I served as Pilot Colonel and Commander of the Al Bateen Air Base from 1986 to 2001. Sheikh Zayed used to make aerial tours over the entire country as a means of mapping out his development plans. Flying Sheikh Zayed’s private aircraft was an honor and tremendous responsibility.
Since the helicopter is a light aircraft providing wide views, Sheikh Zayed often made domestic tours by helicopter. He depended on helicopters to reach remote areas that were inaccessible by car. Sheikh Zayed routinely travelled by helicopter and plane across the Emirates to attend important occasions of the people. Sheikh Zayed flew over oil fields and offshore sites. From the air he observed road networks and bridges. At night he saw the lights across the land. He watched construction sites expand. From the sky he watched over the coastal, desert and mountainous areas of the nation. He was always on the move, thinking of everyone, everywhere in the country.
From the air Sheikh Zayed looked at people living in the desert. He observed that bedouin farms were few and far between. Rarely did the farms have ample water supply for irrigation or husbandry. He planned for a network of water pipes to establish an agricultural sector. It became possible for people to grow crops such as tomatoes, onions, garlic and cucumber. Date palms flourished. People would show their gratitude to Sheikh Zayed by proudly displaying their produce when he visited their villages or by bringing vegetables they grew to his majlis. This always pleased Sheikh Zayed. His happiest moments were spent in remote areas speaking to people about their harvest. He asked them, “What did you plant? What is this? How did you do it?”
He took great interest in assisting bedouin who owned animals. Historically camels were ships of the desert, providing a means of transportation as well as a source of food and milk. Sheikh Zayed saw that camels were being neglected. He was concerned that the population of camels had declined and that camels had low market value. He worked hard to revive the economy and culture around camels. Sheikh Zayed used to attend camel festivals and races everywhere, from Abu Dhabi, Al Dhafra, Al Wathba, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain, Dubai, etc. He classified camels in different categories, for example, for milk production, racing and beauty competitions. These measures helped camel owners elevate the value of their animals. The annual Al Dhafra Festival, for example, started to attract participation from all over the GCC. A neighbourhood there called ‘Million Street’ soon witnessed high price camel deals.
Over the coast Sheikh Zayed observed people toiling in the fishing sector. He realized that they were not keeping up with the modern fishing industry. They were not familiar with advanced methods of fishing; they lacked contemporary tools, boats and facilities. Sheikh Zayed wanted to give fishermen the means to improve their standard of living. He recognized that they could no longer fully rely on the expertise of their ancestors. Sheikh Zayed provide state-of-the-art training, new ships and equipment to increase productivity and effective management.
I was the pilot, but Sheikh Zayed was the guide, often without the aid of charts. We used his plane day and night, sometimes in bad weather. By accompanying Sheikh Zayed in flight, I witnessed over the years how he unified the seven emirates into a single nation. Sheikh Zayed continuously visited the rulers of each emirate. He supported people living in different geographic conditions. Evenly he spread education, established infrastructures, allocated resources, developed industries and promoted wellbeing and culture. Sheikh Zayed flew almost perpetually. In one day we might fly over the entire Emirates.