We arrive at Dubai, then little more than an Arab village with a very long runway - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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We arrive at Dubai, then little more than an Arab village with a very long runway

Another angle on the signpost outside the Transit Mess at RAF Gan. Wilingili was where many of the locally-employed civilians lived.
I had a conversation that second evening at Gan with an RAF VC-10 captain passing through on a scheduled trooping flight. He, and therefore probably everyone else in RAF Strike Command, had heard all about our adventures. He advised me, off the record of course, that diplomatic clearances for places like the UAE and Iran often didn't arrive until well after the flights had taken place because of all the bureaucracy in those countries. He said: "As long as you keep copies of all your signals, I reckon you should depart for Dubai in the morning. Diplomatic clearances are rarely, if ever, refused to an aircraft in flight."

With my fingers crossed, we left Gan on 13 July and set course for Dubai. Our final approach to Dubai was interesting. In 1972 there were no radio or radar approach aids at Dubai, it was just a very long runway in the desert, but I had faith in the skill of our two navigators. We were cleared by ATC for a visual approach at captain's discretion, but they added that forward visibility below 1,500 feet was extremely limited because of 'suspended sand'. A kindly Speedbird (BOAC) pilot came up on the Tower frequency and told us that he would hold clear of the area until we landed. "Make sure you land at Dubai not Sharjah," he said. "It's been done before. Dubai is the one on the left - the long one!" In those days civilian pilots always enjoyed getting one up on RAF pilots; he knew we were an RAF aircraft because of our five-letter international radio call sign, MTARK. (Long before this stage of our journey, I had decided MTARK stood for Marham Tanker from the ARK.)

Our two navigators, Paul Chessal and Ken Hulse, proved to be very accurate and Dubai's 12,500 feet (3,810m) of runway loomed out of the murk, dead ahead at a range of about two nautical miles. I already had the aircraft in the landing configuration, and we had been cleared to land, so I lowered full flap, reduced power slightly, and make a slightly steeper than normal straight-in approach and landed. On such a long runway there was no need to stream our tail braking parachute. Down at ground level the visibility was better. We were told to turn left at the very end where we would find a 'Follow Me' truck waiting to lead us to a dispersal.

After following the truck through a vast, empty, dispersal area we were at last signalled to stop and shut down our engines. When we disembarked, we discovered that our aircraft was surrounded on all sides by several vehicles, each manned by armed Arab soldiers. An English-speaking Arab came up and asked if we had landed at Dubai by mistake for Sharjah. I assured him that we had permission to land at Dubai and that we were expecting to stay overnight.

It quickly became obvious that the Dubai authorities at the airfield had absolutely no knowledge of our flight; they claimed to have seen none of our signals and, perhaps more importantly, none of our diplomatic clearance requests. It was clear that ATC had permitted us to land only because they assumed we had some sort of emergency. Now our aircraft and its crew were impounded.

Suddenly a British Army Jeep roared up and the driver, I seem to remember he was a staff sergeant, came over. "You were not expected," he said, reprovingly. "We had no prior knowledge of your flight until Dubai ATC called us about an hour ago and told us you were coming in for an unscheduled landing. It's all very embarrassing because the UAE authorities are very sensitive about their international status and they expect air regulations to be observed to the letter. I've been sent over from Sharjah to try and help. Don't attempt to leave until it's all been sorted out."

The Staff Sergeant was clearly only a messenger, so I saw no point in trying to explain how I had sent more than a dozen signals to his unit in the previous 14 days or so. He took us into the nearby unfinished, huge, modern, and virtually deserted airport terminal where he did some bargaining on our behalf. I, as the aircraft captain, was told I would have to pay cash there and then for airport services including security and landing fees and a penalty fine for an unauthorised arrival. The total cost was more than my annual salary. After a while it was agreed that I could sign chits that would to be charged to Her Britannic Majesty's Government. The staff sergeant assured me that it would be wise to sign everything proffered and not make a fuss. In any case, we would not be permitted to refuel our aircraft, or depart, until the diplomatic and financial business had been sorted out, so we took his advice and I signed another group of chits. While I was at it, I also signed a chit for some cash (US dollars, of course) for us to use on incidentals.

At that stage a very helpful Arab, whom I had seen hovering in the background for several minutes, came over and offered to take us to "the British Airways hotel in the Creek". I accepted that offer and we loaded our overnight kit into his minibus. Anyone who has been to, or through, Dubai in the last few years would not believe how empty it was in 1972. There were no high rise buildings and little or no road traffic. We did see what seemed like hundreds of houseboats jammed into moorings in Dubai Creek which was, our helpful Arab friend told us, where he and the great majority of Dubai citizens lived and where our hotel was located.

There were no signs of any other guests when we booked in at what was the only international hotel in the Emirate. We were each allocated a magnificent en-suite room with a king-size bed. I signed another chit for six rooms, including breakfast but not dinner. There were no means for me to contact anyone either by military signal or civilian telephone and the staff sergeant had disappeared (we never saw him again). In the evening we decided to try to find a cheap place to eat out but all we could find was a sort of Wimpy place - it was dreadful and very expensive. Dubai after dark was, as they say, as dead as a dodo.

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