Mirages in the desert
The Al Ain International Airshow 2005
Gill Howie/Squadron Prints has a Middle Eastern feast of fun, adventure and fantastic flying. Pictures by Berry Vissers/Squadron Prints
Part one - The build-up
"Be careful out there!" "Stay safe!" These were the two most common phrases I heard when I told friends and family that I was going to Al Ain Air Show in the United Arab Emirates. Naturally I was a little apprehensive on my arrival in Abu Dhabi but there was absolutely no need to be, as to be perfectly honest I don't think that I have ever felt safer anywhere.
We flew from Edinburgh via Heathrow to Abu Dhabi, the capital City of the United Arab Emirates, all booked through Gulf Air (www.gulfairco.com). We flew by Airbus A330 and I wouldn't say it was the best flight I have had - it was a full flight and, like all good Brits do, we obeyed the hand luggage rule and I don't know why we bothered - it was amazing what people carried on with them and also how people disobeyed seat belt signs. An Air Stewardess's position used to be a glamorous one, but it is not a job that I could do and they need plenty of patience to deal with the many rule breakers.
The journey to Al Ain was different - from industrial areas to sand dunes, the drive along the Palm Tree lined triple carriageway was uneventful and very easy but no lorries - there are different roads for trucks! Approaching Al Ain the sand dunes got larger with wild camels roaming around and a great view of the city looking over to the city's Jebel Hafeet Mountain. Al Ain is an oasis of both tranquillity and loveliness - the centre has both modern and old buildings, shopping malls and markets but there are many roundabouts too. The reason I mention this is because they are all unique and fascinating - all have a feature of some sort, be it Camels, Birds or a Coffee Pot to absolutely fantastic water features - they are truly amazing.
So what about the Al Ain Air Show then - well, again we didn't know what to expect, but as a friend of one of the organisers we were there for the build-up and the event itself. Unusually it was a five-day show, but it is certainly unique in other ways. Firstly, the site was specially built with beautiful lights leading up the roads leading to the site - the exhibition/traders area had been beautifully mono-blocked and only three months before it had been small sand dunes. All marquees had been built around the area in a uniform manner - were all the same colour and all had carpet and lighting and looked immaculate. Some static aircraft were placed in the middle of the exhibition area too - a UAE AF&AD Hawk Mk63 and PC7 plus a Jet Ranger Helicopter from the Abu Dhabi Mens College, together with other small aircraft and Para-gliders. Gulf Air was a major sponsor and it had a display of sixteen meters diameter promoting its new on-board facilities and their sponsorship of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Rotating in the middle of their beautiful stand was a Formula 1 racing car in Gulf Air Colours and a similar one positioned close by which had been turned in to a simulator.
There was a special Heritage Village and a Children's Play area alongside an area for children to paint aeroplanes. Behind the exhibition area was the food court - gone were the greasy burgers and fish and chips, in came the Chinese, Pizzas, specialised coffees and many other delicacies. It really was an eye-opener and a real family day out. One other gripe we have at British airshows is the toilets - not here - they were beautiful, plentiful and kept pristine by a small army of cleaners.
It cost 20 Dirham (approx £3) to enter the event, so what did you get for your money? There were purpose built car parks with uniformly painted bays - again, these areas were sand dunes just months before. No muddy fields here. The car parks led to the entrance archway where there were security checks like boarding an aircraft, but it was all dealt with quickly and efficiently. The colourful programmes were free of charge and if you were early enough there was a grandstand seat for you too. Not bad for £3. There was seating for approx 7,500 people but if you didn't get on the grandstand there was a picnic area beside the food court with tables and chairs from where you could still see the flying - plus there was a huge screen for close-up shots.
On the left side of the site was the grandstand - in the middle was a huge purpose built 'Red Bull' Control Tower, which was to be used by the judges of the FAI World Aerobatic Championships, but they didn't like it so it was used by the Press. This tower had been specially shipped in from Austria and throughout the build-up it was amazing to watch the team build this massive construction. The press tent, complete with four computers all with Internet access and other facilities was located behind the tower. To the right were all the Sponsor Chalets leading down to the Sheik's Chalet - all were air-conditioned, carpeted and very well fitted out. Each had an area at the front with garden chairs, tables and umbrellas for the shade - all very tasteful with a perfect view of the static park and the display line.
The scene was set for some perfect flying in perfect weather. Most days were warm and lovely but we did have a couple of days of rain, which was a rarity there, and the 'Brits' were the ones to rescue everyone by using anything available to erect guttering in-between the marquees to stop the water pouring in. The rain didn't last long though and there was a day or two of high winds, which caused grey skies and sand storms but it remained warm and pleasant.
The small aerobatic aircraft were all disassembled, put in containers and shipped out with P&O. The Indian Air Force Dhruv Helicopters, flown by their Sarang team, were flown out to Al Ain by An-124, whilst Pakistan flew both K-8s over to the UAE, they shipped both Super Mushaks in a C-130. These were initially based over at the Military side of the airfield, known at Khalifa Bin Zayed Air College, but during the event they became part of the static in front of the chalets and grandstand. This airshow is run on the instructions of His Highness General Pilot Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and he has a five year plan to make this an air show that will attract people from all over the world. It is also part of Abu Dhabi's new Tourism Venture and if the hospitality that we received is anything to go by it won't be long until it's a resort of some considerable standing.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and is a fascinating city and I would suggest a two-centre holiday if you wish to go - a few days by the sea and in the city, then inland to the Garden City of Al Ain - you can even spend a couple of days in Abu Dhabi and Dubai too. Taxis are cheap and contrary to the many myths you can get alcohol there too. We stayed in the Al Ain Intercontinental Resort, which was truly amazing - lots to do and many different restaurants; Italian, Chinese, Indian, traditional and an English pub - this place is so welcoming and friendly and one of the best hotels that I have stayed in. Check it out for yourself here. There are other hotels in Al Ain from cheap and cheerful Arab Hotels to hotels that are part of worldwide chains but all in all I HAVE to say again that the 'Intercon' was terrific.
Part two - the airshow!