RAF Sharjah, Al Mahatta Museum

by Laurence Garey

When I lived in the United Arab Emirates, I discovered that vestiges of the original Sharjah airport, later RAF Sharjah, still exist.

Sharjah was the first airport in what is now the UAE. In 1932 it was very important for the British, who were developing an air route via the Persian Gulf, to be able to create a staging post in the region, and Sheikh Sultan of Sharjah offered a site just to the southeast of his city. The RAF built a runway on an area of hard, flat sand running northwest to southeast, and Imperial Airways built a resthouse in the form of an open square courtyard with accommodation in the enclosed wings, and a massive fort-like structure in one corner for control of the air traffic and a wireless station. Imperial Airways passengers in their Handley Page HP42s en route between London and India stayed overnight here from October 1932. During World War 2 the RAF made Sharjah into a base (click here to learn more about one man's experiences there), and they continued to use it until the 1970s. It was a major player in the Jebel Akhdar War of the 1950s. A new control tower was built next to the fort and a new terminal followed in 1968. But the rapidly growing town of Sharjah was now too close, and a new airport opened in the desert south of Sharjah in 1977. The runway at RAF Sharjah become King Abdul Aziz Street, now right in the town centre.

The figures below show Sharjah airport in 1976 (adapted from Kay 1995, see reference at end of this page), and a Google Earth image of the same area now. The black and yellow arrows show the museum site. The old borders of the airport are easy to trace, and the runway is visible as King Abdul Aziz Street.

The resthouse area today, via Google Earth. The control tower is in the southwest corner, with the new Al Mahatta Museum hall (see below) to its north. To its east is the open square of the resthouse with a garden in the centre. (See photographs of control tower and resthouse, below)

I made two visits in 2004 to see what was left, as I knew that the old resthouse had just been developed as an aviation museum, under the guidance of Captain David Mackenzie, who ran the Ruler's Flight in Sharjah, and that some old aircraft were on view. I was very pleased to find the collection at what is now called the Al Mahatta Museum. After walking southeast from the new King Faisal mosque, I found the control tower and, alongside it, the entrance to the museum via the old gateway through the fort-like wall of the resthouse. Four aircraft were on display in an impeccable hangar-like hall right next to the control tower. They purported to be four of Gulf Aviation's original aircraft, according to the accompanying notices. At first glance a DC3, a Dove and a Heron, indeed, could have been genuine, but an Anson labelled as a Mark I, but obviously a much newer one, was suspicious. I am grateful to David Mackenzie for interesting subsequent correspondence, and to Taj and Mahesh for letting me into the aircraft, except the Dove that is hanging from the ceiling. I examined all the evidence I could find, and took lots of pictures of their identification plates. I was able to confirm the real identities of the four aircraft in the main display area, which purport to be original Gulf Aviation machines, but are not.

The Heron "G-ANFE" (below, in front of the DC3) is actually constructor's number 14072, a Heron 2 originally owned in 1955 by West African Airways Corporation, as VR-NAQ. In 1961 it was registered G-ARKU with Overseas Aviation Ltd. The same year it was transferred to the Royal Navy, and converted to a Sea Heron C20 (XR443). Withdrawn from use in 1989 it was sold as G-ODLG. Sold again in 1993 it became VH-NJP with Heron Airlines in Australia. After storage at Sydney from 1995 it was acquired for the museum and painted to represent G-ANFE in 2003. There is a constructor's number on a plate just behind the co-pilot's head "14072", and also there is a hand-written "NJP" on the captain's roof.

Inside the Heron

The Heron flight deck

The DC3 "G-AMZZ" has a tiny label on the roof between the pilots "C-GCXE". Otherwise, I could not find any identification plates. In the undercarriage bays there are "RCAF" labels. The aircraft is actually constructor's number 12254, a C-47A delivered to the USAAF as 42-92452 and almost immediately passed on to the RAF at Montreal as FZ669. It served with the RAF in Canada until 1946 when it was officially passed to the RCAF. Pensioned off 1976, it became C-GCXE with Aero Trades Western. Cancelled from the Canadian register in 1977, it next appeared on the Dominican register as HI-502. Re-registered as N688EA in 1993.

