History of Seaplanes in the UAE

History of Seaplanes in the UAE

With the sun beating down on a mid-summer day of 1937, Dubaians were roused from siesta by the throaty rumble of a strange craft. Planes had passed over the town before, but never had something like this flown so close to the ground. With the locals watching on astonished, the plane began hovering close to the ground. Except Dubai had no airport. The plane swung around the town then alarmingly descended towards the Dubai Creek. Surely it would crash? But this was a flying boat, the first ever plane to touch down in the UAE, carrying passengers journeying from Southampton to Karachi. Fast-forward almost 80 years and the barasti shacks of the 30’s have been replaced by the world’s most iconic skyline. And seaplanes continue to swoosh around the city of Dubai.

The First Seaplane to Land in 1937

Dubaians received their first intimate look at a seaplane in 1937, but these crafts weren’t new to the world. A Frenchman, Henri Fabre had built and landed the first seaplane back in 1910. Only a year later, passengers were treated to an aerial view of the city of Venice on Italy’s first seaplane. A technological race flickered across the West as engineers tried to perfect the design. WWI provided further stimulus and funds for seaplane development, and by the time the 1930’s swung around, seaplanes were a fairly standard mode of travel.

On that scorching July day of 1937, it was an Imperial Airways seaplane that landed on the Dubai Creek. Part of the British crown’s strategy in connecting its fledging empire, these planes dramatically reduced travel time between distant colonies. England to Australia could now take just ten days, a remarkable feat at the time. Before the seaplanes, it had been an arduous journey by land or water that was measured in weeks or even months. This flying boat service hopped from Europe to the east, with Dubai being part of a route from Southampton to Karachi (now part of Pakistan), via Marseilles, Rome, Brindisi, Athens, Alexandria, Tiberias, Habbaniyeh, Basra, Bahrain, Dubai and Jiwani. Most passengers stayed on board for the full five days as they headed off to what was then, British India.

While the landscape of Dubai looked very different back then, the opulent on-board style was more akin to the lavish developments of modern-day Dubai. A seaplane was the pinnacle of luxury travel back in 1937, something reserved for the very elite of society. Passengers lounged across two decks that resembled a gentleman’s club in the sky, with a smoking room, saloon, and beds to snooze on. After leaving Southampton some four days earlier, the 200 passengers had passed over miles of seemingly desolate desert on the legs south of Basra. Stumbling from the plane after their gins and cigars, these passengers were greeted by the fierce summer heat and a crowd of intrigued locals. It must have been quite a sight for the Dubaians. Not only did the bizarre flying blimp land on water, it carried a crowd of people dressed in shirt, tie, and blazers.

Seaplanes in the UAE in the Late 1930’s

Unbeknown to the local population, an agreement had been signed in July 1937 to make Dubai an Imperial Airways flying boat base. By early 1938, four planes a week were landing on the Dubai Creek, with the airline paying 440 rupees (around US$150) a month for the privilege. At the time, the town had no electricity, nor a concrete building or paved road. Goats wandered around the dusty yellow while the barasti shacks were huddled in what was seemingly an inhospitable landscape. For passengers coming from Europe, this small town sandwiched between desert and sea must have looked like the edge of the world. Yet passengers would not only disembarked their luxury seaplane in Dubai, they would spend the night. This can be seen as the first example of tourism in the UAE, some 29 years before anyone struck oil in the territory.

Nearby states like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were already flourishing from the discovery of oil. In comparison, for Dubai the regular arrival of the seaplanes offered a huge boost to the local economy. Each plane would pay 5 rupees to land and a further 4 rupees for the plane to be guarded overnight; small sums that filtered into the town. By 1938, Dubai had become an integral part of the British Empire’s aerial network. Along with the passenger services, an Empire Airmail Route meant a regular parade of seaplanes touching down in the UAE. England to Australia required 31 refuelling stops and the Dubai Creek was an indelible link in the chain. Strategically it had a perfect position, enabling the planes to stock up before skirting the Persian Gulf or continuing to the Gulf of Oman.

Development of Seaplane Services in the UAE During the 1940’s

World War II caused the British to rethink their seaplane strategy. Planes were unable to land in Singapore due to conflict and the long five or ten-day journeys were considered too perilous. Availability of fuel also necessitated a re-evaluation of routes. Imperial Airways was rebranded as the British Airways Corporation (BOAC) which focused on connecting London with Cairo and Durban (South Africa). These flights were supplemented by a network of Short Empire Class Flying Boats that operated around the Middle East, connecting Dubai to destinations like Khartoum, Cairo, Basra, and Karachi. Passengers could also switch to Qantas Flying Boats and continue their journey east to Australia and New Zealand. By 1944, eight seaplanes a week were landing in the Dubai Creek as part of what was known as the Horseshoe Loop.

Infrastructure was developed and a permanent jetty was constructed on the Deira side of the water. This was Dubai’s first commercial airport, a concrete strip where people could disembark and supplies could be loaded. Passengers were whisked away to neighbouring Sharjah, where they would spend the night in the Sharjah Fort and Hotel, which stood on the edge of a British airbase. An airstrip had stood in Sharjah since 1932 but it was only used by military planes. For commercial operations, these flying boats were faster and more comfortable than the land-based DH86 biplanes of the time. With a top speed of 160mph, they whisked people and mail all over the Middle East.

