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The Route to Egypt

The First Inter-Continental Flights
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Europe to Egypt
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1913 was a year of epic flights. During June and August, French aviator Brindejonc des Moulinais undertook a tour of European capitals in his Morane-Saulnier monoplane, covering more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km). In September, also using a Morane, Roland Garros flew the Mediterranean for the first time. And in the Autumn a number of pilots rose to the challenge set by the French Ligue Nationale Aérienne to "test the possibilities for air travel over long distances" by attempting to trailblaze 3,500 miles (5,600 km) to Cairo.

The flight would take the intrepid aviators across central Europe and through the Balkan mountains before crossing into Asia at Constantinople. They then faced the daunting prospect of flying over the 10,000 ft. (3000 m) Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey, before battling the heat and dust of the Middle East for the last 500 miles (800 km) to the Egyptian capital. But it would be be more than just physically difficult. Europe in 1913 was a complex tangle of alliances and rivalries and the pilots would have to pick their way through this political landscape almost as carefully as through the physical one.

Daucourt and Roux [Map of the Route (75K)]

Pierre DaucourtThe first pilot to attempt the feat was Pierre Daucourt. With his mechanic J. Roux, he took off from the parade ground at Issy in Paris on 20 October 1913, in a Gnôme powered Borel monoplane and headed east. Their journey had been carefully planned and Daucourt was an experienced long-distance pilot. In 1910 he had made the first flight from Paris to Berlin. Their first leg took them to Sens, 50 miles (80 km) from Paris, and then to Belfort, near the German border. Here they obtained permission to fly into Germany, at a time of mounting tension between the two countries, and (after skirting the Zeppelin base at Freidrichshafen) they landed in Munich. Here, planning ahead, they negotiated permission to cross the Austo-Hungarian/Serb border and once this had been secured they made their way to Aspern, in Austria, on 31 October. From Aspern they passed through Vienna and arrived in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, on 2 November, where they were welcomed by the president of the Hungarian Aero Club. After the almost obligatory banquet, the pair set off again on 3 November for the southern Hungarian town of Arad (modern Oradea).

*The Second Balkan War was fought by Bulgaria against Greece, Serbia & Romania and ended in territorial concessions for the Bulgars on all fronts. They now faced the dual problem of negotiating the Transylvanian Alps and crossing the Balkans, where the Second Balkan War* had just ended. Daucourt solved the first problem by arranging for Roux to travel by rail to lighten the aircraft, and then flying around the western foot hills of the mountain range to Krajova in Romania. In deference to the political tensions between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the new state of Serbia, he overflew Serbian territory but did not land in the country. At Krajova, Daucourt met up again with Roux and the pair continued in good spirits to the Romanian capital, Bucharest, which they reached on 5 November. From Bucharest, the next leg took the fliers to Varna in Bulgaria - a country which had recently been at war with most of its neighbours - where they were greeted by the head of state, Queen Eleanor.
In 1914 an Ottoman Army flying expedition set out to replicate the French achievement but unfortunately it was not a success. Read about 'Those Magnificent Turks' in the Jerusalem Post Online. The journey had gone well so far. Almost too well. On 7 November they left Varna and headed down the Black Sea coast to Constantinople. However, due to a head wind they were forced to land at the Bulgarian town of Burgas when their fuel ran low. The pair spent several hours scouring the town for petrol before they could get underway again. Almost immediately though, they were forced down again by bad weather and had to land just over the Turkish border at a small town called Podima, near Midia. Unfortunately, the inhabitants took them for Bulgarians and refused to give them any shelter or assistance! Daucourt and Roux were forced to spend a cold night under the wing of their plane before the local schoolmaster realised they were Frenchmen and helped them to organise the necessary repairs. The pair finally arrived in Constantinople (Istanbul) on 9 November, where they allowed themselves a week's rest. They had covered over 1,500 miles (2400 km) and were about two thirds of the way.

On 17 November the fliers left Constantinople and crossed the Bosporus from Europe into Asia. The route across Turkey followed the Constantinople-Baghdad railway and took them through the towns of Adabazar (modern Uskudar), Eshishehir and Konya. The terrain became increasingly mountainous and Daucourt was forced to leave Roux to make his way by rail to allow the aeroplane to climb up across the Anatolian Plateau. By the end of November Daucourt had reached the Taurus Mountains and here he left the railway to try and find a way through the range via a mountain pass near the town of Silifke. Unfortunately, having come so far, Daucourt crashed in the mountains on 26 November and his machine was completely burnt out. Happily the pilot was not seriously hurt though. Daucourt cabled France for a replacement to be sent out, but in the meantime rival pilots now had an opportunity to snatch his glory.

