One of the most intriguing chapters in Egyptian history records early attempts by the country’s aviators to fly solo from Europe to Egypt, with 26 January, Egypt’s National Civil Aviation Day, marking the first successful flight of Egyptian pilot Mohamed Sedki from Berlin to Cairo in 1930.
Sedki’s success and earlier attempts earned the support of former king Fouad, always interested in supporting exploration and discoveries whether in the air or on land. But how much do we know today about these attempts and of the Egyptian pioneers who courageously flew these planes, sometimes risking their lives?
The successful attempt by Sedki in January 1930 to fly from Europe to Egypt was preceded by other unforgettable attempts.
There were those by Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, a legendary figure in the history of aviation. Better known for his exploration of the Western Desert, he was one of the most powerful men in various governments under king Fouad and king Farouk and an adventurer at heart, attempting to fly from Europe to Egypt several times before 1930.
His wish was to fly from Egypt to London in a small plane across the Mediterranean. On his first attempt, he succeeded in flying over the Mediterranean, but a few hours later his plane crashed in southern France and was destroyed. However, Hassanein survived to continue to pursue his obsession, and he bought another small plane to fly again.
This time, the plane fell in Switzerland, but Hassanein once again escaped death and decided to buy a third plane and try again. On his third attempt, the plane fell in Italy, and Hassanein was so seriously injured that the Italian doctors that rescued him considered he had died. But according to the story told in celebrated journalist Mustafa Amin’s book Unforgotten Figures, Hassanein recalled the words of Egyptian poet laureate Ahmed Shawki and described himself as a layth or lion.
He started repeating the words “courage lion” to himself at the hospital in an attempt to defeat death. The words seemed to work magic, and he surprised his doctors with a speedy recovery despite his condition.
Whether true or not, the story speaks of Hassanein’s unrelenting spirit. Rather than give up on further attempts at flying after his near death, Hassanein made a fourth endeavour to fly to Europe. A few days after leaving the hospital, he bought a fourth plane. But half an hour before flying, one of the technicians boarded the plane to do a final check, and five minutes later the plane turned into a ball of fire, with Hassanein watching in disbelief.
This was the fourth and last attempt that sealed Hassanein’s flying adventures and put an end to his aspirations.
THE EGYPTIAN EAGLE
Hassanein’s plane was named Faiza after one of king Fouad’s daughters, also the name of the first plane that successfully crossed the Mediterranean to land in Egypt in 1930 piloted by “Egyptian Eagle” Mohamed Sedki.
The plane Sedki flew was a small one-seater that weighed 250 kg and had a 40 horsepower engine. Sedki used it to fly from Berlin to Alexandria, where he landed at the Abu Kir airport on 25 January. He had started his epic flight across Europe on 12 January, passing through the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, and Italy all the way to Egypt in unfavourable weather. Governor of Alexandria Hassan Sabry Pasha welcomed him at the Airport, before he flew again to Heliopolis Airport in Cairo, arriving on 26 January.
Sedki’s successful flight caused a sensation at the time, as thousands of people cheered him on at Heliopolis Airport, where a model plane made of flowers awaited him. Captain Goldsmith, in charge of the Abu Kir Airport at the time, exclaimed that Sedki’s was the smallest airplane he had ever set his eyes on. In Cairo, Sedki’s feat was celebrated at a formal ceremony that included representatives of king Fouad, such as Yehia Pasha, as well as prince Abbas Halim, prime minister Mustafa Al-Nahhas Pasha, minister of transport Mahmoud Al-Nokrashi, and the delegated German minister.
Kamal Elwi, another Egyptian pilot who had learned to fly before Sedki and whose private plane was the first registered plane in Egypt, was also present during the ceremony. It was graced by the presence of poet laureate Ahmed Shawki, the same poet who had earlier called Hassanein the lion. Sedki, Shawki said, was like a young Egyptian leader coming back from battle crowned with victory, adding that he saw in Sedki’s face the lines of a true ancient Egyptian, with this being the secret behind his courage.
His words chimed with the rising sense of Egyptian nationalism and pride in Egypt’s roots at a time of British colonisation, a pride that manifested itself in the literary sphere with works dedicated to Egypt’s past like Shawki’s own magnificent play The Death of Cleopatra.
The royal reception Sedki received was complemented by king Fouad’s awarding him the Gold Medal of Excellence and a gift of LE1,000 for his services to the nation. His successful flight also resulted in the establishment of the first club for Egyptian aviation in Cairo, which held another celebration for Sedki as Egypt’s first international pilot on 29 January 1930. Sedki was awarded a share in the club to the value of LE50.
Together with Kamal Elwy, and Talaat Harb, founder of the first Egyptian bank, Sedki called for the establishment of EgyptAir, Egypt’s first airline company. His success was considered a national feat at a time when the British were reluctant to allow Egypt to enter the field of aviation, since Britain had its own airline company operating in Egypt and did not want the competition.
One obstacle that Sedki encountered when trying to realise his dream was obtaining the approval of the British to fly to Egypt from abroad, an approval that he only obtained after long weeks of anticipation. Harb said during the celebration that before Sedki’s success, Egypt had been deprived of having its own pilots and its own national airports, but now that Sedki had debunked British claims that the Egyptians were unable to act as pilots, there was hope that they could be equal to other nations in the field of aviation.
