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Catch this flight!

Aisha Tariq / 21 July 2012

The capital city takes on a whole new look when seen from the air. The flight across the network of islands leading to Abu Dhabi offers a memorable glimpse of the emirate

TO CATCH this plane, you will walk down a pier extending into the blue-green waters of the Gulf. A few feet away from the aircraft tethered at its end, security will run a quick check on your bags and your person before letting you climb aboard. You will strap yourself in as you listen to the pilot—who is a mere arm’s length away on this nine-passenger plane—go through a routine rundown on life jackets and emergency exits. And all the while, you will be gently bobbing up and down on the water.

A “seaplane” is exactly what it sounds like: a plane that can operate on the sea. The ability to take off from and land on bodies of water allows this type of aircraft to go places otherwise unreachable by air, such as a dense, lake-dotted wilderness or an island too small for a terrestrial landing. Seaplanes have proven themselves useful in exploration and rescue missions, but Dubai-based company “Seawings” offers them up for a purely pleasurable experience along the UAE’s coastline.

“Since its inception in 2007, Seawings has been on a mission to create an unforgettable experience for UAE tourists,” says CEO Stuart Wheeler, noting that the company has been repeatedly ranked as one of Dubai’s top three tours by travel site TripAdvisor. “Now with Abu Dhabi becoming one of the world’s leading tourist destinations, Seawings has decided to expand its offering of seaplane tours to Abu Dhabi visitors.”

From October of this year, the Middle East’s only seaplane tour operator will start running scheduled flights from Yas Island, allowing passengers to do some “aerial sightseeing” of the capital city. One of the three Cessna 208 Caravan Amphibian aircrafts in the Seawings fleet will be regularly available from Yas Marina and make up to eight trips every day to the city of Abu Dhabi. Currently, tours of the capital take place only if specifically requested by a customer.

Captain Andy, who is piloting one such flight, gives his passenger a quick, no-frills outline before turning the engine (and the air conditioner) on.  “We’ll taxi down the canal taking off to the north and then fly over the Ferrari world site there. Next we’ll turn left, to the southwest, towards the city. We’ll begin low at 500 feet, and maybe we’ll climb to a thousand as we approach the Corniche. Once we’re down at the southern end at Emirates Palace, we’ll turn around and come back so you should see everything on both sides. All right, guys, enjoy!”

He turns back around to face the instrument panel, putting the machinery into motion so that conversation fades into the engine’s growing hum. Floating on its pontoons, the plane moves leisurely down the length of the marina and grants the odd sensation that one is driving on the water—for all its functionality, no one  would mistake riding in this vehicle for being in a boat. Then the seaplane turns around and suddenly the canal becomes a runway, flashing by in a spray of foam as both water and land fall away and the plane re-enters its true element.

When it comes to the ride, a small aircraft is as unlike a massive jetliner as a car is unlike a bus. The Seawings plane manoeuvers with an agility unfamiliar to most Airbus veterans, tilting boldly on turns and occasionally wobbling in the wind. The scenery is not confined to the window at your side, but instead surrounds you —the other passengers’ windows are almost as much yours as theirs. As in larger aircraft, you are free to get up and move around once the plane has reached its cruising altitude, though there isn’t much space or need to do so: turn your head one way and you have a bird’s-eye view of Ferrari World and the Yas Formula 1 racetrack, turn it to the other and you can see the Arabian Gulf receding into the horizon.

Though Seawings draws you in with a fresh take on Abu Dhabi’s urban landscape, the flight across the network of islands leading to the city grants an equally memorable glimpse of the emirate. From the plane, which flies low enough for you to make out the dashes on roads below, one can observe the coastal wilderness lying just beyond familiar, developed areas. It seems to be neither land nor water, with waterways branching elaborately through expanses of sand and shallow sea. The landscape is dotted with mangroves and, surprisingly, a building or two. The passengers peer down to scrutinize this mystery. 

As the plane approaches the city and construction sites appear one after another, the scale of Abu Dhabi’s ongoing transformation becomes palpable. The flight’s final stretch over the manmade Al LuLu Island, which sits opposite the Abu Dhabi Corniche, affords a panoramic view of the skyline, a strip of towers with the city spreading behind. Some of the capital’s skyscrapers inspire a new respect —even at an altitude of 700 feet, they are distinctly taller than the plane is high.

Within moments, it seems, the plane passes over Marina Mall and the bay at Emirates Palace, where the pilot calls out over the sound of propellers and engine that he will now turn the plane around to head back. A brief moment of regret, and then you realize you get to see it all over again.


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