The late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw the majority of nationals of this small Gulf Emirate rapidly transformed from domestic nomadic goat herders into mega -rich international merchants and traders, based on the new commercial viability of their country’s natural petroleum resources.
For the few thousand local owners and larger hordes of internationally imported foreign guest workers, the resulting effect was like a 20th century “Klondike”; plenty of ongoing work at all levels, insufficient prefabricated temporary accommodation, too few women - but all in high demand - an acute shortage of machinery, equipment and physical materials, lack of supporting infrastructure, social boredom, over consumption of illicit alcohol and tobacco, gambling, cheating, corruption and lots of money being counted.
In addition to the onshore and offshore petroleum-related development activity itself, Abu Dhabi's small village with the Sheikh’s ancient fortress at its centre, was now “boom town”, involving the rapid construction of a much larger modern city around it with related infrastructure such as housing, hospitals, hotels, a new seaport, a new airport and road transport system. This small, now rich, country was one big, hot, dusty, noisy, rude and thirsty building site!
For a few hot summer months of 1970 I was seconded by British Overseas Airways Corporation to Omeir Travel Agency to run their aviation ground handling operation at the then small, already inadequate airport, designed for light aircraft, now being used for long haul narrow bodied jets, the facilities of which were about to be stretched yet further with the pending introduction of jumbo jets such as Tristar and Boeing 747.
The Omeir Travel Station Manager and his staff of some hundreds were responsible to contracting airlines for the efficient provision of aircraft maintenance, ramp handling, passenger process, baggage and cargo handling, weight and balance control and provision of flight operations information to the flight crews.
The weekly twenty four hour by seven day operation was scheduled to handle three hundred flight movements, using telex communications and manual working procedures; access to information via computer was some years away yet.
Slim line, vinyl covered, lockable metal briefcases were a must for young upwardly mobile Station Managers at that time and I was quietly proud to be the owner of a new slick black one when first descending to the tarmac from my air conditioned Vickers VC10. In those days passengers were required to take a short walk across from the aircraft parking area to the terminal building, and I was halfway there when my right trouser leg started to saturate! Welcome to Abu Dhabi's summer: ninety degrees, both heat and humidity - condensation courtesy of “Samsonite“.
I enjoyed the somewhat Arabic looking architectural design of the passenger terminal, a single storey with small side windows and a smooth unusually steep sloping roof of multiple peaks, each with four sides, almost desert tent-like. An ugly extension with a flat roof had been added to provide more adequate facilities for Customs and Immigration in a newer International Arrivals section.
I settled in. Domestically I was comparatively lucky, I moved into a three year old high rise “Russian” cell block with both intermittent lifts and air conditioners and decomposing water piping in the process of being replaced throughout.
At work I leaned heavily on Gopinath, my shrewd assistant, who was long experienced in the management of common objectives to be achieved between our Abu Dhabi overlords and their corrupt sycophantic management, myself, my staff, and not least the timely movements of the travelling public and their goods and chattels.
The Engineering Manager was a solidly competent Scot, “Mac” who usually did not need my direct help except to sign off the expenditure, including that of the booze up we both enjoyed with the mostly Indian engineering staff on Friday evenings, a regular event that I was kindly allowed to sponsor in lieu of my distinct absence of technical skills. However, one morning “Mac” came in early to solicit my help and possible advice!
These were the days when even the most modern passenger jets did not carry their own auxiliary power units and hence when their engines were shut down each one needed ground based power connected to keep their technical systems alive and an air
conditioning unit connected to blow in cold air in a never ending effort to keep the passenger cabin hospitable. In an Abu Dhabi summer the outside temperature on the tarmac could regularly be some one hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit and overly
sweaty punters ending or beginning a long flight were not readily amused.
We owned four air conditioning units, all of which needed to be serviceable if we were to avoid the additional expense of leaving deodorant and flannel on twenty five percent of seats, together with an individual note of apology stating that we had inadvertently overlooked the fact that it was summer time. Mac’s challenge was that one of the air conditioners had declared itself permanently unserviceable because its engine had finally given up the ghost mainly due to feeling generally knackered after too many years of lovingly applied vinegar and brown paper. What to do?
The required replacement engine was an FMC product and an enquiry of the local monopoly dealership revealed that they had a very sensible money spinning commercial policy; they imported complete vehicle units ready to drive away and as few spare
component parts as possible in order to maximize the vehicle sales units sold. So if your vehicle unfortunately went wrong you simply bought another one, didn’t you! As such a policy did not fall in line with our aspirations or budget, Mac and I reluctantly concluded that for the rest of this summer we should indeed stock up on deodorant and flannel, but we should be prudent enough to spend a considerable amount of time on the structure and precise wording of the notes of apology to be placed on seats!
