For hundreds of years man rode the horse for transport to distant lands. The horse was also instrumental in regional battles between kingdoms. The invention of the steamship and the railway brought relief to the adventurous, the explorers. The colonial program by Europeans became a reality due to improved transport. Long distances were covered over the sea; albeit with great risks.
Life was lost, but not the desire to discover and exploit resources, to connect the different peoples of the world through colonisation and trade. The search for natural resources drove Europe’s expansion programme to the limit, leading to the advancement of transport modes. The high seas were already in common use. The battle was still with the air. For time immemorial, man watched with admiration and envy, birds soaring through the air. The effort to emulate the birds began in the 18th century. Hard work on the basics of flight paid off with the launch of the hot air balloon, by Franco Pilatre in June 1783. Balloon flight followed several futile attempts to conquer the skies. Pilatre was, therefore, idolized as a genius, setting the pace for the race.
The 19th century witnessed a flurry of activities that heralded the great invention with gliders and other steam – powered machines and models. The persistence and excitement that followed resulted in the breakthrough by the Wright brothers who took to the skies in 1905. The world was enthralled. The illusion of flight, began by brave historical acts of men like Icarius and his father Daedalus who made wings of wax and feathers to enable them break from prison on the Island of Crete was turning into reality. Unfortunately Icarius flew too close to the sun, melting the wax and falling to his death. This was one of the earliest recorded air crashes! Other attempts with more disastrous results had been made by Abbas Ibn-Firnas in Andalusia in 1875 and by a Perugian, Giovanni Danti, in Italy in 1499. 1905 was thus the year of revelation for the aviation industry. The success by Wilbur and Orville Wright was not without rebuke. Their father, Bishop Wright struggled to discourage his sons from their “mad” dream, saying “if God had wanted man to fly, He would have given us wings”.
Africa was at the time under colonial rule following the partitioning exercise that was hosted in Berlin in 1884. The journeys to the “dark continent” were by steamship; which took months through the rough seas. The advent of flight was thus a welcome invention for especially the colonising powers who at the time were scrambling to get undeveloped Africa under their wraps. They looked forward with immeasurable excitement.
Transformation of the frail craft to sturdy and safer machines was realized faster than anticipated. The barriers of distance and time were overcome. The world was getting more and better connected, save for the challenge of safe landing and take-off. This called for improved airstrips, with reliable air navigation and communication facilities. The evolvement of the airport was inevitable, if the innovators were to avoid crashing to death in sand dunes and other uncharted territory.
Advent of Airports
The challenge posed by high costs of development of long landing strips made water look more feasible. Flying boats thus became the norm for medium haul flights. Their amphibious nature was most exploited by the colonial powers in Africa in the 1920s. These would especially carry mail and medicine to the colonial office in the occupied territories.
The aircraft were pioneered by Glenn Curtis, a New Yorker who had passion for racing motorbikes. He later ventured in sea planes in his avowed dream to build a “practical” plane.
The first flying boats to Uganda landed at the shores of Lake Victoria at Port Bell. These were delivering mail from Wilson Airport in Kenya, under the banner of Wilson Airways. The flying boats had their heydays especially in the late 1930s. The Second World War brought with it heavier and faster aircraft that required hard surfaced runways. Grass landing areas could not stand the regular pounding by the heavily-loaded war machines. The global conflict thus stimulated air transport development. Most significantly, it bequeathed the first all-weather land airport systems that improved safety of the nascent global industry.
Entebbe favoured for airport
The colonial office in Uganda did not popularize aviation during World War II as widely as was in other occupied parts of Africa. As a Protectorate, Uganda was in the second category of colonized Africa. Emphasis was put on the railway to help evacuate minerals and agro-produce.
At the instigation of Governor Philip Mitchell, Uganda’s first hard surface airstrip was developed at Kololo hill’s south-facing slope. This was in 1936. The 1000 by 60 yards strip was constructed by Gailey and Roberts at a cost of £18,500. Kololo Airstrip facilitated the colonial office commercialized Kampala.
Operations at Kololo were scaled down with the last flight by a fixed-wing Cessna 310 aircraft from Kololo in 1970s, following the improving infrastructure and growing traffic at Entebbe Airport.