A series of domestic flights followed Sedki’s international flight as he flew to Upper Egypt, first to Luxor and then to Aswan before flying back to Luxor. From there, he flew to Minya and Assiut on 27 March. Yet, for all this, Sedki did not stay in the limelight for long, and on 27 June that same year he flew back to Germany, claiming that the government in Egypt had not given him the proper appreciation, offering him a minor post with a meagre salary and barely enough to look after his plane.
He rejected the job offer and left Egypt from Heliopolis Airport, the same one where he had received a hearty welcome on his successful arrival earlier the same year.
GRADUATE NUMBER 34
Between Sedki’s solo flight in 1930 and 1933, 33 male pilots graduated from Egypt’s School of Aviation. But graduate number 34 was certainly different, as this time the graduate was Lotfia Al-Nadi, the first Egyptian and African woman aviator to earn a pilot’s licence after US pilot Amelia Earhart with whom she exchanged letters.
In a later interview explaining her decision to train as a pilot, Al-Nady said that “I was young, eager to learn things and to accomplish something, but there were few directions that I could pursue. I read about a programme for flying that was being established,” and this was invitation enough for her to join. She was 26 when she flew her first plane from Alexandria to Cairo after training for just 67 days.
However, Al-Nadi’s career as a pilot was not an easy one. She had a reluctant mother and an initially unsupportive father, and she had to find a way to afford her flying lessons and to take them secretly. Kamal Elwy, the then director of EgyptAir, offered her a job as a telephone operator and secretary with the company, and Al-Nadi used her salary to pay for flying classes. Her secret was later revealed when her father saw a picture of her in the international press.
She was finally able to appease her father and earn his support when she took him as her first passenger on a ride above Cairo and around the Pyramids. “I took my father for a flight,” she later said. “At first, he sat stiffly, but then I noticed that his head was swiveling to the right and left. I asked him about it after we landed, and he told me he had been frightened, but then he had decided that he was in the hands of his daughter. He knew that if we crashed, we would crash together, so he relaxed and began to enjoy the flight.”
Al-Nadi’s singular career was undertaken at a moment that overlapped with the fight for women’s rights in Egypt and for women’s rights to education. Not surprisingly, Hoda Shaarawi, the famous Egyptian feminist leader of the time, honoured Al-Nadi and held a fundraising drive for her so that she could buy a plane of her own.
Among her adventures, Al-Nadi recalls how on one occasion her engine failed and she had to land in the desert where she was helped by Bedouin and given a bony mule to ride on her way back to Cairo. “I often laughed that the mule was more dependable than my Moth airplane,” she said.
Sadly, Al-Nadi’s remarkable aviation career ended abruptly in the early 1950s when she had a tragic accident while landing that left her with a broken spine. She left Egypt for Switzerland for a long period of treatment, remaining in the country for many years. Eventually, she was awarded Swiss nationality.
In 1989, Al-Nady was given the Order of Merit, the highest distinction of the Egyptian Aerospace Education Organisation. She returned to Egypt permanently, dying in the country in 2002 at the age of 95. Today, she is considered to have opened the way for other women pilots, among them Linda Masoud, the first female pilot coach, and Aziza Moharram, the first female director of the Aviation Academy, not to mention other pilots like Dina Al-Sawy, Hasnaa Taymour, and Heba Darwish.
Less well known than Al-Nadi, yet equally important to the history of Egyptian aviation is Esmat Ahmed Fouad, another woman who learnt to fly but did not obtain a pilot’s license.
Esmat’s story remains inspiring because she joined the School of Aviation and was flying at the age of just 14. Her two sisters, Kadreya and Aisha, followed suit and also learnt to fly. But the three sisters could not obtain pilot’s licenses as they were under the age of 17. They did not pursue flying careers, which is why in his book Civil Aviation in Egypt author Abdel-Latif Al-Sabbagh considers Al-Nadi to be the real pioneer of Egypt’s women aviators.
The stories of individual endeavours to fly solo internationally interweave with the story of commercial flights in Egypt and the attempt to establish the national airline Egypt Air.
In 1924, the Ministry of Transportation formed a committee to launch commercial flights in Egypt, and this suggested the establishment of the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA), whose mission would be to oversee air navigation and the country’s newly established airports. The project was highly acclaimed at the time, as it was needed to organise the arrival and departure of international planes. It was planned to establish the ECAA within five years.
In the same year, a group of Egyptian businessmen headed by Hassan Anis Pasha started to establish a company for commercial flights in Egypt. After much searching for the right types of plane, they recommended one made entirely of metal with three engines and the capacity to carry 12 passengers and two tons of merchandise. This project signalled the establishment of EgyptAir, Egypt’s national airline. In 1927, the government established the ECAA, and between 1927 and 1929 it sent three missions to train abroad.
EgyptAir was not formally established until 1931, when, thanks to the Egyptian young people who had received their training abroad, the idea of civil aviation eventually saw a revival after years of stagnation. Almaza Airport, the country’s first, was established in the same year — the earlier Heliopolis Airport mainly served the British air force, and other flights were not allowed to use it.
The history of civil aviation in Egypt is an inspiring one, a story of persistence, hope, and freedom for a whole country to have the right to fly. Stories of Egypt’s early aviators cannot fail to make future flights with EgyptAir more meaningful, and they deserve to be commemorated in a national museum dedicated to civil aviation, something which at present does not exist.
It is perhaps high time we thought of establishing such a museum in order to remind ourselves of the meaning of National Civil Aviation Day and to keep the day alive.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.