|Wings Over the Desert.
Aviation on the Arabian Peninsula
© Lennart Andersson
Tail of a Yemen Airlines Douglas C-47 with the red national flag. (Peter Akrell)
After 1945 outside influence in Saudi Arabia gradually shifted from Great Britain to the United States. A special agreement between Saudi Arabia and the USA made the Dhahran air base in the Eastern Province available for use by the USAAF (USAF from 1947). The military side of the involvement was combined with considerable activities of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), formerly Standard Oil of California, which had its centre of operations also at Dhahran, and continued until 1962. After the February 1945 meeting in Egypt of King Ibn Saud with Franklin D Roosevelt, President of the USA, presented a Douglas C-47 (DC-3) Dakota to the King as a gift. Ibn Saud promptly ordered two more aircraft of the same type. These were registered SA-R-1 to SA-R-3. By July 1946 there were no less than six C-47s in the royal fleet while additional aircraft of this type served with ARAMCO. The royal C-47s were operated by American personnel and were used as VIP transports by Ibn Saud and his entourage.
On September 29, 1946, Trans World Airlines (TWA) of Delaware, USA, signed a contract with the Saudi Arabian Government to operate the aircraft of the newly formed, Government-owned Saudi Arabian Airlines (SAA). The airline was in fact an operating agency of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defence. TWA was to operate all aircraft and ground installations for a period of five years, with the provision that either one of the two parties could terminate the agreement at the end of the third year. The Saudi airline's first operating base was set up at Kandara airport, close to what is today the downtown area of Jeddah. The first commercial service of SAA was operated in December 1946 to fly Palestinian pilgrims from Lydda to Jeddah.
SAA inaugurated its first scheduled domestic service on March 14, 1947, on the route Jeddah-Riyadh-Hasa (Hofuf)-Dhahran, followed by the first international service to Cairo on March 16, 1947. Taif, the summer residence of the royal family, was included as a stop on the Dhahran route from June 1947, and this set the standard summer operating pattern for subsequent years. Service to Damascus followed in June 1947.
The Saudi air force had practically ceased to exist and all government aircraft were transferred to SAA. By August 1947, eight Douglas C-47s, two Caproni 101bis and two Caudrons were operated and controlled by TWA on behalf of the airline. The C-47s, and perhaps also the other types, were registered in a series starting with SA-T-1, etc. Scheduled services to regional destinations such as Cairo and Damascus were inaugurated. The first scheduled domestic service had been opened on March 14, 1947. ARAMCO operated two Fairchilds, one Beechcraft and one Noorduyn Norseman on company business, and in addition three C-47s were operated on its behalf by TWA.
In June-September 1949 five Bristol 170 Freighters were acquired by SAA and registered SA-AAA to SA-AAE (ex G-AILZ, AIFX, AIFL, AIFG and AIMD, c/ns 12790, 12783, 12772, 12767 and 12794). The UK Government had offered the Saudi Government to train a number of Saudi pilots in 1947 and this led to the establishment of a British-run Civil Air Training Mission at Taif. Airwork Ltd was contracted to set up and operate a flying school and sent three de Havilland DH.82A Tiger Moths and one Avro Anson Mk I in September 1947. These aircraft kept their British civil registrations and remained property of Airwork. A fourth Tiger Moth and a de Havilland DH 89A Dragon Rapide were later added. In July 1949 ten Saudi student pilots went to the United Kingdom for advanced training. They were chosen to fly the airline's Bristol Freighters but it was later decided to transfer them to the new Saudi Air Force instead.
In 1951 a mutual defence assistance agreement was signed with the USA and the Royal Saudi Air Force began to acquire US-built aircraft. Six C-47s and ten Temco TE-1B (T-35) Buccaroo armed trainers were supplied in 1952 and ten North American T-6 Texan advanced trainers in 1952-53. National markings in the form of a green and white roundel with crossed scimitars and a date palm superimposed were adopted and the national flag served as a fin flash.
One of the six Italian aircraft delivered to Yemen in March-April 1926, a SAML S.2. The marking on the fuselage is actually the Yemeni national flag, which was red with white script. (Roberto Gentilli)
Imam Yahya's Air Force
In October 1918 the Kingdom of Yemen became independent from the Ottoman Empire but the country was not internationally recognised until in 1926. The King, or Imam, Yahya (Yahia) Ibn Muhammad, was to reign at Sanaa for thirty years until his death in February 1948. In the early 1920s, his standing army consisted of approximately 60,000 men, all armed with Mauser rifles but wearing no uniforms. The army was lead by Turkish officers. It was reported to have a large number of field guns and large stocks of ammunition and rifles in reserve. An ammunition factory was operated at Sanaa by a Yugoslavian (or possibly German) and an Australian.