Bonnier and Barnier

Marc Bonnier (1887-1916) set out with his mechanic, Joseph Barnier, on 10 November 1913 in an attempt to fly as far East as possible. There was even talk of flying round the world. However, once the news of Daucourt's crash in Turkey reached them they changed their plans and decided to attempt the Cairo flight instead. They were flying a 80 h.p. Gnôme engined Nieuport monoplane. Their route closely followed that successfully pioneered by Daucourt & Roux and they found themselves in Constantinople by 5 December. However, they experienced mechanical troubles and had to pause here for some time to make repairs. Significantly, the pair were now being pursued by a lone rival, the hugely experienced racing pilot, Jules Védrines. The delay cost them dear. The pass of Adana (the classical 'Cilician Gates') through the Taurus Mountains was not reached until 31 December. Although they became the first fliers to visit Jerusalem, when they finally reached Cairo on New Years Day 1914, they found Védrines had beaten them to the city by three days.

Bonnier & Barnier at Jerusalem
A difficult take-off from Jerusalem for Bonnier and Barnier. The Nieuport uses wing-warping.

Jules Védrines

Jules VedrinesThe maverick Védrines began his record flight in inauspicious circumstances. In mid-November 1913 he had been placed under arrest in the French border town of Nancy for flying in a  military "no-fly" zone near the sensitive frontier with Germany. Like Bonnier & Barnier, Védrines seems to have been attempting a long-distance flight to the East but it is likely that his plans were somewhat unclear even to himself. On 20 November, with no sign of being released, he negotiated his freedom on condition that he returned to Paris and did not try to cross into Germany. The authorities should have known better! Védrines' 80 h.p. Gnôme Blériot XI took off West towards Paris but then banked round to the East and disappeared over the frontier.

Since he did not have permission to cross into Germany, Védrines could not land there without risking another arrest and so he crossed the entire country in one 7 hour leg, landing at Prague in Austro-Hungary in the afternoon. The flight demonstrated the confidence (or arrogance) with which Védrines was able to handle his aircraft. His experience and single-mindedness would prove an invaluable asset in the difficult flight ahead. Moreover, as a former mechanic he could make his own repairs without carrying the weight of an extra passenger. At this stage he was still intent on a long-distance flight, possibly to Baghdad, but he had no carefully planned route, not much in the way of maps and relied on picking up petrol wherever he could.

It is unlikely that he had been granted permission by the Austro-Hungarian authorities to cross into Serbia, but that was evidently not of great importance to Védrines and he landed at Belgrade, the capital, on 2 December. By 4 December he was in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. Here he heard the news that Daucourt had crashed a week earlier, and quickly realised that he could catch Bonnier & Barnier, who were already at Constantinople. He set off in pursuit and reached the ancient city while his rivals were still there. Here, he seems to have telegraphed France and to have apologised for his indiscretions. He even made it known that he hoped to fly across Turkey in the company of Bonnier & Barnier in a display of French solidarity. He succeeded in winning the support of the Ligue Nationale Aérienne and the French government, which would be of great assistance in crossing the Ottoman Empire, although nothing came of the proposed joint flight. In his new semi-official role, he flew over the Imperial Palace at a height of 50 ft. (15 m) and dropped an Ottoman flag and a letter to the Sultan. It was a stark contrast to Védrines' attitude to authority thus far in the flight! 

On 17 December, he left Constantinople and continued south-east across Turkey in Daucourt's footsteps, through Eshishehir (19 December), Konia (22 December) and Silifke to the Mediterranean. Here, he flew across the Gulf of Alexandretta directly to Tripoli (modern Tarabulus) in Syria - a sea crossing of some 180 miles (300 km) - and continued as quickly as he could down the coast to Jaffa (modern Tel Aviv) via Beirut. A French cruiser named the Bruix was detailed to assist him and provide rescue services should he need to ditch in the sea. The only accident Védrines had, though, was to break a wheel on landing at Jaffa. He continued his irresistible progress south and at 8 a.m. on 29 December he set off on the final leg from Jaffa to Cairo, via Kantara. Just after 1 o'clock the small crowd at Heliopolis, just outside Cairo, sighted a small speck approaching very high up over the desert. Védrines cut his engine for the last time and came into land on the Heliopolis polo ground at 1:15 p.m.  He had succeeded in joining three continents in a single remarkable flight. The French Agent in Egypt was present to place a laurel wreath bound with tricoleur ribbons round his neck and kiss his cheeks, but it seems more likely that Védrines made the flight for Védrines rather than for 'France.'
 
