Let’s face it, Abu Dhabi isn’t just a city; the Emirate also encompasses a vast and diverse terrain made up of white beaches, mangrove forests, shifting desert sands and islands and coral reefs surrounded by sparkling seas.
And what better way to see it all than by taking to the air.
Think of the UAE’s aviation industry and you automatically think of Emirates and Etihad airlines. Some of the most successful aviation companies on Earth operate out of the UAE. The downside to this though, is the skies can be a little busy, filled with the big boys flying the largest and newest offerings from Airbus and Boeing.
For safety reasons, private aviation has sensibly been kept to a minimum around the major airports, however if you’re prepared to head out into the desert or keen to try something at a lower altitude, there are some unusual and exhilarating options to try. Whether you want to learn to fly or just take a one-off scenic journey, Abu Dhabi and the UAE have it covered. So buckle up and let TOAD take you through the country’s myriad of flying adventures.
Balloon Rides in Al Ain Expect cloudless sunrises as you float silently over the expanse of desert. Thanks to having no engine your hot air balloon refuses to spoil the serenity of the desert and the sporadic ‘wooosh’ as the operator releases more hot air into the balloon will be the only thing that breaks the silence. This once in a lifetime trip viewing the desert dunes and beautiful wadis is so magical it’s almost surreal. Trips are operated by Balloon Adventures Emirates LLC which has branches in Hungary, Germany and New Zealand, professional staff and is fully licensed by the CAA authority here in the UAE. Just make sure to wear sensible shoes and bring a cap. Trips are available until the end of May. Prices start at Dhs995 per person, children (five-12 years) Dhs850. Balloon Adventures Emirates LLC www.ballooning.ae (04 285 4949).
Helicopter rides With the thwacking noise of the rotors above your head and the ground rushing past 500 metres below your feet, it’s hard to beat the sheer excitement of helicopter travel. Falcon Aviation’s helicopters are not only deeply luxurious inside, but their handling is nimble and the relatively slow acceleration (in comparison to other aircraft) at a lower altitude, makes these rotor-wings an excellent way to explore. Falcon Aviation offers sightseeing trips in their Eurocopter EC130 and corporate charters with an Agusta 109. The company has several flight options to choose from including taxis, corporate and scenic flights. Their 20-minute city viewing route takes passengers past the giant flag pole, the Corniche, Lulu Island, Port Zayed, Saadiyat Island, Emirates Palace and Marina Mall. Falcon Aviation charges Dhs850 per seat and they require a minimum of five passengers to operate this flight. Their 30-minute trip covers all sites above, Yas Island, Al Raha Beach and Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and costs Dhs1,250 per seat. Falcon operates on Friday and Saturday. Marina Mall Heliport and Al Bateen Executive Airport, email@example.com (02 444 8866).
747 Simulator, Al Bateen airport Ok, so technically this isn’t actually flying per se, but in all honesty who’s ever going to let us take control of a real 747? This is the nearest we’re going to get and it’s all very realistic once you get caught up in the action. The simulator is for training flight crew and, luckily for us, the general public. Talk to any pilot and they will tell you that flying is 99.9 percent boredom and 0.1 percent manic, but the sim just delivers all the chaos. In an hour you can take off and land several times, suffer an engine fire and experience all manner of excitement, all from the safety of what is, realistically, an armchair in a caravan. All ages and abilities can have a go and with so many knobs and buttons to explore, you could be in here for ages. Sign up for a session if you fancy a go in the pilot’s seat. Flights cost Dhs350 per hour. To book visit www.mutahida.com (055 411 0300).
