From camels on the runway to Tom Cruise on the roof – a history of Abu Dhabi's airports

New Terminal A takes a journey that began in the 1950s into the 21st Century

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Passengers arriving at Abu Dhabi International Airport's long-awaited new Terminal A next Wednesday will enter a vast palace of glass and steel.

It is a far cry from the experience of the first intrepid air travellers to the city about 70 years ago, exiting from their journey a little deafened from the experience, on to an expanse of sand that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see.

The new Terminal A will be a spectacular addition to the current airport, which opened in 1982. This was a replacement for the second airport, opened in 1968 on what was then the very edge of the city.

In turn, that replaced the first and original airport, on the site of what is now Abu Dhabi Media TV, behind what is popularly known as Old Airport Road.

Amazingly, all three survive in some form, standing as testimony to eight decades of flying to Abu Dhabi, and the story of commercial aviation in the city.

About 100 years of air traffic

Aircraft had been landing in Abu Dhabi since 1929, when a Royal Air Force flying boat touched down just off what is now the Corniche on a reconnaissance mission to find new air routes to British India.

There are also later accounts of aircraft touching down on an area of hard sand near what is Al Wadha Mall and an emergency landing strip on Yas Island, but these were rare events.

The first proper airport was built in the mid 1950s, much needed as the first offshore and onshore oil concessions gathered pace. Services were chartered from Gulf Aviation, based in Bahrain, soon joined by a regular weekly service that also took place in Sharjah.

The aircraft was a twin engine de Havilland Dove, with passengers disembarking down a rudimentary ladder. The location had been chosen as the only place with sand hard enough to support the weight of the aircraft on take off and landing.

A small building with a wind tower served as control tower, customs and immigration, and arrivals and departures in one. There was a Land Rover with fire extinguishers for emergencies and a wind sock emblazoned with the logo of the oil company BP. Taxis, in the shape of more Land Rovers, would take passengers to and from the town, at that time 4km away.

Early passengers included Sheikha Salama bint Butti – the mother of UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and Sheikh Shakhbout bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time – who was able to make what had been an uncomfortable journey of several days by camel from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi in less than an hour.

Inevitably, though, there were incidents, although perhaps far fewer than might be expected, given that hazards included camels on the runway.

One Dove was damaged when the pilot failed to properly extend his wheels on landing and the damaged aircraft had to be repaired in situ, no easy task since the eight ton plane had to be lifted without machinery.

The most serious happened in July 1957, when another Dove caught fire on the ground, its right wing flap blazing from a spark probably caused by a combination of the intense summer heat and the pilot over-revving the engine before take-off.

On board were two of Sheikh Shakhbout’s daughters. All escaped badly shaken but unscathed, and the fire was quickly put out.

That first terminal still survives on the grounds of the TV studios of Abu Dhabi Media, preserved although not open to the public.

Speedy growth

By the 1960s, Abu Dhabi was expanding rapidly, fuelled by the growing wealth from oil that attracted people from all over the world. It was clear that a sand runway was no longer adequate, especially as it was unable to handle jets.

A new airport was commissioned, again in what was then desert outside the city boundaries. It was one of several great infrastructure projects from the first years of Sheikh Zayed’s rule, including the Maqta Bridge and Mina Zayed.

Opened in 1968, Abu Dhabi International Airport had a 10,000 foot asphalt runway, a purpose built control tower and a terminal large enough to accommodate flights from Europe and Asia. The novelty of watching the huge jets arrive was entertainment for many people in Abu Dhabi, combining it with a meal at the new Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant – still serving in the original building.

A highlight was the visit of Concorde in August 1974, the supersonic aircraft combining hot weather testing with a sales mission.

Within a decade it was clear that even this airport was insufficient to serve the capital’s needs. The airport now became a military facility, also used for private jets. It is today known as Al Bateen Executive Airport and it was expanded last year to accommodate wide-bodied jets.

The airport still remains an important role in the UAE. US Air Force transport and surveillance aircraft were stationed there during the first Gulf War. More recently, it was a neutral venue for the prisoner exchange last year involving Brittney Griner, an American basketball star imprisoned in Russia on drugs charges, and arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The airport was also the start and end point for Solar Impulse 2, the plane that completed the first solar-powered circumnavigation of the globe from March 2015 to July 2016.

Abu Dhabi’s third and current airport opened in 1982, again in the desert and some distance from the city, on the other side of the Maqta Channel.

It was designed by a French architect. Paul Andreu, who was also responsible for Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris and Terminal 3 at Dubai.

The most striking feature was the huge tent-like roof of what is now Terminal One, the interior covered with tiles and Islamic patterns.

Since then the airport and the city have expanded, with Khalifa City, Al Raha and Al Bandar as neighbours. The aerial view on final approach from the sea is now the F1 Yas Marina Circuit, Ferrari World theme park, and, the latest addition, Sea World Abu Dhabi.

Terminal 2 opened in 2005 and Terminal 3 in 2009, used by Etihad Airlines, which began flying in 2003. A new 109-metre control tower, the seventh tallest in the world, was completed in 2011.

The new Terminal A, formerly the Midfield Terminal, is the most ambitious expansion yet. Almost an airport in itself, the dramatic design reflects sand dunes, with a 180-metre central arch.

Once fully operational it will be able to handle 45 million passengers a year, and 79 aircraft at once.

The first arrival was Hollywood star Tom Cruise in July, promoting his new film Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, a scene of which has Cruise running outside across the roof.

The rest of us will have to wait until next week to finally get a closer look.

Updated: October 27, 2023, 6:00 PM