As Dubai International rises to the busiest airport in the world, we take a look at the first ever Dubai airport. And it’s a surprising story.
The Dubai Landscape in 1937
Remarkably, Dubai had an airport before it even had electricity. Or even a tarred road. Back in 1937, when the locals lived in barasti shacks, Dubai was a small desert oasis. Situated along the coast made it an attractive place for trading camel caravans to stop, with the sweet water of the Creek allowing everyone to refresh on a long journey through Arabia. There was only a small handful of stone buildings. Yet Dubai airport already existed.
The First Places Lands at Dubai Airport
Swirling in to land was an Imperial Airways seaplane, or a flying boat as they were called. The airstrip was Dubai Creek itself. These seaplanes hopped across the Middle East, taking passengers from the UK to India, then onwards to Australia. Just like the seaplanes of today, their air base was Dubai Creek. By early 1938, four planes a week were touching down at the first Dubai airport.
Security at the First Dubai Airport
Each plane paid five rupees to land and airport security was very different to what you see today. There were no x-ray machines and no limits on how much fluid you take on board. A guard was paid four rupees to keep watch through the night. His main job wasn’t to stop thieves. The locals were famed for their honesty but they were desperate to get an intimate look at the strange flying boat. This was a time before cars had been seen in Dubai. So you can imagine the surprise and intrigue that developed. The guard’s role was to keep everyone away from the plane yet somehow placate the curiosity of the crowd.
Development of the Airport at Dubai Creek
In 1940, Imperial Airways rebranded itself as the British Overseas Airways Corporation. The seaplanes of the age were like gentlemen’s clubs in the sky, with a saloon for sipping gin and tonics in the sky. Many literally stumbled off the plane in a drunken state. A permanent jetty was built, giving the seaplanes a more secure place to moor, and make getting off the plane a little easier for the passengers. It became known as the BOAC Jetty and by 1944 it was handling eight planes a week. In comparison, Dubai International Airport currently handles almost 8,000 weekly scheduled flights.
The Demolition of the First Dubai Airport
BOAC flying boats ceased operating in 1947. A spinoff from WWII had been the development of military airports and aviation technology. There was now dozens of working air bases that could be transformed for commercial flights. Seaplanes no longer flew to Dubai and there was no aerial traffic for over a decade. The BOAC Jetty remained an integral part of the landscape until the 1980s, when it was demolished for new urban developments in Deira. Incidentally, BOAC would later morph into what is now known as British Airways.
Construction of the Second Dubai Airport
While landing on water might seem strange, the second Dubai airport had a runway constructed from an equally unusual material. Opened in 1960, the 1,800-meter airstrip was built from compacted sand. Pilots had to wait until 1963 before they could touch down on asphalt. Since then, Dubai International Airport has evolved to handle almost 80 million passengers a year.
A Dubai air charter provides the unique opportunity to recreate history and take off from Dubai Creek. Just like the seaplanes of 1937, you take off from the water strip that formed the first ever Dubai airport.