Remembering Emirates’ first flights — 30 years on

DUBAI // On a bright October morning 30 years ago, a plane left Dubai for Karachi, and Emirates airline was born. On board were royal dignitaries and VIPs from across the UAE.

Three planes bearing the first insignia of the young airline took flight that day — the others heading for Mumbai and Delhi.

One of the pilots was Pakistani Ejaz ul Haq.

"It was an ideal day for flying," Mr Haq told The National. "25th October 1985 dawned bright and clear. There was great excitement and an air of raised expectations around the breakfast table that morning. Three international flights took off from Dubai.

At 11am, Emirates’ inaugural flight, EK600 took off for the Pakistan’s main port city, with VIPs on board. At 10.30pm, Mr Haq was at the controls of EK500 to Mumbai and at 11pm EK700 took off for the Indian capital.

“The rest is now history,” he said. “A few days after our inaugural flight, Flight International, the most widely read magazine of our trade, carried a very small paragraph about our launch,” said Mr Haq, speaking from his home in Michigan, in the United States.

“I was operating EK 601 from Karachi to Dubai and Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed, the chairman, was accompanying us. During cruise, he came onto the flight deck as he usually does and I showed him what had been written.

“With a wry smile he said ‘In’shallah, soon they will be writing more’. His words have come true with all that is being written on Emirates today.”

Mr Haq, now aged 68 recalled the build-up to the first flight.

Mr Haq, who started his career as first officer in Pakistan International Airlines [PIA], was promoted to captain at the age of 22 - PIA’s youngest.

Eighteen years later, he embarked on the biggest project of his career.

“In 1985, I was working as a fleet flight inspector at Pakistan International Airlines. I was asked to lead a team which was going to help to set up a new airline in Dubai. The project was in its infancy so much so we did not even know its name and so dubbed it Dubai Airline,” Mr Haq said.

PIA, as well as providing training facilities for Emirates’ first staff members, also leased the company two aircraft.

He said PIA afforded his team every courtesy, ensuring they had all the resources needed for the project. Several weeks later, the airline had a name.

“The new airline was to be called Emirates,” he said. In September 1985, when Mr Haq and his other team members were working on the project in Karachi, the Emirates cabin crew started its training in the PIA’s Ground Training School.

“We realised Emirates was now a reality and the day it would take to the air was coming closer.”

During that time two aircraft, an Airbus A-300B4 and a Boeing 737-300, were being painted in the new Emirates livery.

Other than technicians who were involved in painting the aircraft, the only people allowed to see the livery were Mr Haq and his other two core team members, Captain Fazl-e-Ghani and Mr Iftekhar Mir. Capt Ghani was the project manager and under him, Mr Haq was the flight operations team leader. Mr Mir was the engineering team leader.

“We were all quite impressed by the beauty and simplicity of the design.”

Within two months, Mr Haq and his team was ready for testing.

On October 22, 1985, three days before the first official flight, a Boeing 737 and A300 left Karachi for Dubai.

“On board there was a high festive spirit among the entire PIA team,” said Mr Haq, recalling that before landing in Dubai they were informed that royal dignitaries would board the aircraft, and the operating crew had to be in Emirates uniform. “At that time, none of us had even seen an Emirates uniform let alone possess one. But very quickly arrangements were made and we were ready on time.”

Mr Haq and his team welcomed the late Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, the Deputy Ruler of Dubai and Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed the chairman of Emirates, and other dignitaries.

“When the Royal dignitaries disembarked happily, there was a great sigh of relief from all the team. We had passed the first test.”

The second test was to be demonstration flights before official launch. The five demonstration flights were conducted on 23rd and 24th October. “All went off beautifully and on schedule to the minute. We were now ready for the first scheduled service,” he said.

He believes the introduction of Boeing 777 into the Emirates fleet in 1996 was a watershed moment for the airline.

“The planning, preparation and training required to induct this latest wonder of modern technology into the Emirates fleet stretched us to the limit,” he said.

“We were a small team in Flight Operations but dedication and hard work ensured a seamless entry into service.”

In 2011, Haq underwent a spine surgery, meaning he was no longer medically fit to fly.

“After a 45-year flying career and over 25,000 hours I decided it was time to take life easy and retire,” he said. Mr Haq retired at the age of 63.

Today, Mr Haq is proud of his contribution to the history of a great nation. “I was lucky to have been there when the country was growing and I played small role in the growth of its aviation industry. I applaud its every success. I look forward to the day when UAE aviation industry would not be best just in terms of service, as it is today, but also the home of biggest fleet size in the world.”

Emirates now has at least 230 aircraft which fly to more than 140 destinations. The company employs more than 50,000 people.

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* The article has been amended since it was first published.