Lotfia El Nadi was the first Middle Eastern woman, as well as the first African woman, to become an aviator. Born in 1907 to a middle class family in Cairo, Egypt, she was expected to complete primary school and then become a housewife. Her mother encouraged her to go to the American College, which had a modernized curriculum and taught languages. El Nadi saw an article about a newly opened local flying school, and decided to find a way to study flying there, despite her father’s belief that higher education was a waste of time for a daughter. She tried asking a journalist to help her, but when that didn’t work out, she daringly made a direct approach to the director of the EgyptAir airline to see if he would assist her. He recognized the PR potential of an Egyptian female airplane pilot and agreed to help, and she started aviation school as the only woman in a class of men, telling her father that she was going to a study group to conceal her aviation ambitions. Since El Nadi had no money to pay the tuition, she worked in trade as the school’s secretary and telephone operator.
In September of 1933, she earned her pilot’s license after only 67 days of study; her achievement made headlines worldwide. At first her father was angry when he found out, but once he saw the positive press she was getting, he agreed to let her fly him on a trip over the pyramids. Three months later, El Nadi flew in the international race between Cairo and Alexandria at velocities averaging over 100 mph; she would have won if not for missing a mark and was disqualified on the technicality. However, she still received a prize of 200 Egyptian pounds and the congratulations of King Fuad for her stab at it. Feminist leader Huda Sha’arawi then raised funds to buy El Nadi a plane of her own. El Nadi served as secretary general for the Egyptian Aviation Club and flew for around five more years until her back was seriously hurt in an accident. For about ten years after El Nadi achieved her aim of becoming a pilot, other Egyptian women followed suit; however, after that period, no others managed it until Dina-Carole El Sawy became a pilot for EgyptAir decades later. In 1989, El Nadi was invited back to Cairo to participate in the 54th anniversary of civil aviation in Egypt and received the Order of Merit of the Egyptian Organization of Aerospace. In her eighties, she moved for a time to Toronto to live with a nephew and his family, but she returned at last to Cairo to live out her days. She never married and lived to be 95.
“When something is excessive, it turns to its opposite. The excessive pressure forced upon me made me love freedom.”
— Lotfia El Nadi, from Take off from the Sand, a biographical documentary.