A historic flight along the Nile

Late last year, I was tweeting with Tom Fletcher, Britain’s ambassador to Lebanon – that’s the great thing about Twitter, it’s such a leveller: anyone can tweet with anyone. He mentioned in passing that his great-grandfather took part in the first-ever aeroplane flight along the River Nile, exactly one hundred years ago. That sounded like a great story to me: I asked Tom if he knew any more, or if anyone had ever told the tale.

With Tom’s help – and the help of Tom’s father, Mark Fletcher – I pieced together some more details about what happened, and managed to work it up into a script for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme.

Click here for the radio version which aired in January (my bit begins at 17’51”) – and click here for the transcript, which was republished by the BBC News magazine the next day along with some previously unseen family photos supplied by the Fletcher family and the Royal Aero Club Collection (which is linked at the bottom of the BBC article).

What particularly appealed to me was the angle. Coverage of a 100-year-old flight would normally instinctively focus on the headline names – the pilots, the financial backers, the bigger picture of early aviation, even the aircraft itself – so the chance to tell the story from the unsung mechanic’s point of view felt refreshingly different. The fact that so little is known about Gus Smith’s life, let alone about the day-by-day crises on this particular journey, only added to the appeal. I was delighted when the BBC took it.

Last month, the British Embassy in Cairo commemorated the centenary of the pioneering flight with a ceremony and exhibition launch at the Children’s Museum in Heliopolis – built on the site of one of the first airfields in Africa – also reported in local media.

UPDATE: I’ve discovered (late!) that James Watt, Britain’s ambassador to Egypt, blogged about the ceremony in Cairo here, as did Tom Fletcher in a humbling, poignant post here.