As the planes hopped across the world, Kuwait to Dubai was the typical route from the north. The seaplanes flew 458 miles directly down the Persian Gulf, a hot and sometimes bumpy journey as the planes traversed the desert. Some stopped in Bahrain to unload on route but only Dubai Creek was used as the overnight stopping point. Heading eastwards, seaplanes departed Duabi and climbed in altitude to cross the desert mountain range. Flying 630 miles, they rumbled above the Gulf of Oman before skirting the southern fringes of Persia and touching down in Karachi. This could be a treacherous route during the summer months as tropical storms were often encountered.

Seaplanes Stop Calling in UAE in 1947

Almost as suddenly as they appeared, World War II’s side effects brought an abrupt hiatus to seaplanes in the UAE. War had meant huge investment in air travel for military purposes. Governments ploughed vast resources into developing an effective air force. As an offshoot, all the war bombers required airports with a bigger capacity than any creek could accommodate. This investment in airports led to the demise of the seaplanes and in 1947, the BOAC Flying Boat Service had stopped. Dubaians no longer herd the low rumble of the seaplanes from the desert and fishermen in wooden dhows couldn’t watch the dramatic splashdowns in the creek. Despite its seeming redundance, BOAC Jetty continued to be part of Dubai’s landscape until it was demolished in the 1980’s.

Aviation Development in Dubai from the 1950’s

Larger commercial planes became the norm throughout the world from the 1950’s. Seaplanes weren’t seen in the UAE for the rest of the century. By 1959 BOAC ran a service from London to Dubai that stopped off in Rome, Beirut, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Using a Bristol Brittania aircraft, it was the first time the UAE had been aerially connected to Europe since 1947. Direct services between London and Dubai commenced in 1966, followed by a direct London Abu Dhabi flight two years later. These used Vickers VC-10 aircraft and their weekly frequency increased as BOAC was rebranded as British Airways in the early-1970’s. Scroll forward through the decades and commercial aviation thrived in the UAE, with the country’s airlines becoming major players on the world stage. Just like the 1930’s seaplanes, Boeing jets started providing journeys from Australia to Europe with a stop-off in Dubai.

2004: A Seaplane Returns to Dubai

Some 67 years after the first Dubaians stood astonished by a flying boat, a new generation of locals witnessed the return of the seaplane in 2004. Motorists around Al Garhoud Bridge were shocked by the sight of a 1930’s three-engine Dornier banking around the bridge, then plummeting towards water. Tee shots were interrupted and putts were missed at the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club as the hulking grey plane headed towards the creek. Many locals believed the plane was in trouble and was about to crash land. Instead, it glided onto the water, leaving surprised onlookers to witness the first seaplane landing in Dubai since 1947. Drivers called radio stations and if it had been ten years later, everyone would have been taking mobile videos of the plane.

This plane was a museum piece that had been used to evacuate German citizens during World War II. Recovered from a German aviation museum and fully refurbished, it was flown by Iren Dornier, grandson of the founder of Dornier Aircraft. Back in 1929, Iren’s grandfather flew a seaplane around the globe. Iren was recreating this journey, taking the seaplane to 50 countries in 11 months as a fundraiser for Unicef. After touching down in the creek, Dornier made a demonstration flight around Dubai a few days later, carrying a couple of VIP passengers and cruising at up to 200mph. The seaplane had returned to the UAE.

Commercial Seaplane Journeys Resume in Dubai in 2007

Three years after Dornier’s dramatic entrance into the Dubai Creek, Seawings LLC launched commercial seaplane tours and charters in the UAE. These journeys provided aerial tours of the UAE, taking off from the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club and helping rediscover the thrill of travelling by seaplane. Whisking passengers to 1500 feet, the route soared past the iconic city skylines, offering sublime views of the country’s architectural marvels. Like the very first plane to land in Dubai, the amphibian aircraft was geared towards a luxurious experience. Rather than the smoking room and gentleman’s club, the plane had large leather seats, personal viewing windows, and comfortable air conditioning. Take-off and landing was on the water and Seawings developed a route that connected Dubai Creek with the Al Majaz Waterfront.

Seaplanes in Dubai in 2015

Seaplanes are now a common part of the Dubai skyline, no longer the strange sight that fascinated locals in 1937 or 2004. Seawings remains the only seaplane operator in the UAE and its fleet has grown to three Cessna 208 amphibian aircrafts. Their 30-minute scenic flight swoops past the heritage of the UAE, taking in some of the world’s highest and most recognisable buildings. Panoramic views of Dubai offer a timeless look at how the desert has been architecturally transformed, the scorched yellow stretching out beside glistening towers and shimmering ocean. It’s become an allure for international visitors and a unique way to experience one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations. Taking off from Dubai Creek adds an evocative sense of aviation history to the trip. Then a landing at Al Majaz Waterfront is followed by an open deck bus tour for new angles on the city.

There’s now up to 16 seaplane takeoffs a day, meaning the old creek airstrip is being used far more than it ever was. Seawings also operate a seaplane charter service with capacity to land at 25 destinations within the UAE. These include major airports, making for an exclusive transfer from the waterfront to an international flight. Al Ruwais and Ras Al Khaimah are among the other destinations that give Seawings the widest reach of any operator within the region. For many decades it seems that the innovative seaplanes had forever disappeared from the UAE. Now they’re back and they’re flourishing, as thrilling now as they were in the 1930’s.

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