When Yemenite forces were bombed by the RAF Flight at Aden in January 1922 the Imam became interested in acquiring his own aircraft. In fact a damaged aircraft was already in the possession of the Imam, possibly a captured downed RAF machine, and some steps were taken to repair it. Suitable gasoline was not available at Sanaa, however, and with no expert personnel present it is highly unlikely that this aircraft was ever made airworthy.
During the period July-October 1925 the RAF at Aden was used in support of British ground forces operating against Yemen. Frequent machine-gunning and bombing sorties were made. One aircraft was hit by a rifle bullet in the engine and had to land and was burnt by its pilot. The British-Italian rivalry over political influence on the Arabian Peninsula ended with Italian victory in Yemen, surely a consequence of these hostilities. Imam Yahya turned to Italy for help and on September 2, 1926, a formal agreement was signed between the two countries.
Negotiations had taken place with Italian interests already in 1924, when Yemen had asked for the supply two aircraft and two instructors. Italian Pastori, who had earlier sold aircraft to Hejaz, was able to secure a contract on January 6, 1926, under which he was to deliver six aircraft to Yemen. In March three of them were landed at Hodeidah by the Italian ship 'Lomedano'. The remaining three arrived in April. All were found to be old and worn, but according to one report they were delivered as a gift from Italy. Fuel and parts for them were landed at Hodeidah under the escort of two Italian destroyers.
The Imam complained officially about the state of the aircraft and said that they were unable to fly any distance without breaking down. In July 1926 the Italian Government of Eritrea agreed to send better aircraft to Yemen and in the following month one machine, which was believed to be new, was landed at Hodeidah. It was a present from the Italian Governor of Eritrea. Four (or six) Italian airmen had arrived with the first aircraft, but only one or two of them were pilots. The aircraft were assembled by the Italian pilot Schiona, who had earlier served in the Hejaz Air Force, and a mechanic.
It is not known exactly which aircraft types and how many of each type that were involved. At least one was a single-seat Hanriot HD.1 fighter and one an Ansaldo SVA 10 two-seater. One has been identified as a SAML S2 from photographic evidence. Judging from the types and numbers of presently surviving propellers it has been suggested that the seven aircraft might have possibly comprised two two-seat Ansaldo SVAs, one single-seat Ansaldo A.1 Balilla fighter, two SAML S2s, one Hanriot HD.1 and one unknown.
A small flying school was started by the Italian personnel and in May 1927 a party of twelve young men from Yemen was sent to the Breda Flying School in Milano for flying training. Ten of them were accepted on June 7, and in spite of the difficulties caused by the language barrier and an absence of mechanical knowledge of any sort, they received their certificates in August 1928. A Yemenite mission, including Emir Seif, visited Italy in the early autumn of 1927, but it is not known what the purpose of that visit was.
In May 1927 Yemen acquired a Junkers F 13 transport and a Junkers A 35 two-seater. The A 35, German registration D1171, was flown after re-assembly on August 20. (Junkers Nachrichten)
A rich Egyptian named Hassan Anis Pasha bought himself a Junkers F 13 floatplane (c/n 766), which was christened 'Anis', but delivery of the German-made aircraft to Egypt was not sanctioned by the British authorities. It was instead stationed in Athens for some time and in May 1926 Anis Pasha asked for permission to make a flight to Yemen. Imam Yahya had invited him to travel to Sanaa with his Junkers 'as an Egyptian private aircraft, to organise aviation and discuss aircraft purchases'. It is not known if the trip was ever made but in May 1927 Junkers offered via Anis Pasha (Arabia Trading Company) to deliver a Junkers F 13 six-seat transport and a Junkers A 35 two-seater. The offer was quickly accepted and an order was signed.
On July 27, 1927, the crated aircraft, a Junkers L5 spare engine, a large supply of spare part and equipment for a small repair shop were loaded on the Dutch steamer 'Bovenkerk' in Rotterdam. The ship arrived at Hodeidah on August 17. The large boxes, weighing up to 9,920 lbs (4,500 kg), had to be moved from the steamer to smaller ships, which brought them to the shore. They were then landed at high tide. As there were no cranes or docks and no timber to build a ramp from they had to be lifted from the ships manually by several hundred workers!
