The Legacy of Saudi Aviation: Dhahran Airport, Pan Am and TWA

April 20, 2012

Abdulateef Al-Mulhim | Arab News

Abdulateef Al-Mulhim

Abdulateef Al-Mulhim, Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)

Dhahran International Airport, Pan American Airways and Trans World Airlines had a share of the biggest impact and influence on the history of civil aviation in Saudi Arabia and the world. The three wrote the most beautiful history books about civil aviation. But, sadly, the three ended up in the history books and archives of civil aviation.

Two weeks ago, I was trying to choose a title for an article I wanted to write about the history of Dhahran International Airport and its strategic importance in the 1960s and 70s. The name of the title came from an e-mail which came out of the blue from someone I have heard about before, but never met. He was a former TWA pilot who became later on, a Saudi Airline pilot. His name is Capt. Bob Morgan.

He is a friend and close associate of King Abdul Aziz’s pilot, Capt. Joe Grant who flew the well known Saudi DC-3. Capt. Bob Morgan took off and landed on Saudi runways many years before I was born.

He sent me the e-mail after he read one of my articles in the Arab News and republished in SUSRIS.com, titled King Abdullah and the young ambassadors. When I read Capt. Bob Morgan’s e-mail, it became very hard for me to talk about Dhahran International Airport without mentioning Pan Am or TWA.

Dhahran International Airport, Pan Am and TWA closed an era of a very important chapter of aviation history in the same time period. Dhahran Airport was moved to Dammam in 1999. Pan Am was overtaken by Delta Airlines in 1991. And TWA was overtaken by American Airlines in 2001.

(Photo: The-Saudi.net)

Dhahran International Airport was operating since the 1940s. But, the state of the art new building was officially opened on April 17, 1962 and King Saud (1952-1964) was the guest of honor. From that day, Dhahran International Airport became the main hub for international destinations in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.

The airport was an architectural beauty and was designed by an American-Japanese engineer named Minoru Yamasaki. The control tower had the appearance of a minaret. It was built at a cost of only about $11 million and there was an open space between the two main buildings where people could watch planes from all over the world take off and land.

The airport was the most efficient in the Gulf region. During that time, TWA was chartered to make flights out of the Kingdom, but TWA never had any scheduled flights for the general passengers.

And during the 1973 Saudi and Gulf states’ economic boom, it was clear to all aviation experts that the Gulf region would be the new civil aviation world boom in the next millennium.

There were hundreds of thousands of passengers from Gulf states who flew to all destinations all over the world, especially to Europe and the United States. But, Pan Am and TWA for whatever reason didn’t concentrate on making Dhahran Airport as a hub connecting the east with the west.

Pan Am was facing many financial challenges and Pan Am could have expanded their operations in the Gulf region. And to many people’s surprise, it was TWA that initiated the establishment of Saudi Arabian Airline. But, Saudi passengers never saw the TWA planes land in Dhahran on scheduled flights.

It wasn’t till the early 1980s when Pan Am started what became the mother of all long haul flights. Pan Am started a daily flight from Dhahran International Airport to New York JFK airport.

It was the most unique flight. It was a daily flight and was the longest flight in the world at that time — 13 hours. The plane which was used was a 747-SP. But, the flight was canceled years later. But, again, Pan Am and TWA didn’t read the Gulf region economic boom. Today, there are tens of daily direct flights from the Gulf region to many cities in the US. There are flights to New York, Washington, Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. The flights are operated by Saudia, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad, Delta and Continental. The Gulf region has seen the highest growth in air travel in the world for the past 30 years. Pan Am and TWA missed it all.

And to give the two airlines their fair share of credit, the two airlines were the main source of inspiration to world civil aviation.

The two airlines took aviation to the jet age and wide bodied aircraft. In the past, we only saw these two American carriers outside the US.

They were seen as America’s front-line public relations. And the two airlines and their employees ended up in the eyes of the storm of political conflicts. Some of their planes were hijacked and even blown out in the sky.

But, I still think, had Dhahran International Airport, Pan Am and TWA joined hands regardless of the airline deregulation in the US, the three could have ruled the skies and Dhahran Airport would have been Chicago O’Hare or Atlanta Hartsfield of the Middle East. I was in love with Dhahran Airport, Pan Am and TWA for a long time during my early youth.

I flew Pan Am for the first time in October 1974 and months later I flew TWA. As a matter of fact I flew aboard many American airlines during my school days at SUNY Maritime College in New York, which many people never heard of, such as Braniff, Eastern, Piedmont, Ozark, Allegheny, National, people’s Express.

By the time I graduated from school in 1979, I had seen all 50 American states, Mexico, Canada and many European countries. And every time I fly, the memories of Dhahran Airport, Pan Am and TWA always flash in front of my eyes. The story of Dhahran Airport, Pan Am and TWA should have had a happier ending.

— Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is a Commodore (Retired), Royal Saudi Navy. He is a frequent contributor to the SUSRISblog.  He can be contacted at: almulhimnavy@hotmail.com

Reprinted with permission of the author. Originally published in Arab News.

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