Aviation in Bahrain

Historically, Bahrain has acted as a gateway between the East and the West, providing a natural transit destination for early trade routes and a strategic hub for the Northern Gulf. Air services, which commenced in the early 1930s, have played a very important role in shaping the development of the country's infrastructure and economy.

The first scheduled commercial flight arrived in Bahrain in October 1932 en-route from London to Delhi. The aircraft only carried 24 passengers, and had taken several days of flying to reach Bahrain, with frequent refuelling stops and overnight stays in hotels for the passengers. Nonetheless, with the commencement of these regular services, Bahrain became established as the Gulf's first international airport.

Prior to the commencement of scheduled services, Imperial Airways, the forerunner of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and later British Airways had operated several flights through the Gulf in the late 1920's. According to records, the first Imperial Airways flight to Bahrain occurred in August 1927, when a local pearl merchant chartered an aircraft from Baghdad - Iraq to Bahrain. Even for this relatively short flight, an overnight stop in Basra was required.

The Handley Page HP 42 became the standard long-haul aircraft for Imperial Airways and was used on the route between the UK and India after the airline began scheduled services via Basrah - Iraq, Bahrain and Sharjah – United Arab Emirates, with Kuwait added soon after as an optional calling point. By 1936 the operation had been become a twice-weekly regularly scheduled flight.

In 1937, a passenger terminal, known as "Bahrein Marine Airport", (the spelling of Bahrain had yet to be standardized) was established to accommodate the rise of the commercial “flying boat” long haul aircraft.  Bahrain saw the start of regular service by the famous Short's Empire seaplanes. The "landing strip" for these lumbering giants was a stretch of water between the Marina Club’s – located on Bahrain’s northern coast - and Mina Salman Port.

Flying-boat services to Bahrain continued into the early 1950s. At their height, what by then had become BOAC was operating several services a week through Bahrain.These included weekly services to Karachi, Singapore, Hong Kong and three times a week to Sydney.

By 1950 BOAC was already looking to return to more traditional forms of air transport which offered a greater passenger payload. This saw the return of commercial passenger flights to Muharraq using Argonauts, a four engine aircraft, which could carry up to 60 passengers. Services were steadily built-up to the point where there were three Argonaut services a week from Europe terminating in Bahrain.

The year 1950 was made even more significant for Bahrain’s commercial aviation history as it was the year Gulf Aviation Company was formed - the forerunner of Gulf Air.

The airline was created with just one aircraft, a second-hand Anson Mark ll, which was used initially on services to Dhahran – Saudi Arabia. But within two years the fleet had expanded to four De Havilland aircrafts and four DC-3s for use on a steadily growing network in the Gulf.

By this time Bahrain was firmly established as an international staging post. It was easily the most modern and advanced airport in the Gulf with a good runway, control tower, lighting, communication facilities and even restaurants. It began to attract other carriers such as Middle East Airlines, Air India, Air Ceylon and Iran Airways - all mostly operating Dakotas.

In 1954, Bahrain's position as the major airport in the region was further enhanced with the establishment of a new Flight Information Region based in Bahrain to cover the navigation of aircrafts in transit through Gulf airspace. This saw the installation of modern navigational and communications equipment.

Soon after this, Bahrain entered the jet age with the arrival of the Comet and then the Boeing 707. These aircrafts reduced the number of stops the airlines had to make on long-haul routes. With many intermediary stops withdrawn, the advent of the jet age again focused attention on Bahrain as a major stopover point between Europe and the Far East.

To cater for this growing transit traffic a new passenger terminal was opened at the airport in December 1961. Aviation growth grew exponentially throughout the decade, and was further catalysed by the advent of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet which could carry 400 passengers.

Determined to retain its position as a leading regional airport and transit hub, Bahrain executed a further expansion plan for its commercial aviation service sector which was completed in December 1971 with the opening of new passenger facilities and an apron area that could accommodate four B747 aircrafts.

This investment quickly paid dividends with Qantas, BA, Air India and Singapore Airlines all using Bahrain International Airport as a major transit stop with their B747 aircrafts. Unfortunately for Bahrain, all the carriers wanted to make their transit stops at around the same time. Even with the new expanded airport facilities, it quickly became obvious that further expansion would be needed to accommodate these "jumbo peaks." A further expansion phase of the airport was completed in 1976, just five years after the opening of the new passenger terminal.

The year 1976 also marked another significant first for Bahrain International Airport with the inauguration of supersonic flights which saw the start up of regular British Airways Concorde service between London and Bahrain.

During that time, Gulf Air was progressively expanding its network of services and in 1976 received its first Lockheed Tri-Star aircraft. This marked Gulf Air's transformation from a local regional airline with all the significance that implied for its home hub of Bahrain International Airport.

Further expansion of the airport's facilities took place in the early eighties as a prelude to the major expansion and refurbishment programme that was completed in March 1994. The new US$ 100 million terminal was inaugurated in 1994, and this expanded the handling capacity of the airport to 10 million passengers a year.



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