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Flight of the Falcon: The Airlift to a UAE Royal Airstrip in Pakistan

Tomcats

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Deep in the Cholistan Desert in Pakistan, a remote airstrip is located. With its 3,200 meter runway, it is capable of receiving the world’s largest aircraft. Over the past weeks, this airstrip was visited by at least a dozen heavy cargo aircraft from Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). What is the story behind this airstrip, and why is it receiving so many cargo flights?
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The airport
Al Habieb Airport is located some 90 km east of the city Rahim Yar Khan, in the Bahawalpur District in Pakistan. According to a Wikimapia user, the airport is also called “Sheikh Zayed Airport II” (not to be confused with Sheikh Zayed Airport in Rahim Yar Khan), both named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004), one of the founding fathers of the United Arab Emirates. The airport is located in the heart of Bahalwalpur district, some 30 km from civilization.

No official information about the airport seems to be available. For example, the airport is not listed on the website of the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority, and cannot be found on Skyvector aeronautical charts. Also, the airport does not seem to have an IATA or ICAO airport code.

The flights
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A closer look at Flightradar24 logs reveals that at least twelve cargo flights visited Al Habieb Airport in late December 2021 and early January 2022. These flights were operated by two airlines, “Maximus Air Cargo”, a UAE airline operating two (former) Soviet-made aircraft registered in Ukraine and “Sapsan Airline”, a Kyrgyz airline operating three Ilyushins Il-76TD and a single Antonov An-74D.

Both airlines usually operate out of the UAE. The following flights were identified:

  1. 25 Dec 2021: “Sapsan Airline” Ilyushin Il-76TD reg. EX-76008, KGB4941
  2. 30 Dec 2021: “Maximus Air Cargo” Ilyushin Il-76TD reg. UR-BXQ, MXM3702
  3. 31 Dec 2021: “Maximus Air Cargo” Ilyushin Il-76TD reg. UR-BXQ, MXM3702
  4. 31 Dec 2021: “Maximus Air Cargo” Antonov An-124-100 reg. UR-ZYD
  5. 31 Dec 2021: “Sapsan Airline” Ilyushin Il-76TD reg. EX-76008, KGB4941
  6. 31 Dec 2022: “Sapsan Airline” Antonov An-74D reg. EX-74001, KGB4943
  7. 01 Jan 2022: “Maximus Air Cargo” Antonov An-124-100 reg. UR-ZYD, MXM3727
  8. 01 Jan 2022: “Sapsan Airline” Ilyushin Il-76TD reg. EX-76008, KGB4941
  9. 01 Jan 2022: “Sapsan Airline” Antonov An-74D reg. EX-74001, KGB4943
  10. 01 Jan 2022: “Maximus Air Cargo” Ilyushin Il-76TD reg. UR-BXQ, MXM3702
  11. 02 Jan 2022: “Maximus Air Cargo” Antonov An-124-100 reg. UR-ZYD, MXM3723
  12. 03 Jan 2022: “Sapsan Airline” Ilyushin Il-76TD reg. EX-76008, KGB4941
These flights have several things in common. They all depart from the westernmost apron at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the UAE. According to UAE General Civil Aviation Authority data, this area is the “Presidential Flight Apron”, which indicates that the flights are most likely linked to the UAE Government.

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Furthermore, all of these flights are tracked into Pakistan, where they disappear from ADS-B tracking around the city of Rahim Yar Khan. Before they disappear, they usually make a right-hand turn and start descending towards the Cholistan Desert.
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Besides the heavy cargo flights, there are also extra flights by passenger aircraft between Abu Dhabi and Pakistan. These flights are operated by “Abu Dhabi Aviation”, a large commercial helicopter operator operating 51 helicopters and 7 fixed-wing aircraft, mainly for airborne support of offshore industry.

Over the period 31 Dec 2021 - 02 Jan 2022, the following flights from Abu Dhabi into Pakistan were identified, using Dash 8 Q300 and Dash 8 Q400 turboprop aircraft:

  1. A6-ADE: 1 flight (02 Jan 2022)
  2. A6-ADK: 6 flights (29, 30, 31 December 2021, 01, 02 and 03 Jan 2022)
  3. A6-ADM: 3 flights (31 Dec 2021, 01 and 02 Jan 2022)
Because of their lower cruising altitude, Dash 8 tracks typically end further southwest than the cargo flights. Therefore, it is not entirely clear whether these flights actually land at Al Habieb Airport or elsewhere in Pakistan.

Adding to the suspicion that also Abu Dhabi Aviation flights are related to UAE hunting expeditions, all these flights were operated using their registration as their callsign, confirming they are not regular Abu Dhabi Aviation (DBI) flights. Before the airlift, all three aircraft were regularly using DBI callsigns instead.

Royal Hunting Expeditions
Further information about the purpose of Al Habieb Airport, sometimes called Chandna Airstrip, can be found on the History of PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) forum. According to forum posts posted in 2009, the airport is visited by sheikhs and royals of various (Arab) countries up to two times per year, for the purpose of hunting expeditions. Reportedly, the airport was financed by Arab dignitaries, just like the airport within the nearby city of Rahim Yar Khan.

According to the forum posts, the airlift involves “dozens of cargo flights” by “Russian transports”. Even airport fire fighting equipment and equipment to build up a temporary cellphone network are reportedly flown in from the UAE.


