1 Ballooning: While most of us are in a heavy slumber before dawn breaks, more intrepid souls are gearing up for one of the most incredible airborne experiences the UAE has to offer: hot-air ballooning with Balloon Adventures.
The experience kicks off at the somewhat antisocial hour of 4.30am, when early birds then meet outside Plug-ins, Festival City car park, to be whisked away to the middle of Al Ain. (The company also arranges transfers from Abu Dhabi as the distance is exactly between the two cities). Here, balloonists are put through their paces by the lively commands of charismatic captain Peter Kollar, who prepares them for the giddy heights of 4,000ft. Once balloon boot camp is finished, and the roaring flames have inflated what is one of the largest balloons in the world, a cargo of up to 24 souls is lifted skywards.
The silence and sense of stillness at these heights is astonishing, and the beauty of the desert illuminated by rosy-fingered dawn is truly a sight to behold – especially if you’re lucky enough to spot herds of nomadic camels journeying across the sands or frisky Arabian gazelles (a rarity in the wild) bound across dawn-washed dunes.
Returning back to earth is equally as much fun. The hot air eases out of the balloon and you begin the descent towards the dunes. Because of the unusual wind conditions in the desert (the closer to the ground, the stronger the wind) landing can prove to be a bit of a bump – but a humorous experience nonetheless. Everyone must brace themselves as the basket hits the round with a thud. It then gently overturns on its side.
As an added bonus, each participant receives a flight certificate – something for the mantelpiece.
Balloon trips cost Dhs950 per person.
2 Helicopter: Is there anything more rock ‘n’ roll than zipping around the skies in a helicopter? Well, yes... being an actual rock star. Failing this, however, you can at least pretend you’re one by boarding one of Falcon Aviation or Alpha Tours’ helicopters with your entourage (mates) or a hot date – providing you have the cash to flash, of course. It’s a special way to fly, not to mention a great way to impress (read: compensate for your inadequacies).
Tours set off from Dubai Festival City and the fleet of helicopters are all VIP configured (meaning they’re blinged up). But what is there to see from your elevated vantage point? This really depends on where you want to fly. Companies offer a range of scenic flights that take in all the man-made and natural wonders of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It’s also possible to tailor your own flight by request. For example, if you and your date need to be at Sir Bani Yas Island at 8pm for a romantic dinner (hey, we can dream) then these air cupids will draw up a schedule accordingly. For a nominal price, of course.
Check www.falconaviation.ae for a quote.
3 Three-axis fixed-wing microlight: Fixed-wing microlights are essentially small planes, and they are controlled in the same manner. Unlike the weight shift microlight, these aircraft have control over three axes, and can usually fly for longer amounts of time.
For scaredy-cats, these mini flying wonders give the illusion of more safety because they have an enclosed cockpit.
The Jazirah Aviation Club offers fun flights from 15 minutes to one hour, ranging between Dhs150 and Dhs550 for a joyride in the sky above Ras al Khaimah and Umm al Quwain. According to Jazirah Aviation Club’s Captain Pillai, the views over these areas are particularly pretty. ‘Once we take off, we fly over the sea, over the desert and close to the mountains,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot to see, like birdlife, marine life and all the man-made islands along the coast like Murjan Island, Mina al Arab Island, the Cove, as well as the beautiful creek in Ras al Khaimah.’
Courses cost Dhs17,000 (25 hours of flying and 15-20 hours of ground classes).
4 Weight-shift flexi-wing microlight: The weight-shift microlight is a primitive creature and looks rather like something that the Wright Brothers might have knocked up over the weekend. Those willing to brave this curious contraption (picture a motorcycle sidecar suspended on a pivot under a giant wing) can rest assured this lightweight, propeller-powered, one-to-two-seater craft is actually far stronger than it looks.
Unlike a normal plane, whereby you pull on the yoke and the craft goes upwards, pulling on the bar of the microlight inverts the wing, causing it to do the opposite with alarming swiftness. Your velocity is determined as much by the shape of the wing as by the power of the engine (top speed ranges from 80-120kmph).
The microlight feels very brittle, and there is little sensation of being supported by anything. When the craft circles through the air, you will find yourself at a 45-degree angle to the earth, clinging with mortal intent to the framework. And did we mention there’s an open cockpit? This might sound scary because you’re completely exposed to the elements, but aside from the odd insect whacking into your head, nothing quite beats the sensation of flying with the wind against your face.