The aircraft were accompanied by two pilots, Heinrich Arntzen and Hans Täschner, and two mechanics, Wilhelm Schmidt and Paul Schubert, who started to assemble them. In the morning of August 20, the A 35 (c/n 1090, German registration D1171) was flown for the first time, the F 13 (c/n 2007, German registration D1173) followed somewhat later. On August 23, the first mail flight from Hodeidah over some 13,100 ft (4,000 m) high mountain ranges to Sanaa was made by Arntzen. The trip took 45 minutes instead of the normal eight days. After a demonstration to the Imam at Sanaa, the aircraft were formally handed over. A small workshop was erected at Sanaa and Junkers offered to deliver hangars for Hodeidah and Sanaa.
Wilhelm Schmidt's one-year contract with the Yemenite Government, represented by El Moutawakkilieh, has been preserved. It is dated September 2, 1927. Schmidt was expected to service the aircraft and to train Yemenite mechanics. In addition to this he was to convert the A 35 into the armed version of the same model (K 53), if required. Disaster was soon to strike the Junkers mission to Yemen, however, and Schmidt was destined not to serve the full term of his contract.
On October 3, 1927, Täschner took off in the A 35 from Sanaa on a training mission with mechanic Schubert and a Yemenite flying student as passengers. Some steep turns were made at 165-500 ft (50-150 m), when the aircraft was seen to stall, enter a spin and crash. All three on board were killed. It was first rumoured that the Yemenite student was the Imam's son, but this was soon found to be in error. On October 12, both Junkers aircraft were fully paid for by the Imam and Arntzen left on the following day via Aden and travelled to Cairo with Hassan Anis Pasha. He reported that there were as many as 10-15 Italians at Sanaa, but that the aircraft that they had delivered were 'worthless'.
A new pilot, Martin Hänichen, was sent out and arrived at Hodeidah early in January 1928. Like Arntzen he showed little admiration for the Italians and soon after his arrival he reported home that the Italians had tricked the Imam into buying an ancient and almost worthless plant for making powder. The Italian pilots, he wrote, had flown only twice after they arrived. Hänichen had been ordered to begin the training of students but found this extremely difficult due to the lack of an interpreter.
There were frequent clashes along Yemen's border with Aden. In February 1928 the Imam's forces captured al-Dali on the Aden side of the border. During February and March 1928 No 8 Squadron of the RAF at Aden bombed the Imam's forces and pushed them back into Yemen. Fighting broke out again in June and continued until August. One RAF pilot was killed during this period. When the RAF bombed some of the coast cities, flying at Sanaa and Hodeidah was stopped. The Junkers F 13 was disassembled and stored.
The Yemeni Junkers F13 photographed at Sanaa in April 1955. It survived until the 1960s when it was destroyed. (Ingvar Svensson)
In February 1929 Hänichen left Yemen and travelled to Cairo. He now reported that seven RAF aircraft had been shot down or had made forced landings, and repeated his previous opinion that the Italian aircraft at Sanaa were old and completely useless. There were now six Yemenite pilots, trained in Italy. The Junkers had been left in good shape. The last known report on the 'Yemen Air Force' is from October 1930. At that time five (remaining) Italian aircraft were unserviceable ('useless'). Imam Yahya was very strongly opposed to the exploitation of his country by foreign interests and this is probably the reason for not trying to 'import' aviation again until just before the Second World War. A fascinating but sad fact is that the Junkers F 13 was preserved almost intact in Sanaa right until the 1960s, when it was used as raw material in an aluminium works!
Imam's Private Fleet
Three Polish-made DWL RWD-13 high-wing cabin monoplanes (c/ns 259, 260 and 261) powered by the 130 hp Gipsy Major engine were sold to the Imam by Andrea Papadopoulos in Athens. One of them was flown to Sanaa in July 1939 by a Polish pilot and was demonstrated to the Imam. As it was registered YEMEN-2 it can be assumed that the others, which arrived at Hodeidah in crates by boat, were YEMEN-1 and YEMEN-3. In the end Imam Yahya did not accept delivery of these aircraft. Probably as a consequence of the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, they could not be returned either to Poland or to Greece. By May 1942 both YEMEN-2 and the two crated aircraft were still at Sanaa and Hodeidah, respectively, and it is unlikely that any of them was flown during the war.