Vedrines sees the pyramidsThree days later, Bonnier & Barnier arrived in Cairo, and on 7 January 1914 Daucourt & Roux finally reached the object of their struggles. Daucourt had resumed his flight through the Taurus Mountains in a new aeroplane at the end of December, when the Levant Herald & Eastern Express noted that he had disproved the theory that eagles where a danger to mountain flying(!) - some had mistaken his monoplane in the distance for another bird but had apparently dived out of his way once they saw his true wing-span close up.
 
Jules Védrines reminded the world that he was not prepared to play any role created for him when he became embroiled in a public argument with Roux, Pierre Daucourt's mechanic. He accused Roux of setting the authorities to hinder his progress to Cairo and slapped him. Roux immediately demanded 'satisfaction' (i.e. a duel) which Védrines refused. The farcical episode resulted in Védrines being advised by M. Quenton,  the President of the Ligue Nationale Aérienne, to fight Roux and Védrines cabling back that he would not, but he would fight M. Quenton on his return instead!

 

 

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Tower Bridge: 1912
 

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Map of the Route

Down the Nile

While the volatile Védrines was still powering his way towards Cairo, a team of British fliers were already at work in Egypt. But they had arrived with their plane by sea from England, not by air. They were Frank K. McClean (pilot), Alec Olgivie (reserve pilot and rigger) and Gus Smith (mechanic), and their aeroplane was a  large 'hydro-aeroplane' constructed at the Short Brothers' factory at Eastchurch, on the mouth of the River Thames. On 10 August 1912 McClean had flown a Short sea plane up the Thames and through Tower Bridge. Now he proposed to try something on a bigger and more exotic scale - the first flight up the River Nile from Cairo to Khartoum, the capital of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The flight would involve more than 1,500 miles (3,000 km) of tropical flying and would take a flying machine into the heart of Africa for the first time. In preparation, McClean had organised petrol dumps all along the river and sent a supply of spare parts to the Sudan.

The machine McClean chose for this flight was an enlarged version of the standard Short military sea plane, designated the Short S.70. Its wing span stretched some 70 ft. 6 in. (21.5 m), it could carry four and was engined with a powerful new 140 h.p. Gnôme with a double row of cylinders. By early 1914 the machine was fully rigged, and the British fliers took off from Alexandria harbour at 9:15 a.m. on 3 January on the start of their expedition. Their route took them first over the sea to Rosetta, and then inland across the Nile delta and up river to Cairo, which they reached just after lunch, alighting on the river in the centre of the city.

Short S.70
The Short S.70 being brought ashore by McClean, crew and helpers. The 70 ft. wing span is evident.

 
Marc PourpeHowever, as was so often the case in the pioneering days of aviation, a rival flier now appeared on the scene with impeccable timing. His name was Marc Pourpe, and he was a young Frenchman intent on extending the route his countrymen had already mapped out to Cairo. In contrast to the British team, he was formidably well prepared. He had obtained financial backing from the Ligue Nationale Aérienne, he was using the same long-range 60 h.p. Morane-Saulnier monoplane that Garros had used to cross the Mediterranean, and he had considerable experience of flying in tropical conditions. (During 1913 he had worked as a demonstration pilot for the Blériot Company in the Far East.) By comparison, McClean had an untested aeroplane, fitted with an experimental motor and limited experience. On 4 January, while McClean was carrying out tests over the river, Pourpe took off from Cairo in an attempt to reach Khartoum first.

His goal was Luxor, some 400 miles (650 km) up river, but he was forced to land with engine trouble at Menshah, about 100 miles (160 km) short of the city. It was still an impressive morning's flying and McClean must have known when he heard the news that he was involved in a race between a tortoise and a hare. Pourpe had averaged 75 mph (120 kph). A mechanic was sent out with spare parts from Cairo by train and Pourpe began making repairs. On Tuesday 6 January, McClean took off from Cairo and, flying at a height of 100 ft (60 m) above the water, safely reached Minia, about 150 miles (240 km) up river. The next day McClean flew to Assuit, but there a routine inspection revealed that a cylinder and piston needed replacement. The parts were duly despatched from Cairo and the aeroplane dragged up onto a sand bank for the repairs to be made. With a wood fire burning upwind of the aircraft to deter the attentions of swarms of sand flies, these were not completed until 14 January.

Short S.70
The 'hydro-aeroplane' beached. A figure (Smith?) appears to be bent over working on the engine.

Meanwhile, Pourpe had reached Luxor on 6 January and Wadi Halfa on 7 January, thus completing a journey that normally took two days in just four hours of flying. He had now reached the first great bend of the Nile and, because he was flying a land plane, he was able to leave the river behind and cut across the desert to Abu Hamid, following the railway line. If the need arose, he could always land and await rescue, though it was still a daunting prospect. Flying at 1,500 ft (500 m) he found that in places the line was obscured by drifting sand and that there were violent gusts over the hills. However, he landed safely at 12:25 p.m. on 8 January exactly in the middle of the circle marked out for him at Abu Hamid. He had covered the 231 miles (372 km) from Wadi Halfa in 2 hr 55 min, which gave an average ground speed of 79 mph (127 kph).