5 Paragliding: If you’re planning to make a hobby of it, then you may as well nab yourself a paragliding pilot’s licence with Abu Dhabi’s Micro Aviation Club. Alternatively, you can arrange a flight with licensed school and tour company Al Marsa Musandam in Dibba, which charges Dhs350 per flight. Another option is to stay at the Six Senses Hideaway resort at Zighy Bay where hotel guests can actually paraglide down to reception to check in. Zighy Bay is one of the best (and only) places to paraglide in the area, thanks to the nearby mountain facing the sparkling Strait of Hormuz.
Other areas include Ras al Khaimah and some dunes in the desert. Paragliding is fairly simple. After buckling up the harness, you launch into the air by running down a gentle slope until your canopy catches the wind. From there on, movement is smooth and graceful – there’s no sensation of falling (as you might imagine), just the marvellous sensation of airborne freedom. Along with magnificent views, there’s absolutely no noise, so you’re free as a bird to glide and soar above the earth in serene silence.
A course of lessons (30-40 hours) costs Dhs5,500.
6 Paramotoring: Paramotoring is essentially paragliding with, as the name suggests, a motor. What’s more, according to Flysometime (the only paramotoring school in the UAE with BMAA-licensed instructors) it is the lightest form of motorised human aviation.
A paraglider canopy is attached to a small lawnmower-sized engine equipped with a propeller, which is strapped onto your back (conveniently, the entire package can be packed away to neatly fit into the boot of a car). The engines used are typically two-stroke engines, and while they are fairly noisy on the ground the sound dies off quickly once they reach a cruising altitude.
Take-off involves revving up the paramotor and a short run into a headwind no stronger than 20kmph. Before you know it, you’re off. Paramotors can reach an altitude of 3,000m (the contraptions have even flown as high as Mount Everest), though you won’t be able to reach such dizzying heights in the UAE owing to aviation restrictions.
Once the parachute is filled with air it acts as a moveable wing. The difference to a microlight is that a powered parachute uses a throttle and two footslides to pull the straps of the parachute to direct the craft. It’s also impossible to stall the engine, meaning you can spend less time worrying, and more time ogling at the views over Ras al Khaimah – the craft flies low enough to get a good look at desert foxes and donkeys meandering around the dunes.
7 Parasailing: For the unaccustomed, parasailing involves being attached to a parachute and towed in the air behind a motorboat, ascending heights of up to 250ft. You, meanwhile, sit as comfortably as a pensioner in an armchair, safe in the knowledge that you’re harness is attached to the boat by Kevlar chord (a synthetic fibre that’s stronger steel, apparently), so there’s no chance of you floating off. As the speed of the boat increases, you get higher, and are privileged to a noiseless, bird’s eye view of the Palm Jumeriah, and statuesque structures such as the Atlantis hotel.
8 Powered parachuting: In as little as 15 hours you can become a powered parachute pilot, learning the skills under the expert instruction of licensed powered parachuting instructor Kevin Donaldson at the Jazirah Aviation Club. Kevin offers individual instruction in one of two powered parachute flying machines – small crafts you can actually sit in, with three wheels and an engine attached to a parachute. Training costs Dhs400 per hour (though you need to also pay for club membership at Dhs1,000 for the first year, Dhs500 each year after that), and students will be in the air almost immediately.
‘We try to keep it as fun as possible,’ says Kevin. ‘The whole experience is meant to be fun and you spend it actually learning to fly instead of just sitting down with books.’ To sign up for instruction, you need to get a police clearance, which the club can arrange and takes around two months to process.
Once you’ve obtained your license, powered parachutes can be rented from the club for Dhs300 per hour. And if you fall in love with the sport and want to buy your own, Kevin and the club can import a powered parachute. But you’d better start scrimping and saving: one of these airborne buggies is going to cost somewhere around Dhs100,000.
9 Seaplane: Dubai has a ‘wow’ factor from the ground, but imagine what it looks like from a plane. And we’re not talking about any old window seat on an Emirates flight from DXB airport; a much better option is to take a scenic flight over Dubai with Seawings, in their Cessna 208 Caravan amphibian aircraft.
These sightseeing tours offer gasp-worthy, sweeping views over the fronds of the Palm Jumeirah, and all the other man-made ‘wonders’ the UAE has to offer. Peering out of the window from your plush leather seat, it’s a Dubai you’ve never seen before, and trust us – you’ll bag some pretty spectacular photos while you’re up there.
Al Marsa Musandam offers sightseeing flights around the Musandam area, setting off from Dibba in their Motor Delta light flying machine, which has an open-air cockpit, meaning you can feel the wind in your hair while taking in the best views there are to be had of the UAE.