Grande Semaine d'Aviation d'Égypte
Heliopolis, Egypt, February 6th - 13th, 1910

The first aviation meeting in Africa


The organizing committee. (1)
Hubert Latham in one of his three planes, probably the one that was crashed before the meeting. (3)
The wreckage after Adam Mortimer Singer's crash. (2)
Singer being taken care of by the ambulance services. (2)
The grandstand was decorated in Arabic style. The Khedive is in the middle of the photo, indicated by the little "+". (5)
Henri Rougier passing a pylon. This is probably his #2 plane, since his #14 plane didn't have any nose wheel. (4)
Gabriel Hauvette standing by his Antoinette. He competed under the pseudonym "Hauvette-Michelin" and this was his first meeting. (3)
Hauvette's Antoinette after his crash, right in front of the hangars. (6)
Hans Grade flying in the sunset in his little monoplane. (3)
Jaques Balsan in his cockpit. (3)
Baronesse de Laroche at the wheel of a Voisin. (3)
The signal mast. Nobody is flying at the moment, so the signals don't say much: The red flag means flights are possible. The three to the left (signal number 185) indicate a wind of less than 3 m/s. The two to the right indicate that efforts can be made for the distance and altitude prizes. (2)

In 1910 Egypt was occupied by Britain. The country was formally governed by the Khedive, Abbas II, but in reality the country was since 1882 under control by a British administration. The finances of the country, which was heavily indebted after the construction of the Suez Canal and other modernization efforts, were under foreign control already since 1875. The capital Cairo had a population of around 700,000, of which around 40,000 were Europeans.

Heliopolis, "the City of the Sun", is a suburb around 10 kilometres north-east of the city centre, on the way to the famous archaeological site with the same name. It was developed by the Belgian industrialist Édouard Empain, who in 1906 bought 25 square kilometres of desert land and planned a modern suburb of luxury and pleasure, mainly intended for wealthy Europeans and for use as a winter resort. The exotically styled "Oasis of Heliopolis", as it was called despite not being an actual oasis, had a golf course, a big amusement park, a sports stadium, a horse-race course, electric lighting and two luxurious hotels, and was connected to the city centre by an electric railway.

Baron Empain, who had in 1907 been knighted because of his financial services to his native Belgium, always looked for ways to market the resort. After visiting the Grande Semaine of Reims he started planning a similar event and in November 1909 it was announced that an aviation meeting would be held at Heliopolis. For the purpose an Egyptian Aero Club was created, and the event was also supported by the Automobile Club of Egypt, the Egyptian Tourism Association and the French "Ligue National Aérienne". The head of the organizing committee was Prince Ahmed Fouad, who would in 1922 become King Fouad I.

The event was sanctioned by the Aéro-Club de France, who had sent a delegation of six persons, The practical organization was entrusted to the French "Compagnie Aérienne", so it would have a distinct French flavour. The program of the meeting was for example only printed in French. Thanks to several sponsors a total price fund of 212,000 francs was raised, a sum comparable to that of the biggest meetings of the 1909 season. One of the events was the Prix Boghos Pacha Nubar of 10,000 francs and an Arabic "objet d'art" for a flight from Heliopolis around the Cheops pyramid and back.

A rectangular five-kilometre course was laid out in the desert. Two grandstands were built, a big one opposite the start/finish line and a smaller one with green silk muslin curtains in front. This was referred to as the "tribune harem" and was intended for women. According to some contemporary magazines it was for the Khedive's harem, but he didn't have any…

The competitors had to pay a 2,000 francs fee for entering, which would be refunded if they crossed the starting line at least once. From the 1910 season the Aéro-Club required all participating pilots to have a licence, no doubt after the highly publicized accidents of novice flyers during the "Grand Quinzaine" of Paris. On-site practice was allowed from December 15th, and all participants were required to arrive by February 1st. Twelve pilots and eighteen planes were officially entered:

