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2011 Articles

JAN 04 2011
Sharjah - Just like Moscow but in the desert....

So what is it with GAR, Pauls and Russian aircraft? Unlike my colleague Paul Filmer, I prefer to keep warm when shooting aircraft on ramps around the world! My last visit to the Emirate of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates came in 2004.

Sharjah neighbours Dubai in the UAE and has been a major draw for aircraft enthusiasts from around the world for many years. Unlike the shiny mega hub airport at Dubai, Sharjah had always been the airport that the local population used to get to the destinations not considered viable by Emirates Airline. The advantage of this was that it brought in aircraft and airlines that were much more interesting.

My last visit was one of the last to be made before Sharjah Airport embarked on a major redevelopment programme with both terminal and airport infrastructure being upgraded. The redevelopment meant that many of the aircraft and maintenance companies based at Sharjah would move on to other less conspicuous airports around the UAE.

When you walked out on to any one of the ramps at Sharjah you were greeted with line after line of Russian designed aircraft. You really could be in Russia, and with the influx of support technicians even the local language was Russian! The only giveaway that you were not was being surrounded by desert and the temperature was pushing 40 degrees.

The two active cargo ramps usually presented rows of Ilyushin Il-76 freighters awaiting their next trade. Mixed in with the Ilyushins would be various designs of Antonovs. It's strange to think that western built aircraft were the rarities on the ramps, the odd Boeing 707 or McDonnell Douglas DC-8 being the exception.

The running costs and supply of aircraft certainly made the Russian equipment more viable for those companies operating in the Middle East, Africa and The Caucasus. Lufthansa and Singapore Cargo were probably the most well known operators to those that don't know their Russian hardware.

The giant maintenance ramps were like an "Aladdin's cave" for those of us that like the more unusual operators and aircraft. Here you would find aircraft parked, stored, under maintenance, being scrapped, being repainted (in the open air) or just sat there with nobody really knowing why!

The desert weather meant that aircraft were regularly worked on without going in to a hangar. Yes even including repainting - although some of the paint skills were pretty lacking. Some aircraft carried multiple operator titles, with some not even going to the trouble of getting the paint brush out and just applying new titles over the old. Some of the aircraft liveries could best be described as mix and match.

Registrations were a curious phenomena: some aircraft would carry one registration, others would carry two or three different ones and some seemingly wore no registration at all. What was that about regulations? Many aircraft were registered to countries of convenience so they could remain airworthy. Sudan, Liberia, Congo and the Central African Republic were very popular places to register.

Propeller driven Antonov's were certainly the most popular aircraft to be found, An-12s being the most common with a smattering of An-24 and An-26.

Two An-8s were also to be found in the livery of Santa Cruz Imperial. In 2004 Antonov withdrew the airworthiness certificate for the An-8, which meant that worldwide all An-8s were legally grounded. Presumably the news hadn't filtered down to Sharjah where one of the two examples was being worked on to return it to the air and was seen flying in Africa two years later!

A pair of expensive to operate jet powered An-74s was also present on this visit.

Ilyushin models present were numerous Il-76s in various states of repair and five turboprop Il-18s, two of these flown by Phoenix Avia which were regularly flown. A number of Yak 40s were also present along with a single Yak 42 of Sudan Airways.

Western built aircraft were again in short supply. The biggest aircraft present was the stored Kinshasa Airways Boeing 747SP, which is still present in 2011 and seemingly fit for the scrapman. Another 747 was the derelict Air Gulf Falcon example still in basic British Airways livery. Also present were stored Kinshasa Airways Boeing 707 and McDonnell Douglas DC-8 and a number of 707s devoid of operator markings.

Passenger operations at the airport also seemed to attract rare operators who liked to operate the Tupolev Tu-154. On my visit examples from Atyrau Airways of Kazakhstan (now banned in the EU), Caspian Airlines and Aria Air of Iran, Air Libya Tibesti, Tajikistan Airlines and Tatarstan Air, were all operating scheduled services.

Western aircraft were represented by visitors, a My Travel Denmark Airbus A330 making a stopover on a flight to the Far East, a Malev Hungarian Boeing 737 on a long range charter, and an Indian Airlines Airbus A320 on a scheduled flight. The first two Sharjah based Air Arabia Airbus A320s were also flying on this visit. Air Arabia was formed in 2003 and was the UAE's first low cost operator and they have grown as the airport has been developed.

Sharjah Airport has changed much in the seven years since I last visited. The terminal and passenger facilities have been considerably improved and expanded to match the growth of resident Air Arabia and other airlines that take advantage of the "open skies" policy.

The cargo operation has expanded and yes, the Il-76s still ply their trade, but western types are becoming more common as prices drop and a glut of surplus aircraft becomes available.

Missing are the old turboprops that used to be the backbone of operations and the reason why Sharjah was such a draw. The UAE aviation authority at one stage banned operations by An-12s due to safety fears.

The maintenance facilities have certainly changed becoming much more like those in Europe with purpose built hangars. The rare and unusual have moved out but can still be found in other parts of the UAE, you just need to know where to look and be extremely careful.

Looking back through my images Iím always amazed at the variety of aircraft types and their operators, that was always the biggest reason to visit Sharjah. On checking data the majority of these aircraft operators are now banned from operating in the EU for safety reasons. An even colder thought is that numerous aircraft pictured have been involved in fatal accidents, one of the Il-76 crashed less than a month after my visit.

GAR wants to interact with its readers so if you have a question for the author or a comment to make on this feature, please click on the button below. The best comments will appear right here on GAR.

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2012-05-22 - Chris Lambert
Thank you. Your page has been most helpful in trying to locate freight companies that still use Russian made aircraft. I need this information as my company has several tasks that require the "cheaper" costs than usual.

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