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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Sheikh Zayed's 'old Brit' dies at the age of 97

Bill Round was responsible for fire safety at Abu Dhabi airports from 1970

Bill Round, Airport Fire Chief at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the 1970s, with his second and third in command. Courtesy Phillip Round
Bill Round, Airport Fire Chief at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the 1970s, with his second and third in command. Courtesy Phillip Round

Foremost among Sheikh Zayed’s plans for the transformation of Abu Dhabi was a new international airport that would connect his new city to the world.

Among those gathered to turn this vision to a reality was William Round, tasked with ensuring the safety of the thousands who landed and departed there.

Round, who has died at the age of 97, spent 16 years doing just that, first as Airport Fire Chief and later as an adviser at the current, and much larger, international airport used today.

Known to friends and colleagues simply as “Bill”, his efforts brought him appreciation and respect from those who knew him, including a generation of young Emiratis who trained in the fire service.

His skills also saved several lives, organising search and rescue efforts in several aviation accidents out at sea.

Always on duty for the departure and arrival of Sheikh Zayed from the airport, his constant presence earned the nickname “the Old Brit” from the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and future President of the UAE.

William "Bill" Round with officers and men of the Abu Dhabi fire service at his retirement in 1986. Courtesy Phillip Round
William "Bill" Round with officers and men of the Abu Dhabi fire service at his retirement in 1986. Courtesy Phillip Round

Round was actually 49 when he arrived in the city in 1970. A veteran of the Second World War, he was among those rescued from Dunkirk in 1940, wounded and spending seven days on the beaches with the rest of the British Army.

Serving in tank and paratroop regiments, Round was wounded again but fought on as the Allies fought their way into Nazi Germany in the closing stages of the war.

Married in 1941, he enjoyed a varied career that had already taken him to Africa and Bahrain before settling in the northern English city of Newcastle, where he was responsible for fire safety operations at the local airport.

It was there, he decided to take up the new post in sunny Abu Dhabi on what was probably “a cold winter Newcastle day,” his son, Phillip Round recalls.

In the 1950s, air travel to Abu Dhabi was possible only on small short haul propeller-driven planes that landed on a strip of sand near the current 15th Street and Sultan bin Zayed the First Street.

Construction of the new airport finished in 1969 as part of a major infrastructure upgrade that included the Maqta Bridge and a port. Like the materials to build them, the skills to run these projects had to be imported.

Round’s task was to create a fire service, working with the airport director and Minister of Transport to ensure the new airport matched the best international standards, with the most modern equipment and fire engines.

It was his long term aim to bring Emiratis into the operation by creating training programmes.

“He did everything he could to help local people and bring them into the fire brigade,” his son recalls.

Round was then asked to take on a wider role, that he accepted, providing fire services for the Abu Dhabi Defence Department and its fighter jets.

Fire engines at Abu Dhabi International Airport, now Al Bateen, in the 1970s. Courtesy Phillip Round
Fire engines at Abu Dhabi International Airport, now Al Bateen, in the 1970s. Courtesy Phillip Round

With the offshore oil industry developing at a fast pace, Round took on responsibility for air and sea rescue for the helicopters and light aircraft that served them. The prompt response to crashes saved several lives.

His skills were also called on to successfully extinguish a major fire on a ship at Mina Zayed.

“He was a brave man, and also a straight talker the Arabs could trust,” his son says.

By the late 1970s, it was clear that the airport would not be able to cope with the growth in traffic and a new site was found off the island. The old airport was renamed Al Bateen Executive Airport and used largely for private flights and military traffic.

Round took on a new role as adviser on fire safety issues at the new airport, which opened in January 1982. He retired, aged 65, in 1986. by which time almost all firemen and officers were UAE nationals.

“The reason I believe he was so effective was that he showed great confidence in the ability of his men to achieve the highest professional aviation fire fighting standards,” Phillip says.

“He earned much respect from his genuine interest in the Bani Yas and their culture and traditions. He was a good servant of Abu Dhabi.”

Round died after a short illness on January 12 and will be buried next to his wife, Dorrie, at the same church in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire - where they were married in July 1941.

Updated: January 31, 2019 04:13 PM

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