Scenic airplane trips You’ll feel like film stars as you’re whisked through the Royal Jet Terminal in Abu Dhabi with its own catered VIP lounge. But your bravery may begin to wane as the chief pilot welcomes you aboard and you leave the ground in something only marginally larger than a minibus. Although it’s a little scary, you’ll immediately forget your fear when you look out the cabin windows to see a panorama of sea and islands. The breathtaking 50-minute scenic voyage ends as you descend on Sir Bani Yas Island with a very smooth landing. The eight-seater Cessna Caravan sea plane is definitely one of the nicest and most exciting ways to experience Abu Dhabi’s 200 islands. Flights are available on Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday. For those requiring an even more exclusive experience, a private charter can easily be organised. Cessna Caravan flights cost Dhs650 per seat each way, however seasonal offers and discounted packages are often available. Contact the Anantara Desert Islands Resort & Spa (02 801 5400).
Paragliding If you fancy soaring like a bird entirely on your own ingenuity while wearing desert thermals, then paragliding is most certainly for you. With only a few dedicated areas in the UAE for paragliding, the Micro-Aviation Club utilises the Dibba area on the Abu Dhabi/Dubai border where there’s a 350m high take-off site facing the ocean. The UAE’s conditions are best for para-motoring (a paraglider with a small motor pack on the back). The club offers qualified European instructors, each of whom are members of the Emirates Aviation Association and FAI. Training courses involve theory, ground work, safety issues and landing and take-off practise. The club can also issue UAE licenses which can then be converted to international or another country’s license. Training fees are Dhs3,500 which include one year’s club membership. Dhs250 for the yearly Emirates Aviation Association registration fee. www.microaviation.org (050 350 4289).
Learn to be a pilot If all these trips are giving you an urge to pilot a machine yourself, then check out Horizon Flight Academy in Al Ain. The flight training centre offers PPL, CPL and various other courses required to make you a real pilot. With several small aircraft and helicopters the centre boasts amazing weather (which means no loss of flying days) and residential courses for future pilots. For more information and prices on request, contact Horizon Flight Academy www.horizonuae.ae (03 785 5550).
Try A RAK microlight A microlight resembles a large set of hang gliding wings with what looks like a homemade go-kart stuck on the underside and a small engine on the back. Its light frame allows it to zip along the ground and pure aerodynamics and a little juice propel it headlong into the wide blue yonder. If you fancy a scenic trip or actually learning to fly this little aviation beast, Ras Al Khaimah is the place to go. All the pilots at the Jazirah Aviation Club hold commercial licenses, and many are qualified flight instructors. The craft have duel seating, allowing the instructors to fly with their clients. They’re also well maintained and each boasts a ballistic rescue system (parachute for the aircraft itself). If a trial flight leaves you demanding more, the centre offers training towards the microlight pilot permit and after obtaining this, customers can hire a microlight and fly alone. For more information and prices contact Captain Amith Pillai, Jazirah Aviation Club, Ras Al Khaimah www.jac-uae.net (07 244 6416).
Skydive Dubai Nothing says mad flying fun like a stomach churning skydive. Jumping from 13,000 feet above the Palm in Jumeirah Dubai, Skydive Dubai offers tandem jumps with photos and video for novices. With great planes and instructors, expect to fall for over a whole, horrifying, minute. There’s a weight restriction of 220lbs and flyers must be over 18 to jump. Experienced jumpers, weekend warriors, fun jumpers, belly flyers, competitors, wing suit flockers, swoopers and vertical formation skydiving ninjas are all more than welcome. A tandem jump for a first-timer with digital stills and video on a CD/DVD is Dhs1,750 and a deposit of Dhs750 reserves your jump slot. firstname.lastname@example.org (050 153 3222).
Parasailing Dubai This exhilarating sport is ideal for those who want the sensation of flight and yet remain safely tethered to earth. Towed by boat along the impressive Dubai coastline the parachute opens and lifts passengers gently above the sand and sea into the blue sky. The session is approximately 15 minutes long and passengers reach heights of 200 metres. It starts with a safety briefing and awareness of the procedures and equipment and you can even have a go at steering the boat! Prices start from Dhs299 and flights can be organized through Arabia Horizon Tours, Airport Road (near Honda showroom), Deira, Dubai www.arabiahorizons.com (04 294 6060).