How aviation took off in the UAE before the union

The first aviation school in the country opened in Sharjah in May 1971

Fifty years ago, and several months before the formation of the UAE, an aviation school called Trucial States Flying Club and School opened in Sharjah.

The pioneering college, which later became Sharjah Flying School before being renamed the United Arab Emirates Flying School in celebration of the union in 1971, was the first to open in the fledgling country and had a significant impact on its aviation history.

Sheikh Zayed said, ‘I wish we could teach our children how to fly’ and my father responded, 'At your order'.
Nora Al Deeb

Now, an exhibition titled “Sharjah, The First UAE Flying School” has been organised by Sharjah Museums Authority in Al Mahatta Museum, located in what remains of the original airport.

“The story of UAE’s first flying school began with this picture,” said Nora Al Deeb as she pointed at an image of the UAE's Founding Father Sheikh Zayed and her father, Lebanese civil engineer Adel Al Deeb.

Ms Nora said she grew up listening to stories about flying.

“My father would tell me about the school, what happened, the different events. It was interesting to know, and I would listen and memorise everything,” she said.

Capt Al Deeb came to the UAE in 1957 to work on several projects for the late Sheikh Zayed, while simultaneously working as Secretary of State for the ruler of Fujairah.

“He did several construction projects for Sheikh Zayed during the 1960s, including building a wall in the sea, the contract for which is also on display at the exhibition,” said Ms Al Deeb.

During a walk that brought him together with Sheikh Zayed in the late-1960s, an aircraft flew past them.

“As that happened Sheikh Zayed said, ‘I wish we could teach our children how to fly’ and my father responded, 'At your order'.”

The Sheikh, in Emirati dialect, said ‘troom Adel?’ - 'can you really do it, Adel?'

“My father said, 'yes of course', and actually left to go to England where he trained and got his pilot’s licence,” said Ms Al Deeb.

A life of service to the UAE

After Capt Al Deeb's return, he started the process of opening the flying school and club, as documented at the exhibition.

On April 29, 1970, Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah at the time, sent a letter to the British agent Julian Bullard informing him of his approval.

“I have no objection, and I have in fact allocated land for the club to erect their premises outside the boundary fence of the airport,” read the letter.

When the Trucial States Flying Club and School opened on May 16, 1971, Capt Al Deeb, who served as its chairman, sent the school’s aircrafts into the air.

These included a Beechcraft Musketeer, a Piper Cherokee, a Piper Apache, and a Cessna, among others.

Capt Al Deeb and Sheikh Khalid, the Ruler of Sharjah, are pictured during that celebration at the exhibition.

Hundreds joined the school between 1971 and 1976.

The pilots took trips between the emirates, and to countries such as Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Pakistan, and helped with tasks like transferring patients and journalists, and also distributing pamphlets.

“My father would go in the sky and throw out pamphlets - mainly in the Northern Emirates - that contained information relating to the capital, Abu Dhabi,” said Ms Nora Al Deeb.

The flying school remained in operation until 1982.

Capt Al Deeb, who served as chairman of the Civil Aviation in Fujairah and also held the position as the Secretary of state to the Government of Fujairah before the establishment of the school, left for the UK in 1983 to join the UAE’s embassy.’

“He worked there for nearly 10 years, after which we came back and he retired in his home in Ajman,” said his daughter.

Most of the items on display at the exhibition belong to the Captain and were lent to Sharjah Museums Authority by his son and daughter.

They include daily flight records and Capt Al Deeb’s pilot licences, uniform and passports, plus treasured photographs of the Captain with Sheikh Zayed in a majlis in Abu Dhabi.

“They were very valuable to him because they shed light on the history of the country he loved very much and dedicated his life to,” said Ms Al Deeb.

Capt Al Deeb passed away at his Ajman home in 2015.

'Sharjah, the First UAE Flying School' will run at Al Mahatta Museum in Sharjah until September 2, 2022.

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Updated: October 15th 2021, 2:34 PM