Dove 6 "G-AJPR" was built in 1956; its constructor's number is 04469. It was on the Italian register as I-TONY and then became G-ARDE. As it is hanging from the roof there is no easy access to it.

The Anson "G-AKVW" is ex TX183, built at Yeadon in 1946. With Bomber Command Communications Flight at Booker (from where I used to fly), then Abingdon (where I lived) Station Flight, before moving on to No.1 ANS at Hullavington. It went later to Shawbury, and A&AEE Boscombe Down where its service career finished in 1968. It was then sold to the Shuttleworth Trust, who were planning on a restoration programme, but that never came to fruition. It was registered as G-BSMF. The flaps are half lowered, so you can see identity plates on both sides. It is quite clearly marked as "Type no 652A" and Mk XXI on one side and Mk 21 on the other! The flaps carry the dates 22/10/48 on one side and 9/1/51 on the other! To find that it is a Mk21 is a surprise as that serial batch is usually quoted as C19s. Maybe the flaps were taken from a Mk 21, and fitted to a C19 airframe. There is, of course, no way it could be a Mark I, which is a completely different aircraft!

The nose and cockpit of Comet R2 XK655 were added to the collection in 2007. It was the first production Comet 2 (G-AMXA) making its first flight in 1953. It was the first to go to the Royal Air Force. In 1955 it was modified at Marshalls of Cambridge to the Mk R2 electronic intelligence gathering (ELINT) version, and flew with 51 Squadron. It patrolled with experimental surveillance and radar equipment, frequently being detached to Sharjah. When retired from flying it was sold to the Strathallan collection in Scotland. On landing at Strathallan it damaged the undercarriage, but was repaired for static display. When the Strathallan Museum closed in 1990 it was scrapped with only the cockpit section surviving. It was put on the roof at Gatwick Airport in 1995. After spending about 10 years outside it was restored again before shipping to the Al Mahatta Museum as the first jet airliner to land at Sharjah.

More recent news is the addition of Auster J/1 Autocrat G-AJRE, flown in from Coventry in 2012. (Photo by Alan Wilson, flickr)

Another major acquistion will soon be the forward fuselage of ex-RAF VC10 ZA149, formerly East African 5X-UVJ, painted in Gulf Air colours.

In the old Imperial Airways resthouse itself, through the original open courtyard (pictured above), there are pieces of an Auster tail carrying identifications "TAY 296Y" and "TAY149", and a Prentice rudder marked PAC/R234 and PAC81 1/3/49. A Twin Pioneer fin is marked G-APLW but is probably from G-AZHJ, from Coventry. There are also the pilot's seat and control column from a crashed Anson and instruments from a Dragon Rapide. There is a wing panel from a Dominie (the military Dragon Rapide) marked "NF8", of which the original serial must have been in the batch from NF847 to 896. It is likely that this is from the Royal Navy Dominie serial NF875, which was civilianised after the war as G-AGTM. It was restored to its Navy identity as NF875 in 1977. It had an accident in 1987 and its wings were replaced by those from another one that had been damaged years earlier. So the NF875 wings went to storage at Coventry, from where one went to Sharjah! G-AGTM was rebuilt with its new wings and still flies, as G-AGTM, in the UK.

Photos below

For further information:

Kay S, Wings over the Gulf Motivate Publishing, Dubai 1995

Richardson C, Masirah - Tales from a Desert Island Scotforth Books, Lancaster 2001

Stanley-Price N, Imperial Outpost in the Gulf. The airfield at Sharjah (UAE) 1932-1952 Book Guild, Brighton 2012

West D, RAF at Sharjah Combat Report, 1987, 1 2-5

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