Female aviation pioneer recalls life above the clouds in Sharjah

Fatina Al Bitar graduated with a pilot's licence in 1973

When Fatina Al Bitar arrived in the UAE from Syria in the 1950s she was just a few months old, little did she know what lay ahead.

In May, 1971, Ms Al Bitar accompanied her uncle to a flying school in Sharjah, which opened just a few months before the UAE was formed.

The trips I enjoyed the most were those when I flew above the sea or above Fujairah where I was able to see and enjoy the beauty of the mountains
Fatina Al Bitar

Sharjah was home to the country's first airport, which opened in 1932 as a stop on the Imperial Airways route between the UK and India.

It hosted an RAF base during the Second World War and was the UAE's main airport.

Today, what remains of the airport is now the Al Mahatta Museum, which is dedicated to the region's aviation history.

Fifty years on, Ms Al Bitar recalled her aviation days at the opening of a new exhibition at the museum.

Entitled 'Sharjah, the First UAE Flying School', the exhibition features a collection of rare documents and photographs including pictures of Ms Al Bitar, who was the first woman to obtain a pilot's licence from the aviation school.

"I told my father I wanted to join the aviation school,” Ms Al Bitar said.

Her father was sceptical but agreed to a test by the school's founder, the late Capt Adel Al Deeb.

“Capt Al Deeb told my father that I showed more courage than some men,” she said.

Supported by her parents, Ms Al Bitar joined the school.

Following extensive training, she obtained her licence in 1973 and worked with the school for a short period before getting married and moving to England with her husband.

“Between training and flying solo I have 700 flying hours,” she said.

She flew a Piper Cherokee AP-AWRI – a type of aircraft used extensively at the time – mainly inside the UAE but also went to Bahrain and Pakistan.

"The country was much simpler at the time," she said. "There were no high rises and the highest building would be three or four floors.

"There were not many green spaces. We would be able to see the runway from very far because the land was flat and there was nothing to block it. The trips I enjoyed the most were those when I flew above the sea or above Fujairah where I was able to see and enjoy the beauty of the mountains."

She recalls one difficult landing when her aircraft hit the runway, but she was able to regain control and land smoothly.

“My father was on the ground thanking god for my safety.”

For the next few years she made sure she renewed her pilot’s licence and then decided to return to her education. She obtained a degree from The University of Damascus followed by three masters: one in Islamic studies from Al Azhar University in Cairo, one in business administration from Al Ain University and another in leadership in education from Abu Dhabi University.

She is now the principal of Al Bayan school in Sharjah.

“I would have loved to continue to fly and I might have ended up in Nasa,” she said.

The mother of four says that while her two daughters and two sons have always been proud of her, they have not followed her into the cockpit.

“I tried to convince them to follow in my steps in flying but it didn’t work. Three became engineers and one a physician,” she said

Ms Al Bitar believes she has helped to pave the way for women to join the aviation field.

“I'm very proud my journey in aviation began here in the UAE, which has made great progress,” she said.

'Sharjah, the First UAE Flying School' runs at Al Mahatta Museum in Sharjah until September 2.

Updated: October 6th 2021, 12:55 PM