One hundred years ago, on 20 October 1910, the first plane flew over Baku. Although clumsy and unstable, the French biplane Farman-4, piloted by Sergey Utochkin, made a few circles above awestruck onlookers and landed with a thunder of applause.
After this introduction of Azerbaijan to aviation, it took only 13 years for the new type of air transport to acquire an official status in the region: the Caucasus Joint Stock Company of Civil Aviation ZAKAVIA was established in 1923. It was founded by the Mughan Melioration Construction, the Caspian Shipping Company and AzNeft. ZAKAVIA planes were intended to conduct aerial surveys, deliver emergency goods and carry mail.
ZAKAVIA proved to be a good manager. As early as in April 1923, a Junkers airplane performed a flight from Baku to Tbilisi and back, while two years later an aerodrome was built in Kishly and an Airport Terminal opened. In 1926, regular flights began on the Mineralniye Vody – Grozniy – Makhachkala – Baku – Yevlakh – Tbilisi route. Airports started operating in Baku, Yevlakh and Sheki, where Dornier-Komet-3 and Dornier-Merkur planes were based. Their crews consisted of two people. The successful completion of a flight largely depended on the skill of the pilots, because the aircraft had no navigation equipment at the time. Pilots were guided by roads, railway lines, local terrain and other features known only to themselves. Despite the imperfections, the international air-route Kharkov – Baku – Pehlevi was opened in 1929, while in 1933 a first flight to Moscow over the Caucasus ridge was carried out, shortening the distance of the route by 1100 km. A regular air-route, Baku – Moscow, was opened in 1937. It was operated by local aircraft KHAI-1 and Steel-3, which carried 15 passengers a day. It was quite an impressive figure at the time.
The Baku-Kharkov, Baku-Grozniy, Baku-Rostov, Baku-Astrakhan, Baku-Tbilisi flights were introduced the following year, while the Baku airport received the status of a separate economic unit by a resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars. On 2 June 1938, the first aviation group was established in Azerbaijan. In 2006, by an order of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, this date was declared the Day of Civil of Aviation of Azerbaijan.
A decade earlier, another landmark event took place, justifying the hopes of enthusiasts that aviation would be used in many spheres of human activity. During one of the flights over the Caspian Sea, pilot Teymur Mustafayev noticed an oil film on the surface of the water. On returning to the aerodrome, he communicated the coordinates of the place to geologists, who subsequently discovered a major hydrocarbon deposit there. Thus, aviation contributed to the establishment of a new industrial sector – offshore oil production.
Economic development in Azerbaijan, the key oil industry center of the Soviet Union, was very rapid at the time, enabling Azerbaijani aviation great confidence in the sky. It played an important role in the national economy, but following the outbreak of World War II it was largely reoriented to military ends. From 1941 to 1945, Azerbaijani aviation operated under the motto “Everything for the frontline!” The labor and military feats of Azerbaijani pilots will never be forgotten. Neither will those who have sacrificed their lives on the altar of victory in the war.
After World War II was finally over, Azerbaijani pilots resumed carrying passengers and goods. New aircraft emerged on air-routes originating from Baku, such as Li-2, Il-14, Il-18, An-24, special purpose planes An-2, and helicopters Mi-1 and Mi-4.
A qualitatively new stage in the history of Azerbaijan’s civil aviation fleet occurred in the 1970-80s. This was when airports fitted with soft-surface runways were built in Ganja, Yevlakh Naftalan, Nakhchivan, Zagatala, Lenkoran, Agdam, Agstafa and Sheki. They could accommodate Yak-40 jets. A total of 11 districts of the republic were linked to Baku by air-routes.
Thanks to the efforts of Azerbaijan’s leader Heydar Aliyev, the republic’s aviation fleet was among the first to receive Tu-134 and Tu-154 jet planes and Mi-2 and Mi-8 helicopters. In those years, planes were becoming the most popular means of transport – fast, comfortable and accessible for all.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani aviation found itself in a dire situation. Cooperation links were disrupted, hardware supplies were cut off, aircraft were aging and becoming obsolete, experienced specialists were leaving the sector and there was nowhere to train new ones. However, after President Heydar Aliyev took the issue under personal control, over $200 million was invested in civil aviation. This provided the opportunity for replenishing the aviation fleet with modern aircraft Boeing-757, renewing the air traffic control equipment, creating a system for the training of professionals in approximately 20 specializations and, finally, opening an international airport terminal in Baku in 1999 that currently accommodates the aircraft of over 60 airlines.
The construction of the Baku Cargo Terminal (BCT), completed in March 2005, has made Baku one of the major transfer points for cargo proceeding from the west eastwards and from the north southwards. The same year, the BCT became a member of the IATA Ground Handling Council and a participant in the World Business Partners Program of the Airports Council International.
Commissioned shortly afterward were the International Airport of Nakhchivan, a new terminal in the Zabrat airport and the International Airport of Ganja. A five-star hotel was built at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport of Baku. International airports of Lenkoran and Zagatala were opened in 2008. The civil aviation fleet welcomed such liners as Airbus-319 and Airbus-320, ATR-72 and ATR-42. Two-thirds of the fleet were renewed by means of acquiring more modern aircraft. Regular flights from Baku will soon be carried out by Boeing-787, while the Heydar Aliyev Airport will be receiving Airbus-380..
On 16 April 2008, following an order of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, State Concern “Azerbaijan Airlines” was transformed into a Closed Joint-Stock Company “Azerbaijan Airlines”. At present, Azerbaijan’s civil aviation fully complies with the requirements and standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), while AZAL is a member of such prestigious civil aviation associations as the ICAO, the IATA, the ECAC and the International Aviation Committee. Aircraft of “Azerbaijan Airlines” perform regular flights to dozens of cities around of the world, while cargo routes of SW Airlines stretch across all continents to almost a hundred countries.