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When Sharjah made aviation history

Lily B. Libo-on / 10 October 2012

Al Mahatta Museum stands proudly on the same spot where the first airport in the UAE used to be. On the 80th anniversary of that unforgettable landing of the first west-bound flight here on Tuesday, many in the emirate reminisced the days when Sharjah was the hub of the UAE’s aviation industry.

Emirati historian Dr Saif  Al Badwawi, 53, was just eight years old when he witnessed the weekly flights of the Imperial Airways from Australia to Sharjah via Karachi, then to London, and the daily flights of the British Royal Air Force (RAF). “I and my friends used to come to this international airport to watch the aircraft coming in and out of the British military camp. I was a student of the Boys School of the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS) in 1951. At some other times, I came with my friends to watch movies at the Sharjah Cinema, both were inside the RAF camp.

“In my young mind, I was impressed to see how huge the airport facilities were as they stood out in a great expanse of sandy area near the seaside. No other buildings were there. The runway was where the present King Abdul Aziz Street is. The original airport is now the site of the Al Mahatta Museum,” Al Badwawi says.

In 1956, a new Control Tower was opened, which operated until the new Sharjah International Airport opened in 1977.

“As Sharjah developed into a metropolis, this first airport faded out from its significant background.” A senior researcher at the Cultural and Information Department in Ajman, Al Badwawi says Sharjah became the choice of the British Imperial Airways’ long journey from London to the Far East for refuelling stop in 1932. This prompted late Shaikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, then Ruler of Sharjah, to set aside this area.

Emirati Ahmad bin Askar Al Naqabi, who was sent by Shaikh Sultan to study at the Kuwait Military Academy and joined in 1975 as Hawker Hunter striker at 25 and later took Advance Flying and Weapons training at the Military Amendola Airbase in Italy, says that the entire Sharjah airport was the only one lighted up at night.

“I am proud and I can say it’s a dream come true for Sharjah to be able to have the first international airport in the UAE in the past. I have served in the Air Force for almost 20 years with skills using the more sophisticated and more modern Mirages 5 and 3 with 2.2 Mach speed. I used to fly in and out of this airport,” he adds.

Capt Martin Slater, 64, an aircraft engineer who flew in to Sharjah from London for the 80th anniversary of the first landing, says that the H-P42 12-seater plane had been used in Sharjah’s airport between 1932 and 1938. “This aircraft used to come from London to Sharjah via Karachi for refuelling and proceed to Australia.”

He used to fly Auster Autocraft, the first aircraft of Gulf Aviation, the same type which could be seen among the exhibits at the hangar of Al Mahatta Museum. “Sharjah was the choice of the Imperial Airways when it decided to come to the Arab side instead of using the airport in Bushire in Iran. The facilities in the old airport here included ten rooms where the passengers could stay overnight before proceeding to India and London.” He says that Sharjah is very lucky that this land and the old  buildings, including the fort, and the original runway, that is King Abdul Aziz Street, have been preserved. “Thanks to the Ruler of Sharjah,” he says. Sharjah’s golden year in aviation came on October 5, 1932 when the first passenger flight from Croydan Airport in East London landed in Sharjah. The first west-bound plane, Hanno (Hannibal class) built by Handley Page, came with four passengers on board.

Eighty years after, at a hangar in Al Mahatta Museum, visitors find such aircraft as the 1937 AVRO Anson IG AKVW-UK from the Royal Air Force (RAF) used for the RAF Flying Training School and then the Air Observer Navigation School. The aircraft later changed hands to Gulf Aviation Ltd in 1950, and to Aden Airways in Yemen before it found its way to Al Mahatta Museum between 2004 and 2005. A World War vintage, 1945 Douglas DC 3/C-474-AM22 S/No. 33340 built in Oklahoma City in the USA used as a C474 for the US Army and Air Force and later leased to the UK’s RAF as a Dakota MKIV is among the precious collections at the flight museum.

Two other aircraft on display are the DH114 Heron 1B-6 ANFE S/14034 Heron built in 1953 at Chester, England, and the De Havilland Comet2 G-AMXA. Heron joined the fleet of Doves of Gulf Aviation Service in 1956, regularly flying the longest scheduled return journey every Monday to Bahrain, Doha, Sharjah and Muscat. Comet2 used to fly from London to Khartoum, Sudan, and held the record for speed and distance and the world’s first commercial jet plane. It was used by the RAF between 1958 and 1974 and flew in to Sharjah for refuelling.

Shaikh Abdullah Al Thani, Chairman of the Civil Aviation Department, led the 80th anniversary celebrations here on Tuesday.


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