, a cup of Nescafe, and a spoonful of Manuka honey. We laugh a lot together, at ourselves, and for small insignificant things. I think that helps us to start the day on a good note.’

'We laugh a lot together, at ourselves, and for small insignificant things,' says Jane. 'I think that helps us to start the day on a good note.’
Aiza Castillo-Domingo

Jean usually avoids lunch at work, usually snacking on a banana or a biscuit, preferring fresh organic fruits and veggies for dinner with the chicken or beef once or twice a week.

Another must for the 77-year-old is his thrice-a-week training with his instructor for fitness and mobility. Talking about his health, Jean recalls Jacques on his deathbed, telling him, ‘promise me that you will never get sick’. That had a big influence on my way of being, my attitude to life and fitness,’ he says.

Jean addresses his health issues by taking minimum medication and choosing to opt of natural remedies. ‘He’s never given in to any kind of illness, always forged ahead, apart from the time maybe when he had both his knees replaced,’ says Jane.

Jean, who watched closely how Jacques removed himself completely from the public eye when he was ill, believes it’s his indefatigable energy and attitude to life that keeps him going.

‘I love what I am doing and living in Dubai adds that extra touch of surprise to my life. The city never ceases to amaze us. Jane and I are permanent fixtures at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships every year, and till a few years back went to the races at Nad al Sheba. We still love going to the opera and don’t miss a chance to sing and dance at the musicals on the rooftop at Wafi.’