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An Irishman's Diary

As evening shadows were beginning to lengthen over the British empire towards the middle of the last century, Egypt continued to bask in imperial sunshine.

While never formally a colony itself, Egypt was the main stepping stone to and from distant British outposts.

It was in the grandeur of Shepheard's Hotel by the Nile in Cairo that senior civil servants rested overnight before flying on southwards to their postings in distant corners of Africa. But the luxury didn't end there. The following morning, a launch would ferry passengers to the waiting Imperial Airways flying boat - a classic icon of that era - and they would be regally wined and dined as the majestic airliner headed south. By means of staging posts on rivers and lakes, the flying boat would lumber on sedately to Durban, its final destination.

But at no point were these privileged air travellers told about the man who, two decades earlier, had bravely tested the idea of exploiting Africa's waterways to enable aircraft to penetrate the dark continent. No hotel bar along the way was named after Frank McClean, no cocktail shaken in his honour.

Francis Kennedy McClean was born in England to well-to-do Irish parents in 1876.

His father, an astronomer, was a Fellow of the Royal Society - as Frank himself was to be in later life. After a public school education, Frank became a civil engineer, working for a time in India. He took to the air first in 1907 during a balloon race in Germany. The following year he flew with one of the Wright brothers in France. From that moment on, aviation was in Frank's blood.

Through a combination of unstoppable enthusiasm and access to ample funds, Frank became a driving force in the development of flying in England. He teamed up with the three Short brothers - Oswald, Eustace and Horace - and flew the flimsy aircraft that they designed and built. He purchased land for them at Eastchurch, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, enabling Short Brothers to become a major aircraft manufacturer (later to be based in Belfast).

In 1912, with business to attend to in central London, Frank took one of the seaplanes and headed westwards, following the Thames. For good measure he flew through Tower Bridge - and as if to dismiss that as too simple a challenge, he then flew under the next three bridges before stepping ashore at Westminster to be greeted by a cheering crowd who had gathered to meet a dignitary expected by boat from Paris.

By this feat, Frank became a celebrity - a fact that has tended to overshadow the greater one he undertook two years later. If seaplanes could land on the Thames, he reasoned, then why not on the Nile and other rivers in Africa? Late in 1913, the SS Corsican Prince docked at Alexandria. Large crates containing the parts of a Short seaplane were transported to a shed on one of the wharfs. Once the bi-plane had been reassembled it was put into the water, and Frank took off in the harbour and flew eastward to the Nile Delta, before turning south for Cairo, landing on the Nile. His aim: to reach Khartoum.

Accompanying him on his venture was a co-pilot, Alec Ogilvie, and a four-man support team. Frank's sister, Anna, also tagged along. The aircraft could seat four people and the combination of those on board varied, with the rest of the team travelling overland. One of the earliest passengers was Horace Short.

Frank's progress was smooth until he reached Aswan where, according to a correspondent of the London Times, "He made some flights to the delight of the great crowd which had gathered to see the machine".

But, after flying another 130 miles southwards, he experienced engine trouble, which resulted in a frustrating one month's wait for new cylinders to arrive from Paris.

Leaving Frank, Horace Short returned to England, reporting back some of their adventures. He described the Egyptians along the Nile as having been terrified by the sight of the bi-plane, citing the case of two "native carpenters who were required to do some repairs" refusing "to enter the machine (although the engine was out) lest it should fly away with them". But such fears didn't prevent crowds of bemused and curious fellahin (peasants) wading out towards the bi-plane whenever it landed on the Nile.

During Frank McClean's flight to Khartoum and back (which took exactly three months), his aircraft's Gnome engine suffered no fewer than 13 breakdowns. In a letter to Horace Short, sent during one of the delays, the normally reticent and patient aviator expressed his exasperation at the technical problems he was encountering, adding that he was "getting tired of this series of happenings".

Slow and frustrating though the flight to Khartoum was, it proved that Africa could be penetrated by aircraft without the difficulty and expense of finding suitable land and preparing airstrips. When the first World War ended, British Air Ministry teams took up Frank's idea and began stringing together a chain of seaplane landing spots that eventually linked Egypt with South Africa.

The name Frank McClean does not rank among those of the famous early aviators. Which is a shame. For, as a writer in Flight magazine noted in 1914, he was "possessed of a fair share of the stuff that makes the world go round", and had "probably done more for the advancement of flying than any other individual". A "McClean" cocktail at the Shepheard's Hotel bar would have done him proud.


An article by Gerald But, author of History in the Arab Skies: Aviation's Impact on the Middle East.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

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