When Sharjah ruled the skies

With Al Maktoum International Airport set to open in Jebel Ali on Sunday, a look back at the humble roots of aviation at the country's first airport, Al Mahatta.

20th April 1934:  The Imperial Airways 'Hanno', Handley Page passenger aeroplane, carrying the England to India Airl mail, refuells at a desert stopover at Port Sharjah at Tricuial Oman, in the Persian Gulf.  (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
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SHARJAH // As the door on the airplane with two giant propellers slammed shut, Juma bin Humaid closed his eyes and started to pray. The 42-year-old was about to fly for the first time, travelling to Bahrain with his mother on the first leg of their Haj.

Their starting point, in 1968, was the UAE's first airport. With eight other passengers, they boarded a white and blue Gulf Aviation plane at Sharjah's old airport, known as Al Mahatta, or The Station. "We were scared as the plane was small, very loud and shook a lot," recalls Mr Juma, 84. "The seats were narrow and there were no meals, no drinks, no real services provided on the plane. But I didn't really care. I just wanted the trip to be over and for us to land safely."

From Bahrain, he and his mother boarded an Indian ship for the six-hour trip to Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia. From there, they took a Russian bus along with 160 other people, taking several days to reach Mecca. "Everything was harder then, and deciding on a trip to Mecca always had to be taken with the possibility of never returning back home," said Mr Juma, a father of six. The runway was a thin strip of Tarmac in the middle of the desert in southeastern Sharjah.

Next to it was one of the areas most visible landmarks, a three-story white control tower that stands to this day. Inside the terminal, it was hot, as puny electric fans struggled to cope with the scorching sun. "It was a very basic airport," Mr Juma said. The story of the airport can be traced to Britain's search, starting in the late 1920s, for an alternative route for the section of its England to India service between Basra in Iraq and Karachi, in modern-day Pakistan.

The complication was that these flights depended on the Persian government granting Imperial Airways - the forerunner of British Airways - permission to use a coastal route along the eastern shore of the Gulf. After Britain failed to reach a deal with the sheikhs of Ras al Khaimah and Dubai, the Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qassimi, offered some land for an airport to the south-east of the city.

In July 1932, Britain agreed. It would pay a monthly rent of 800 rupees, plus a landing charge of five rupees per flight. For many years this was paid in silver coinage, as the sheikh mistrusted paper money. On October 5, at 4pm, the first aircraft landed at Sharjah. Hanno, a British-made, four-propeller Handley Page HP42 biplane, was on its way to India, with four passengers. "Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qassimi came with his brothers, followed by a crowd of residents from Sharjah to witness [the landing] and admire it," wrote the current Ruler, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, in a book published last year.

"Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qassimi was extremely happy over his direct association with British interests and the economic boom on Sharjah and its people as a consequence of this venture." A fort and a complex of offices and housing for passengers and crew were built by the Ruler. Imperial Airways landed in Sharjah once a week. In 1934, it extended its route to Australia. With the onset of World War II, the British army built the three-storey white control tower and used the airport.

After the war, the fort was used as the headquarters of the Trucial Oman Scouts. In the 1960s the runway was paved and a new terminal added. The death knell came in January 1977, with the opening of Sharjah International Airport, 10km to the east. It could handle hundreds of planes - eclipsing the old airport, which was abandoned. For more than two decades, the old airport's buildings fell into disuse, used mainly to store scrap metal and old cars. The runway disappeared beneath King Abdul Aziz Road.

Then, in 2000, it reopened as a museum. "Older generations like to come here and see the old planes they used to fly in," said Mohammed al Naibari, who works at Al Mahatta Museum. The museum now houses four airplanes, including a 17-seater 1950s DH-114 Heron that was dubbed Um Ahmed. "A Bahraini woman gave birth to a boy inside this kind of plane as it was landing in Sharjah," said Mr al Naibari. "She named the baby Ahmed, and ever since then, locals have been calling this plane the Um Ahmed."

Despite the airport's contribution to history, Mr Juma says he prefers modern airports. "I am just glad my children never had to fly using any of the old airports," he said. "They didn't miss out on much." @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae

Video: When Imperial Airways flew the flag at Sharjah, a film from the 1930s about a day in the life of Sharjah airport when aircraft flew in from Britain on their way to India.