Heliopolis, the Clapham Junction of the African skies


By coincidence, shortly after I posted the pic of the flying boat in front of the Winter Palace (see the post before last), a piece appeared on the BBC News website by Gerald Butt, titled Frank McClean: Forgotten pioneer of the sky. It’s about an Irish aviator who in 1913 flew from Alexandria to Khartoum and back, a journey that took exactly three months thanks to no fewer than 13 breakdowns. The seaplane he flew had been built by the Short brothers of Derbyshire, England, founders of one of the earliest aircraft manufacturing companies. They would become particularly notable for their flying boats – that’s one of their’s in the Luxor photo.

As torturous as the flight was, it showed that by using rivers and lakes for landings, Africa could be traversed by aircraft without the expense of preparing airstrips. The eventual result was that in 1931 Imperial Airways introduced a weekly England-to-Central Africa service. Egypt became a key stopover.

Imperial Airways

Butt writes: ‘Cairo became synonymous with all the glamour and luxury attached to the early years of commercial flight. As early as 1919, the head of civil aviation in Britain, Sir Frederick Sykes, had correctly predicted that “Egypt is likely to become one of the most important flying centres. It is on the direct route to India, to Australia, to New Zealand, while the most practicable route to the Cape and Central Africa is via Egypt.” A journalist the following year described Heliopolis as “the Clapham Junction of the Empire air routes”.’


He goes on to describe how senior colonial civil servants would rest overnight in the grandeur of Shepheard’s. ‘The following morning, a launch would ferry passengers to the waiting Imperial Airways Empire flying boat and they would be regally wined and dined as the majestic airliner headed south.’

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