As I was paying, it was my habit to invite a mystery guest or two to attend our Friday evening Engineering Department social, and that week it was the turn of the Airport Deputy Director, an Englishman struggling good-humouredly with a miniscule budget to make this airport last out until the new flashy one was completed in a few years' time. As you do, we got mildly amiable as the evening went on, and a loosened tongue revealed our company's little secret about the inadequacy of future air conditioning in front of our influential guest. My first reaction was to be a bit peeved by this unnecessary public revelation, but this negative response was quickly forgotten when, astonishingly and after so few drinks, the highly respected Deputy looked dreamily into the desert and said: "I think I know where you can find a suitable replacement engine; why don't you look in the snow ploughs?" Quizzical looks were exchanged between us and sympathetic laughter followed too quickly; we were used to far more subtle jokes, but did not want to offend our guest. So the subject was then dropped by the introduction of some boring raunchy macho jokes which inevitably got tedious, the party ended, and we all went staggering home.
Next morning Mac was back! He explained that his old retainer on the night shift had been subjected to a boring retelling of the Deputy's weak snow plough joke and much to everyone's surprise he had responded by actually confirming the existence of two such machines about a mile into the desert adjacent to the airport. To prove that the Director was was not totally 'doolally' he had dispatched two of his mechanics between flights to confirm the monsters were still there and advise as to their condition. The resulting technical report confirmed two unused machines with keys in the ignition, containing FMC power units suitable as replacements for our sick air conditioner, very very sandy especially against the huge ploughs where snow should really have been, with large amounts of surface oxydization elsewhere. Estimated working time to remove one engine, transport it, service it, fit it to the air conditioner and hence stop our daily production of cautiously worded notes of apology; five days. Wow! Bingo!
Having so enjoyed his invititation the previous evening, the Deputy was surprised but happy to accept another one to join me for lunch, my objectives in order being a) to secure the release of a snow-plough engine, b) gratis and c) both engines, both gratis. Indeed I almost succeeded in achieving all of the above by skilfully employing the nasty tactic of loosely implying that those un-airconditioned passengers who complained would not be aware which organization had failed to cool them down; most did not know the demarcation line between Agency and Airport Authority responsibility, and in their anger would not care anyway. They would long remember and further relay that Abu Dhabi stank! We concluded the deal by both signing a legal transfer of ownership document for the consideration of 100 US Dollars per engine, the value of which was to be delivered by our flight kitchen to Airport Authority Moslem employees in the form of sundown meal boxes during the upcoming Ramadhan. So the investment by my employer in "Negotiating Skills" training for me had been worth it after all.
Of course, then I had to ask the inevitable question: "Why snow-ploughs at a desert airport with no previous record of frost and extremely rare precipitation of any kind?" A slow smile crossed the face of the Deputy and for a moment he considered whether I could be a confidant of his or not. Clearly being of unsound judgment, he then told me the following tale.
During civil aviation's great leap forward in the 1960s, the French company Aeroports de Paris were designing and producing prefabricated terminals for small airports, capable of delivery to any airport authority worldwide, along with related user equipment. A quirk of colonial history and closer relationships recently initiated by Charles de Gaulle resulted in anumber of these instant airports being in process of delivery to Quebec as a job lot in an effort to enhance the civil aviation facilities in the province, while also having the advantage of making the English-speaking part of Canada jealous and upset.
Simultaneously their expanding aviation needs pressed the government of Abu Dhabi to move forward from the dangers of operating out of tents with guy ropes and the lighting of oil drum flares for night landing; they needed sophistication, and quickly.
After not much of a haggle, to the disappointment of Quebec's desire to embarrass English-speaking Canada, and for twice the profit to Aeroports de Paris, the new order for Abu Dhabi was fulfilled by the purchase of a Bill of Lading with the description: 'Canadian Domestic Airport' and diverting one ship already at sea en route for Montreal to the Persian Gulf.
A few weeks later this new instant airport was delivered. It was not capable of handling international passengers, hence the requirement for a flat roofed extension to house customs and immigration, but more than capable of withstanding the worst of a Canadian winter with a steeply sloping tent-like smooth roof so that snow would fall off it, and of course all manner of related equipment, including two nice big strong snow-ploughs in order to keep the runway and hard stand operational in all weathers.
So, will the small town Airport Manager in deepest Quebec, who never received his shipment from Aeroports de Paris, finally come clean and own up please? I know where it is, it's a long time ago, and it wasn't your fault!
Editor's Note: This is one of a series of reminiscences published by Graham Moss under the title "Plane Tales". It is available for purchase on Amazon.