Entebbe Airport (EIA) had the first simmering of its construction in 1928. Following increased activity by the colonial office, services by the amphibious aircraft were fast becoming inadequate. In 1928, runway 18/36 was constructed to facilitate the operations of the British Royal Air force (RAF) Fairey aircraft.
The runway was unveiled in November 1951 with Runway 12/30 added with a length of 2400 metres. The improved facilities enabled Entebbe to handle the Havilland Comet aircraft.
The Airport was officially opened by Princess Elizabeth of England in 1952, a year after commencing operations. Entebbe has since grown into a modern international facility that hubs the country’s aviation services.
Service expansion suffered a blow following the liberation war of 1979 that ousted Idd Amin. The war inflicted heavy damage on aviation infrastructure. The looting and asset stripping in the aftermath of the war stalled all growth efforts.
This, on the heels of Amin’s economic war that brought Uganda’s economy to its knees. In July 1976, Operation Thunderbolt, a counter-terrorist hostage rescue mission had been carried out by Israel commandos. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) rescued 102 of the 106 hostages. The daring operation dealt a heavy toll on the infrastructure and plant of the Airport.
There was a glimmer of hope when Idd Amin was ousted in 1979. Obote II Government did not, however, institute any tangible programme for rehabilitation of the Airport. Infrastructural deterioration went into full drive. Services at the country’s gateway were uncoordinated due to a multi-managerial structure. Chaos reigned between 1981 and 1985 as the country experienced another war of liberation. Several Airline operators shunned Entebbe as a destination. Besides the insecure environment that gripped the country, the national economy was in drought mode and unattractive to investment, trade and tourism. The aviation industry took a hard beating, with the national carrier, Uganda Airlines, operating on half its wings. The Airport recorded its lowest annual traffic at less than 100,000 passengers. Cargo was at a paltry 4500 metric tons a year. The air navigation and communication infrastructure, the fire-fighting and rescue services and general passenger facilities, had all been put to waste. With the upcountry aerodromes enveloped in bush and shrubbery, the inevitable was coming – the national airport network went into limbo!
Advent of NRM programme
Under its 10-point programme for resuscitation of the national economy, the NRM Government adopted the recommendation by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), to establish a Regulatory Authority to coordinate and supervise rehabilitation works at Entebbe.
Critical at the time was the attraction of airlines back to Entebbe. This would step-up revenue in-flows for the Authority and augment the rehabilitation coffers with the much needed funds.
Decade of rehabilitation
The first ten years of CAA put emphasis on standardizing the Airport facilities and air navigation services. Aviation security also required a new breath of life. New staff were recruited for the core and support departments. With international passenger in-flows, at an annual low of 118,000, the desired retouch of the airport was going to be grossly underfunded.
ICAO was beneficent to the programme with support through various interventions. Aviation experts were attached to the Authority. Staff were offered training in-house and abroad. Critical mission equipment was identified and in some cases funded. Countries like Spain also rendered support, triggering positive response by the global aviation community. Airlines glided back into Uganda’s airspace. Entebbe reverberated with activity, giving hope to the travelling public in Uganda.
The new spirit of cooperation brought on board France, the United Kingdom and USA among the many. The United States in particular funded a study for the airport’s Investment Development Programme. The US 542,249 study made recommendation for expansion of the airport.
The LPA Group, the transportation agency that carried out the study also rooted for a new modern cargo centre for primarily export of agro-produce.
Their stand point on the cargo centre was based on the projections made. In these, the Airport would by 2022 be exporting 162,000 tons of perishables at an estimated value of US $615 million per year. International passengers were projected to hit the 2 million mark under the high forecast schedule.
Entebbe also faced the challenge of possible advent of larger aircraft in Uganda’s airspace. These could be derivatives of existing types or new wide-bodied “birds” that were already soaring in the skies of more advanced countries.
Manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus were in advanced stages of unveiling 500 – 800 passenger carriers. It was bound to be business unusual! The standard focus on wing-span alone was no longer sufficient. Other limiting factors would now include fuselage length, the wheelbase, weight and undercarriage configuration and a hoard of other supportive inventions.
Entebbe like most International Airports has now come full cycle, with Runway 17/35 able to take on the world’s largest cargo aircraft, the Antonov 225. Yes from Makeshift approaches to Marshaled aprons it has been a hard road to travel.
The Author is the former Manager, Public Affairs at UCAA