Did you know Belgian pioneer of aviation baron Pierre de Caters was the first ever pilot to fly over Egypt? In this short snapshot of shared Belgo-Egyptian history, you will learn about the first steps of aviation in Egypt.
As most of you might know by now, Egypt was a key market for Belgium industrialism at the turn of the 20th century. In 1909, Belgian entrepreneur Edouard Empain was looking for a way to promote Heliopolis, his urbanist mega-project on the outskirts of Cairo. Only six years earlier, the Wright Brothers had made their first flight, so what better way to promote Heliopolis than with a flight show. Quickly, the arrangements were made to organize the 'Great Week of Aviation' in Heliopolis in February 1910.
However, a few months earlier baron Pierre de Caters arrived in Egypt with a plan. Following demonstrations in cties like Berlin, Bruges and Chalons, he decided to shows his skills in the Orient. In Egypt, the location he chose was a former military parade field in Abassiya, not far from Heliopolis. When the wheels of his Voisin biplane lift off on December 15, 1909, the Belgian flying baron was the first ever aviator flying above Egypt. Since sun had already set, there are no photographs of the event nor of the other flights he made in the following days.
Newspapers did report about the flight. According to a small article in the Antwerp newspaper Het Handelsblad, he left not much later for Athens. While the 'Great Week of Aviation' of February 1910 was without any doubt thé event introducing the Egyptian crowd to this marvel of industrial progress, de Caters had 'stolen' the scoop. By the time the event was inaugurated, de Caters had even returned to Belgium. In the beginning of 1910 he commented about the conditions at the Heliopolis airstrip.
As the numerous pictures show, the Heliopolis Aviation Week was nevertheless an immense success. Photographs of the airshow appeared on postcards and in newspapers across the globe. Especially the beautifully tailed "Antionette" received a lot of attention. Large crowds went to the temporary Heliopolis airfield and attended the event. According to some accounts, one day 40.000 people were lured to one of the airshows, causing a traffic jam in and around Cairo. As the pictures made by Charles Chusseau-Flaviens make clear, this was not an exaggeration. The stands erected at the side of the airfield were fully packed, mostly with member of the Western community of Cairo, and as some of the images reveal khedive Abbas Hilmi II even attended the show. Empain's event had exactly the result he had hoped for.
Next to the marketing impact it had on the Heliopolis project, the event itself too did not disappoint. For instance, the "Boghos Nubar Pacha Prize" which was granted to the first pilot rounding the pyramids coming from Heliopolis fueled the competition. Although the price was retired because of safety reasons, this did not prevent Adam Mortimer Singer and several other pilots to crash their planes. French female aviator Raymonde de Laroche was more succesfull, at previous meetings she had obtained her license and in Heliopolis too she competed with flying colors.
In the days and weeks that followed after the successful airshow, the planes that had flown above Heliopolis remained to capture the Egyptian audience's imagination. An Egyptian cigarette brand even used drawings of the planes on their advertisement and Empain most certainly had made a lasting impression. Mission accomplished!
Gert Huskens - firstname.lastname@example.org
Het Handelsblad, 15 January 1910, 2.
Charles Chusseau-Flaviens collection, digitized and currently held by the Eastman Collections (https://collections.eastman.org/search/heliopolis)
Leiser, G. (2010). The First Flight Above Egypt: The Great Week of Aviation at Heliopolis, 1910. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 20(3), 267-294. doi:10.1017/S1356186310000039 (https://www.cambridge.org/.../3D9C83FB9AADCF515577E974ABF...).