It was late afternoon in Sharjah and the sun was setting slowly over the Gulf.
It seemed like any other day until a low hum was heard from the east. Then a flash of silver and the roar of four mighty propeller engines as the Imperial Airways plane came swooping in over the desert to land. Sharjah had joined the age of international aviation.
The Handley Page HP42 arrived at Sharjah's new air station from Gwadar in modern-day Pakistan on October 5, 1932, as part of the new multiple-stop route between Britain and India that hugged the Arabian Gulf coast. These Imperial Airways routes were established in the early 20th century as a way of maintaining and improving links between Britain and the colonies as aircraft became more reliable and could travel farther.
Sharjah became a stop after Britain switched the route from the Iranian coast to the Gulf after a dispute over landing rights.
Nicknamed “Hanno”, the plane travelled at about 160kph carrying four passengers and crew. Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, signed an agreement with Britain to establish the air station and he and his brothers along with a crowd of residents came to see the first plane land there, while the passengers were escorted to tents for the night as a guesthouse was still under construction.
“The tents … were carpeted and furnished and adequate ablution facilities were in evidence,” wrote Sheikh Sultan in his book Sharjah Air Station: Between East and West. “Also available was a variety of good quality food. The passengers all praised the high quality of service received.”
The flight from India to London including the stop at Sharjah then took about six days with a one-way fare costing about £95 ($106), nearly £5,000 ($5,600) in today’s money, according to Nicholas Stanley-Price, author of Imperial Outpost in the Gulf: The Airfield at Sharjah 1932 to 1952. The airlines carried passengers, mail and officials so it clearly was a rarefied world.
But what was it like to be a passenger? A unique account two years after the first aircraft landed provides a clue. ‘Imperial Journey,’ written by a ‘Mr Bunbury’ and published in the Royal Aero Club Gazette offers a glimpse inside this bygone world of aviation.
“She seats 24 passengers in two compartments, one forward of the wings and one aft. In the middle, there is a lavatory and steward’s kitchen and opposite, the baggage room,” Mr Bunbury wrote of life on board a Handley Page as it flew to Sharjah in 1934.
“A gangway as broad as that of a railway dining car runs down the centre and the seats are arranged just like a Pullman car [1930s era US railway carriage] in pairs with a slung table between.”
There were thought to be eight passengers and they enjoyed a meal and drinks before landing in Sharjah. Mr Bunbury complimented the facilities he found.
“Shajar [Sharjah] is a desolate spot in a desert about a mile from the small town of that name. The fort is a square concrete one with loopholed terrace all around and steel doors to the main gate complete with wireless masts, searchlights and an armed Arab guard with rifles supplied by us and belts filled with cartridges. Passengers are not allowed to go outside the compound,” he wrote.
“Inside the fort are rooms with electric lights and quite comfortable. I had a bath and shave and then took a walk around. The outward mail plane arrived after dark at a quarter to seven and about eight passengers joined us at drinks and dinner. Early bed and I slept well.”
He even found time to pet one of the baby gazelles that then roamed around the airfield.
"One allowed me to scratch her head and seemed to like it. They are evidently pets, most graceful little animals and I wish I could have brought a baby one back for Gill."
Most of the western-style food and drink served to passengers was imported from India, noted Mr Stanley-Price.
“Even during wartime, supplies were adequate (in contrast to the very limited food supplies available to Sharjah’s people),” he said.
“Raymond O’Shea arriving as the new superintendent in 1944 had for his first lunch: an hors d’oeuvre, soup, fish, chicken with beans and potatoes, a pudding, cheese and biscuits and coffee.”
Hanno, meanwhile, left Sharjah the following morning after the first flight but the significance was clear.
Sharjah’s air station went on to host a cinema, a hotel and become an important Royal Air Force base until Britain left the Gulf in 1971. The airport’s amenities would also encompass a meteorological centre and telegraph and postal services. It served for a few years as the emirate’s main airport until it was replaced by today’s modern facility. Imperial Airways ultimately would become what we know today as British Airways but its legacy lives on.
The control tower and original Imperial Airways guesthouse are now part of the Al Mahatta Museum, which explores the rich history of aviation in the region, while King Abdul Aziz Street used to be the runway.
An exhibition dedicated to the first flight opened at Al Mahatta Museum on October 3. ‘Sharjah Air Station: The First Landing 90 years ago’ displays rare photographs, the approval agreement and video exploring the history of the flight.
“The exhibition is a great way to further appreciate the history of the first airport in the UAE and Sharjah emirate’s early realisation of the importance of cross-cultural dialogue and mobility by opening the first airport in the region,” said Manal Ataya, director general of Sharjah Museums Authority.
Sharjah Air Station: The First Landing 90 Years Ago runs at Al Mahatta Museum until September 3, 2023