  • Jacques Balsan (Blériot)
  • Hubert Le Blon (Blériot)
  • Élise Deroche / "Raymonde de Laroche" (Voisin)
  • Arthur Duray (Farman)
  • Jean Gobron (Voisin)
  • Hans Grade (Grade)
  • Gabriel Hauvette / "Hauvette-Michelin" (Antoinette)
  • Hubert Latham (Antoinette)
  • René Métrot (Voisin)
  • Adam Mortimer Singer (Farman)
  • Frederick van Riemsdijk (Curtiss)
  • Henri Rougier (Voisin)
The biggest names were Hubert Latham and Henri Rougier, while a couple of the other pilots had participated in meetings during 1909. Several of the others were quite unexperienced. "Baronesse Raymonde de Laroche" (real name Élise Deroche) was the first woman to ever enter an aviation meeting. The young Dutchman Frederick van Riemsdijk was the first foreign buyer of a Curtiss, a copy of the Reims winner, but with a small four-cylinder engine instead of the V-8. New York "sportsman" Hayden Sands on an Antoinette also participated, but for some reason he wasn't officially entered and didn't appear in the official result lists. Some sources say it was because he didn't have a pilot's license, but since several other pilots also didn't have any when they entered it doesn't make much sense. Other sources say his entry was too late to be accepted.

Practice
The flyers arrived by ship from France. Several of the flyers had their planes damaged en route. Latham had a bad start to the meeting when all his three Antoinettes were damaged during the transport between Marseilles and Alexandria. Two could be repaired, but one, a brand new plane with a big 16-cylinder 100 horsepower engine, had damage to both engine and wings and was reported as destroyed. It would get worse: During a test flight on January 27th he lost control of his plane at an altitude of 45 metres. In the following crash he was thrown out of the plane, despite the harness which was a unique feature of the Antoinettes, but fortunately escaped with only cuts and bruises.

Adam Mortimer Singer, wealthy son of the sewing-machine inventor, was not so lucky when he was testing his new Farman. He had recently taken delivery of the plane, having flown a Voisin before, and during his first flights he first had engine problems and then broke a propeller when landing in an uneven spot. On February 1st he stalled during a turn and side-slipped at a steep angle to the ground from a height of 35 metres. The wings took much of the impact, but he broke his right thigh in three places and injured his back. He did eventually recover, but would never pilot an airplane again.

Sunday February 6th
The official opening day was a perfect day for flying, with a clear sky and no wind. Flying was supposed to start at two o'clock, and soon after Balsan flew two laps of the course. Duray and Rougier made short test hops. When Balsan came in to land a horse was frightened by the noise and ran over a Mr Tarihaki, who was taken to the hospital by the ambulance service. Rougier made a second flight and reached 104 m. At 15:30 the Khedive arrived and joined his family and several government members in the grandstand. He was accompanied by a British officer and the British 7th Dragoon Guards struck up his anthem when he arrived.

Rougier made another high flight, this time reaching 115 metres, and Métrot flew four laps. At 16:38 Rougier made a third long flight, during which he captured all the daily endurance, speed and altitude prizes. This 65-kilometre flight turned out to be the second longest of the meeting and the time of 9:30 for the ten kilometres was one of the few times a 1909-type Voisin ever made a lap above 60 km/h! Gobron, Balsan, Grade and van Riemsdijk also flew. Gobron had a nasty-looking accident when his engine suddenly caught fire after leaking fuel had found its way to the hot exhaust. He dropped to the ground as quickly as possible, followed by a plume of smoke, and from the grandstands he disappeared from sight below the horizon. Cars and horses rushed off to his aid, but he thankfully escaped unharmed and later made his way to the grandstand where the Khedive congratulated him to the lucky escape.

A mysterious Antoinette carrying an "S" marking made a flight during the late afternoon. This wasn't mentioned in the program and caused some confusion. It later turned out it was Sands' machine. Latham was hard at work trying to make his engine run, but only managed a short hop. At six o'clock the Khedive had tea and then went on a tour to the hangars where the flyers showed their planes. Afterwards the crowd, estimated to 40,000 persons, made their way home. The resulting traffic jam lasted until midnight, when trains and trams had cleared the last visitors.

Monday February 7th
The weather was sunny, but because of a strong breeze there were no flights until four o'clock. The impatient crowd, as big as the day before, were kept amused by an Italian orchestra. Balsan was again first to fly, but crashed after three laps. Rougier and "Hauvette-Michelin" also flew, but the day's big star was Grade, who was becoming a crowd favourite in his little monoplane. He won the daily speed and distance prizes with rather modest results, while Rougier reached 219 metres to win the altitude prize.

Tuesday February 8th
High winds caused a minor sand storm, to the disappointment of the big crowd. Balsan was the only one to fly, but crashed violently after only one lap. He fortunately escaped unharmed.

