Sharjah: The UAE is a vital gateway between the East and West, with Dubai International (DXB) holding the distinction as the world’s busiest airport by international passenger numbers in the past eighth years. But the history of aviation in the country can be traced 90 years ago, when a British Imperial Airways aircraft nicknamed ‘Hanno’ landed on October 5, 1932 at Al Mahatta, the region’s first airport in Sharjah.
There was no UAE yet back then and Sharjah, like its neighbouring emirates, were part of the Trucial States. In the world stage, incumbent US president Herbert Hoover (Republican) was running against Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, then governor of New York. While in UK, the sitting prime minister was Ramsay MacDonald from Labour Party.
It was a Wednesday, at 4pm of October 5, 1932, when Hanno (a British-made, four-propeller Handley Page HP42 biplane named after the Carthaginian explorer Hanno the Navigator, who explored the Atlantic coast of Africa in approximately 570BC) landed from Gwadar (now part of Pakistan) on a thin strip of tarmac in Sharjah. It was part of a multiple stopover for what used to be at the time a five- to six-day journey from India to London by British Imperial Airways, the forerunner of British Airways.
Al Mahatta Museum held a ceremony last week in memory of the first airplane landing in Sharjah.
Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi II, then the Ruler of Sharjah, his brothers, and some residents came to see the plane and personally welcome the four passengers and the crew, who were ushered to nearby tents to rest for the night as the guesthouse was not yet completed. The tents were comfortable — carpeted and had adequate ablution facilities. Sumptuous food were served, and passengers praised the warm service and hospitality they received. The flight — which cost around £95 for a one-way fare — touched down to refuel while the passengers and crew spent the night to rest.
The following day, the plane left for Bahrain en route to London, carrying passengers and mail from Sharjah, marking the first flight in the history of the country.
That layover from India to UK made a significant turning point in the emirate’s and the region’s aviation history. More details of the historic stop were shared in the book ‘Sharjah Air Station: between East and West’ written by His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah.
“The book reflects the significance of the airport as Sheikh Sultan documented the history of the station’s establishment, highlighting historic facts and agreements that paved the way for setting up the first civilian landing ground in the Trucial States in Sharjah that became home for the first air station between the East and the West,” noted a statement from Sharjah Museums Authority (SMA) on the occasion of celebrating nine decades of evolution in the country’s aviation scene.
Where it is now
The runway is now part of King Abdul Aziz Street all the way down to the King Faisal Mosque. Its most visible landmark — a three-storey watchtower — is still there and it has been renovated and now stands as the main building of Al Mahatta Flight Museum, which first opened its doors on March 14, 2000.
Last week, the museum had an opening day event celebrating nine decades of evolution and progress in the country’s aviation scene. Rare photos of the Sharjah Air Station between 1932 and 1933 taken by Wing Commander Harold Allsopp, who served with the British Royal Air Force between 1932 — 1956, were displayed. An archival film was also shown, recounting more details of the Hanno landing.
Al Mahatta Museum is located in Al Mahatta area, opposite Al Qasimya District in Sharjah, behind the Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship. It is open Saturday to Thursday from 8am to 8pm and on Fridays from 4pm-8pm.
Rare photos of the historic landing and a timeline of the negotiations between the British and local rulers for the creating a route along the Arabian coast, as well as the background of international commercial air travel, are featured in the museum. The original draft agreement between then Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr II, and the British government is also on display.
SMA has organised a monthlong event and a number of educational activities, including a virtual seminar titled ‘Envisioning Al Mahatta: Past and Present’ that will be held on October 26.
Manal Ataya, director general of SMA, said visiting the exhibition “is a great way to further appreciate the history of the first airport in the UAE and Sharjah’s early realisation of the importance of cross-cultural dialogue and mobility by opening the first airport in the region.”
Al Mahatta, the region’s first airport, connected UK with India and Australia, via Sharjah. Its strategic location contributed to international air routes as British Imperial Airways eventually launched a new flight route through the Arabian Gulf region to other destinations in the Far East. The new route included Cairo, Basra, and Sharjah Air Station as main stopover airports.
Al Mahatta was also the base for UK military aircraft during the Second World War. It was used by the Royal Air Force until December 14, 1971, when the last Hunters, British jet-powered fighters, left Sharjah.
Aside from being UAE’s first airport, Al Mahatta was also home to the nation’s first hotel, featuring a guesthouse for travellers and crew on an overnight stopover. It was also home to the first meteorological centre that was established in 1934 and the region’s first cinema that was built in 1949 by the British Royal Air Force.
The runway was converted into a road, now known as King Abdul Aziz Street, in the 1960s but the airstrip remained in use and was turned into a training base for pilots until Sharjah International Airport opened in 1977.
Visit Al Mahatta Museum
Al Mahatta Museum is located in Al Mahatta area, opposite Al Qasimya District in Sharjah, behind the Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship.
The original propeller planes — which have been fully restored — stand guard in the hangar alongside the original refuelling tanker. Visitors can also watch an interesting film about the daily life at the airport and in Sharjah in the 1930’s.
Saturday to Thursday: 8am to 8pm
Friday: 4pm — 8pm
Entry Fees to the museum
Children (under 2 years): Free
Children (2-12years): Dh5
Adults (13+ years): Dh10
Government school trips: Free
Private school trips: Free
Government University trip: Free
Private University trip: Free
Senior (60+) + one companion: Free
People of Determination: Free
The museum entry is free during International Museum Day (May 19); every October 5 (In memory of the first airplane to land in Sharjah; Martyr’s Day (December 1) and UAE National Day (December 2)