Three Polish-made RWD-13s were sold to Imam Yahya in 1939. One of them, YEMEN 2, is seen here in 1949. The year '1939' is painted on the engine cowling. (A J Jackson Collection)
Imam Yahya ibn Muhammad died in February 1948 and was succeeded by his son, Ahmad al-Shams. The new King seems to have taken up his father's interest in aviation because Yemenite representatives immediately started to acquire new aircraft and to hire pilots and mechanics. A three-engined AAC 1 transport, the French-built copy of the Junkers Ju 52/3m, (c/n 73, ex LR-AAC) was bought in Lebanon in April 1948 and became YEMEN 1. Unfortunately, nothing is known about this aircraft's service and final fate in Yemen, but it seems to have disappeared after a short time.
The Swedish company AB Industridiesel (previously known as Ahrenbergsflyg) sold a Noorduyn UC-64A Norseman (c/n 413, ex SE-ATC) to Egypt in 1948. Swedish pilots Thorsten Akrell and Folke Höök were hired to fly the aircraft to Cairo. Upon arrival in mid-May, Akrell and Nils Hultén, who had arrived from Sweden, were both arrested as it was suspected that the aircraft was in fact destined for Palestine. Industridiesel's managing director, Carl Hardeberg, arrived in Cairo and managed to convince the British authorities that this was not the case. He soon found out, however, that the original buyer had no money and decided to sell to someone else. This is the official version, the truth could well have been that the Norseman was intended for the new Israel Air Force, which was at that time trying to acquire aircraft clandestinely from every source available.
In Cairo Hardeberg met with Prince Seif al-Islam Abdullah, the King of Yemen's brother, and he sold the Norseman to him on June 14, 1948. At the same time Akrell and Hultén were engaged by the King of Yemen as pilots. The Norseman was delivered as YEMEN 4 from Cairo via Luxor and Jeddah to Hodeidah on July 27-29 and, on July 31, this aircraft made the first landing ever at the new Taizz airfield.
Yemen Airlines C-47 YE-AAB 'Belquis' in the air.
By now three prepared airfields existed in Yemen: Sanaa, Hodeidah and Taizz, which was the new seat of the King. In October 1948 the King purchased two Douglas C-47 Dakotas from Salpanavi Società di Navigazione Aerea in Italy and Italian crews were hired for them. The C-47s were stationed at Taizz along with the Norseman. One of the C-47s was flown to Cairo for overhaul in May 1949, but returned only in December. After some controversy over the prolonged repair and other issues, the Italian crews left in December 1949.
A number of Swedish pilots and mechanics were hired to replace them. By mid-December 1948 pilots Royn Janzon and Tord Lund and mechanics John Eriksson and Tage Gustafsson were already in Cairo with their families and waiting for the first available air transport to Yemen. The men went early in January 1949, but the women and children were sent to Aden to await better living conditions at Taizz. They found it difficult to get their contracts signed and because of this and other problems two of them left during 1949. Akrell and Hultén remained in Yemen until 1950 and Tord Lund was killed in a crash in 1955. Tage Gustafsson stayed in Yemen as Technical Chief of Yemen Airlines until the early 1960s and was killed in a car crash in 1964. A total of nine Swedish pilots and six mechanics were to serve in Yemen during the 1950s.
In March 1949 Akrell was ordered to go to Hodeidah to pick up the old RWD-13 YEMEN 2, which had been stored there, probably since 1939. It was test-flown several times and was then transferred to Aden in August, where the engine was overhauled by the RAF.
Yemen Airlines was formed in 1949 to operate the King's aircraft, thus functioning more likes a private operator than a commercial company. The aircraft available were used to transport the King and other government officials, pilgrims, goods, mail, and occasionally, businessmen, between the major cities of Yemen. A third Douglas was added, this time an original DC-3 version, and all three Douglas transports were registered as YE-AAA to YE-AAC in the new Yemeni civil aircraft register. YE-AAB was c/n 4345 (ex I-NAVE), but the identities of the other two aircraft are uncertain. Some sources maintain that YE-AAA was c/n 4329 (ex I-PADO) and YE-AAC c/n 4233 (ex I-PALU).
Most of the Yemen aircraft received individual names and the Norseman had 'Hajja' painted on its nose. The C-47s YE-AAA, YE-AAB and YE-AAC were named 'Shibam', 'Belquis' and 'Dhofar', respectively. The Swedes remained to run Yemen Airlines until the end of the 1950s, when Soviet influence in Yemen started to grow.
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The Author would like to thank Peter Akrell, Gregory Alegi, Richard Badger, Moshe Bukhman, Malcolm Fillmore, Roberto Gentilli, John Havers, Leif Hellström, Christer Hultén, Maurizio Longoni, Ingvar Svensson, Klaus Vomhof and Piotr Wozniak for their kind assistance with information and photos during the preparation of this article.