Wednesday February 9th
The fourth day brought better weather again, sunshine and almost no wind, and another big crowd. During the morning Baroness de Laroche qualified for the honour of being the first woman to fly in Africa, when she flew four laps as part of her qualification flights for the pilot's licence. The first to fly officially during the day was Latham, who had finally managed to get one of his machines in working order and made a short flight. All the other pilots except Le Blon and Baroness de Laroche made flights during the day, and at one time there were four planes in the air at the same time. There was only one accident. The victim was "Hauvette-Michelin", who suddenly fell to earth, just missing the hangars. Balsan, who had apparently got over his crash on the day before, won the daily speed prize. Latham won the altitude prize and Métrot the distance prize. Duray flew the five-kilometre lap in 4:12.8, corresponding to 71.2 km/h, which was claimed to be a world record.

Thursday February 10th
This was a disappointing day for the crowds, because despite clear weather there was little flying. This was the day originally planned for the cross-country "Prix Boghos Pacha Nubar" race to the Cheops Pyramid and back. This race was called off at a late stage, even after officials were put in place along the course. This was probably for good reasons. The wind was rather strong and the pilots would have had to fly over populated areas with few opportunities for emergence landings. Unfortunately there was no way of informing the public about the cancellation, so huge crowds had gathered on the pyramids and along the course.

At the airfield Latham, Rougier, Sands and Le Blon made short flights. Le Blon's Blériot had also been damaged during the sea trip to the meeting and had finally been repaired. Rougier won the daily altitude prize. Baroness de Laroche finished her qualification flights and became the first woman to be granted a pilot's licence. She followed it up with winning the daily distance prize for a flight of 20 kilometres. Le Blon also qualified for his license. The daily speed prize was apparently not awarded.

Friday February 11th
During the morning Métrot made a flight with a lady passenger, a Mlle Solange Parenty. Later during the day the winds increased, so there was no flying until three o'clock when Le Blon made a four-lap flight. Later during the afternoon he made several flights and twice broke the 5 km speed record. His best time was 4:02.0; corresponding to 74.4 km/h. Grade, Rougier, Sands and Metrot also flew during the afternoon. Latham's miserable meeting continued and his engines stubbornly refused to run. When he finally got one to run he immediately touched the ground with a wing and broke it. Rougier reached 255 metres, which would be the highest altitude of the meeting. Le Blon's flights were enough to win him the daily speed and distance prizes. His time of 8:07.8 was the best time for two laps during the meeting.

Saturday February 12th
Strong and gusty winds made all flying impossible.

Sunday February 13th
The last day of meeting brought clear weather and the crowds were even bigger than before - everybody who was anything in Cairo was there! Unfortunately the winds were rather strong, so no longer flights were made. Latham had announced on the Saturday night that he had made progress with his engines, and towards the end of the morning he managed to fly 13 kilometres - before crashing again, for the fourth time during the meeting! Six other pilots flew during the afternoon. The most significant result was that Balsan took back the five-kilometre speed record by scoring a time of 4:01.0. At six o'clock Grade tried to take the daily altitude prize and reached 93 metres, but Rougier immediately replied by reaching 116 metres. The daily distance and speed prizes were apparently not awarded, since the results can't be found in any race reports.

Conclusion
Even though ticket prices were probably out of reach for most Egyptians the Heliopolis meeting was a huge crowd success among the European population of Cairo, and it certainly served its purpose of promoting Baron Empain's "Oasis of Heliopolis". The organization and running of the meeting was also praised. However, despite the success the event would not be repeated.

The most significant event during the meeting was probably the awarding of the first pilot's license to a woman, "Baronesse" de Laroche. The sporting results of the meeting were hardly sensational. The biggest star, the famous Hubert Latham, had one of his several disastrous meetings. Rougier was a well-known and reliable performer, and did his job. The relative newcomers Métrot, Balsan, Le Blon and Grade also performed well. The five-kilometre speed records set during the meeting were not really relevant, since both Blériot and Curtiss had achieved better speeds over ten kilometres already at the Reims meeting almost six months earlier.

Before the meeting the location was promoted as ideal for flying, with 360 sunny days per year. However, this didn't take the winds into account, and particularly not the thermals which were caused by the strong sunshine on the desert floor. Several of the pilots stated that even when there was little wind the air was very choppy in the afternoons when the sun was shining at full power.