In fact, leaders of various Middle Eastern countries (Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia) have a long history of hunting in various regions in Pakistan. For example, a BBC article reveals that hunting trips by wealthy Arab leaders have been going on in Pakistan since the early 1970s.

One of the animals these Arab dignitaries are hunting for, is the Houbara Bustard, an endangered bird species with a high risk of extinction. For this reason, Houbara Bustard hunt was banned by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2015. Nevertheless, special permits are still being issued to Arab leaders. According to a Vice News article, a single permit is worth a little over $100,000.

A report by SAMAA TV, dated 08 Nov 2021, confirms that various sheikhs and other influential politicians have received hunting permits by local governments in Southeastern Pakistan, including Abu Dhabi’s ruler and the president of the UAE Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as recent as November 2021.

According to SAMAA TV, the Emir of the State of Qatar (Sheikh Khalid Bin Khalifa Bin Abdul Aziz Al Thani), the President of the UAE (Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan), the King of Bahrain (Hamad Bin Isa Bin Salman Al Khalifa) and various other dignitaries each were assigned different regions in Pakistan for their hunting expeditions. These regions (or Districts and Tehsils, as they’re called) are all located in southeastern Pakistan, southwest of Al Habieb Airport.

Another article by Business Recorder (12 Oct 2021) states that special security companies have been deployed “to provide security to the camps of UAE rulers in Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar and Rahim Yar Khan on their hunting expedition to Pakistan”, lasting until 31 March 2022. This includes Bahawalpur, the region in which Al Habieb Airport is located.

Falconry
One of the key operators in the airlift described in this article is “Sapsan Airline” (Сапсан), which is Russian for Peregrine Falcon, the species used to hunt Houbara Bustards.

The video below provides some further background information about how Houbara Bustard hunting using falcons works. According to the video, they are chased and downed by falcons, some of which are bred and trained in the United Kingdom and sold to “the Arab market”.


During the investigations leading up to this blog post, a video of an Antonov An-124 taking off was found. The video shows three aircraft, a panorama of the airport, as well as a look at the terminal building and nearby vehicles. The following aircraft can be seen:

  • Maximus Air Cargo” Antonov An-124-100 reg. UR-ZYD. The Antonov An-124 is one of the world’s largest cargo aircraft, capable of carrying 120 metric tonnes of cargo (or 850 cubic meters). The video shows how the aircraft takes off towards the south.
  • Dubai Air Wing” Boeing 737-800 reg. A6-HEH, a passenger aircraft. According to Wikipedia, Dubai Air Wing is the paramilitary airline of the government of the United Arab Emirates. It is used by various government officials, including the Emir of Dubai and the President of the United Arab Emirates.
  • An Ilyushin Il-76TD, likely “Zetavia” UR-CIV. Although smaller than an An-124, the Ilyushin Il-76 is still capable of carrying 46 metric tonnes or 185 cubic meters of cargo. The aircraft last flew as UR-CIV in December 2020. Therefore, the video was most likely recorded no later than December 2020.

By comparing recognizable features in this video to Al Habieb Airport (a large apron, a runway parallel to the apron, a central vegetated area, equally spaced plants in 3 rows, a small T-shaped terminal building, a large amount of tall light masts), we can establish that the video was indeed recorded at Al Habieb Airport.

There are various connections to the UAE in this video: All of the aircraft are based in the United Arab Emirates. Also, the second aircraft (“Dubai Air Wing” A6-HEH) is connected to the UAE Government. Furthermore, the various license plates on trucks seen in the video are from Abu Dhabi. Finally, a large amount of Pakistani and Emirati flags can be seen on top of the terminal building.

Conclusions
In my earlier blog posts and tweets, I have regularly described how Ilyushin Il-76 and Antonov An-124 heavy cargo aircraft are used to fuel civil wars in Africa. This blog post shows a whole new use for these large cargo aircraft: a recreational rather than a geopolitical one. Although criticized by some, Arab leaders continue to hunt for protected bird species in Pakistan, with much of their equipment being airlifted into the country.

At this point in time, the total amount of aircraft used for a single Hunting Expedition is not completely known. This blog post may be updated later to include later flights. Please follow me on Twitter to be informed about such updates.
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SQ8

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Holidays in Monte Carlo or entire French beach resorts, Hunting expeditions into Pakistan - diamond plated mercs.. but their countries are prospering and their people satisfied. Not sure where does one call out the excesses?
 

spectregunship

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They UAE royalty have been visitors of this area for the past many decades. It is not like a hunting expedition where you just take one jeep and camp out the night with friends, the sheikhs have got a lot to it. They maintain a residential area completely at their disposal which is huge in itself and with all the amenities that they would prefer at their residential destinations. These flights have been normal in the past and I would not worry with them today either.
 

Battlion25

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They UAE royalty have been visitors of this area for the past many decades. It is not like a hunting expedition where you just take one jeep and camp out the night with friends, the sheikhs have got a lot to it. They maintain a residential area completely at their disposal which is huge in itself and with all the amenities that they would prefer at their residential destinations. These flights have been normal in the past and I would not worry with them today either.

Is it a populated area or non-populated area?
 

khail007

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Keeping in view the size of the involved aircrafts and the total flights it does not seem like a falconry expedition, even if the whole amenities of living are to be airlifted.
It seems more than the falconry expedition, seems like, besides expedition, some construction work is to be commenced for an adequate residential compound for the future.
 

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