 
* Kitchener had gained his peerage defeating the Mahdi in Sudan just prior to the 'Fashoda incident'. Clearly a Frenchman was going to reach Khartoum before a Briton, and this may have provoked memories of the race between French and British forces in 1898 to secure the town of Fashoda in western Sudan. For a moment it had looked as though war might break out between the two countries over control of the Sudan, but in the event the French had backed down and the area was now one of British influence (although nominally shared with Egypt). No doubt a section of the French public who read of Pourpe's progress towards Khartoum felt that French prestige in the area was being restored by the young aviator and the British were being beaten on the own patch. British administrators were probably well aware of the political significance of the flight too. In this context it is interesting to note that Lord Kitchener of Khartoum ("K of K")* was present in the Sudan in January 1914, supervising irrigation works. He cabled Pourpe at Abu Hamid to ask him to try to arrive at Khartoum before 17 January, so he would be able to fly on the anniversary of King George V's visit there. It was a subtle but unmistakable assertion of British control of the Sudan!
Marc Pourpe
Pourpe during a stop-over in Upper Egypt

Pourpe did not disappoint Lord Kitchener and, on 12 January at 9 a.m., he set out from Abu Hamid on his final leg to Khartoum. The flying conditions were difficult again but he arrived in Khartoum without a hitch at 2 p.m. that afternoon. He had succeeded in flying 1,350 miles (2150 km) in just nine days, with a total time in the air of less than 19 hours. It is not recorded whether he flew to mark the King's visit to Khartoum, but he rested only a week before he was heading North again, back up the river.

Meanwhile, McClean, Olgivie and Smith had completed their repairs on 14 January and reached Luxor that day after picking up fuel on the way. On 16 January they touched down at Aswan near the Savoy Hotel on Elephantine Island to an enthusiastic reception. After a few days' rest they were off again on 19 January for Wadi Halfa, but were forced to turn back after 35 miles (56 km) with a faulty engine. It was found they needed to replace four cylinders, repairs being carried out at the original Aswan Dam workshops, and they were not ready to proceed again until almost a month had passed. During that time Marc Pourpe paid the Britons a visit as he passed through on his way back to Cairo. When he was not supervising the repairs, McClean was forced to become a tourist spending, according to his flight notes, "much of the time visiting the first and second cataracts (on camel)."

At last, on 17 February, they were able to continue their flight South and Wadi Halfa was reached after a brief stop for petrol. They were now at the great bend in the Nile that Pourpe had been able to by-pass, but because they could only land on the river and nowhere else, this was not a safe option for the hydro-aeroplane. It would mean adding hundreds of miles to their journey. On 19 February they passed through Delgo but were forced to alight to avoid a threatening "dust devil". The touch down was hurried and a wingtip was torn off and a spar broken. Olgivie fixed the damage with remarkable ingenuity, as McClean recorded, "... boxed the broken spar with iron chiselled from the galley floor of a steamer. Hoop iron from biscuit boxes used as strappings, sugar boxes converted into three ply interspar ribs. New wing covering made from calico doped with Assyrian glue." The machine was ready to fly again by 24 February and the team made good progress through Argo, Dongola and Ed Debba, before reaching Abu Hamid on 28 February.

A final major incident occurred on 4 March. While flying between Abu Hamid and Atbara, a large section of the engine's timing wheel detached itself and smashed two of the four tail booms. In the hurried emergency landing McClean damaged a float and two undercarriage struts as well. To counter-balance this bad fortune, though, the railway was nearby and so spare parts could be quickly brought in by train. Remarkably, the damage was repaired within ten days (with the help of the Sudan Railway workshops). Atbara was reached on 14 March and, after repairing a broken connecting rod at Kabushiya, the Britons were ready to make the final leg to Khartoum on 22 March. We can only imagine their relief when their floats kissed the river in the centre of Khartoum, 85 days after leaving Alexandria. Understandably, the fliers decided not to make the return leg by air and instead enjoyed the well deserved comfort of travel by river steamer and train back to Egypt.

Further progress in trail-blazing across new continents would have to await the conclusion of the Great War, which broke out in August 1914 and brought aviation's years of innocence to a sudden end. Already however, within eight years of the first tentative flight in Europe the aeroplane had started to make its mark on the world - thanks to the courage and imagination of the early pioneers.
 
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