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EGYPT DOESN’T OCCUPY a great deal of my memory bank, nor of the items here at SimanaitisSays. There’s Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, this opera and its wayward tomb doors and Winston Churchill’s 1942 flight by B-24 Liberator to Cairo.
Another aviation connection, though not explicitly cited here, is in one of the Paul Temple adventures. In Paul Temple and the Sullivan Mystery (Dramatisation), the English detective and his adventurous wife, nicknamed Steve, make the Cairo trip on a British Overseas Airways Corporation flying boat. The aircraft type isn’t specified, but I like to imagine it’s a BOAC Short S.45A Solent.
The Solent is a four-engine flying boat and had a flight crew of five, plus two stewards. For overnight flights, a Solent accommodated 24 passengers; 36 on day stints. Paul remarks “I can’t believe that we’re in Bournemouth [near Southampton] today and we shall be in Cairo on Friday. We leave here tomorrow at 8 o’clock, spend the night in Augusta [Sicily] and should be in Cairo by tea-time on Friday…. It’s all very luxurious and safe as houses.”
Once airborne, Steve asks the steward whether there’s an observation cabin. “There’s what we call the promenade deck, madam.”
Augusta is on the southeast coast of Sicliy, about 1200 miles from Southampton, England, and half way to Cairo. On a motorsports note, Augusta is less than 20 miles from Syracuse, a Grand Prix racing venue between 1951 and 1967. Syracuse appears in the Temple tale as well.
With the Solent’s cruising speed of 244 mph, the flight to Augusta would have taken about 5 hours. Apparently headwinds slowed the Temples’ flight. “Leaving at 8 o’clock,” (perhaps from the hotel?) they didn’t set down in Augusta until “around 5.”
The remaining 1100 miles from Augusta to Cairo were flown the next day. Along the North African coast, the flying boat passes over El Alamein, its second battle marking a turning point for World War II’s Western Desert Campaign. When they see [correction, thanks to reader Michael Elder: delete “remnants of”] a military aerodrome at Cairo West, fellow passenger Miss Frazer identifies it correctly, without hesitation, as “LG 224.” (Is she just a meek little seatmate or…?)
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the steward says, “I have been informed by the Captain that we’re a few minutes ahead of schedule (‘shed-jewel’) and he’s making a wide approach to Cairo. If you look out the port side, you’ll see the Pyramids.” As Temple predicted, the flying boat sets down onto the Nile in time for tea.
The first aviation meeting in Egypt—and in Africa—was held at Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb about 6 miles from the city center, during the week of February 6 – 13, 1910. This “City of the Sun” was the brainchild of Belgian industrialist Édouard Empain, who in 1906 developed 10 square miles of desert into a fashionable winter resort with golf course, amusement park, sports stadium, horse-race course and two luxury hotels with electric lighting.
Having attended the world’s air meet in August 1909 at Reims, France, Empain figured that a similar event could attract people to Heliopolis. A 3-mile rectangular course had two grandstands opposite its start/finish line. One grandstand, intended for women, had green silk muslin curtains in front and was labeled the tribune harem.
Twelve pilots, all with Aéro Club de France licenses, brought 18 aeroplanes. Each pilot paid a 2000-franc entry fee (figure $400 of the time, around $10,000 in today’s dollars). This fee was refunded, provided the competitor crossed the starting line at least once.
One of the entrants, Baronesse Raymonde de Laroche, was the world’s first woman to hold a pilot’s license, Aéro Club de France No. 36. As perhaps the world’s first professional female test pilot, De Laroche perished in a 1919 air crash. There’s a statue of her at Le Bourget Airport in Paris.
“The First Aviation Meeting In Africa” at thefirstairraces.net describes the week of events. Adventures included bad weather, curtailing any flying whatsoever; brand-new aeroplanes being assayed, not always successfully; and other flights winning prizes for altitude, speed and endurance. One event was to take off at Heliopolis, circle the Pyramid of Cheops, about 15 miles away on the other side of Cairo, and return.
A scholarly discussion of the event and its influence is given by “The First Flight Above Egypt: The Great Week of Aviation at Heliopolis, 1910,” by Gary Leiser. It’s published by the Royal Asiatic Society, with a free abstract available.
I sure have a new appreciation of Egypt and aviation. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016