Pioneering heights: Remembering the Arab world's first female pilot

Pioneering heights: Remembering the Arab world's first female pilot
Lotfia el-Nady became the first Arab and African woman to obtain an aviation pilot back in 1933, over 80 years ago. Her example remains inspirational today
3 min read
08 Mar, 2017
The first known Arab female pilot Lotfiya el-Nady

On Wednesday, to mark International Women's Day, Dubai-based carrier Emirates Airline, took to social media to announce that two of its female staff had commandeered an Emirates Airbus A380 on a return trip from Dubai to Vienna.

In the cockpit were Captain Nevin Darwish from Egypt and First Officer Alia al-Muhairi from the UAE.

Darwish, noted Emirates, is the first woman of Arab origin to ever captain the Airbus A380 – the world's largest commercial aircraft – while her co-pilot is the youngest.

Emirates says that close to 44 percent of its workforce are made up of women, totalling some 29,000 employees from over 150 countries.

While Emirates were clearly after a spot of good PR, both Darwish and al-Muhairi are in some ways carrying on in the footsteps of Lotfia el-Nadi, the first Arab and African woman to earn a pilot’s licence some 83 years ago.

El-Nadi, like Darwish was Egyptian, and received her pilot's licence in 1933. She remains an inspirational figure to many and her pioneering achievements have even been honoured by Google.

In order to achieve her dream to become a pilot el-Nadi was forced to overcome prejudices at large within society which at that time, in addition to objections from within her own family.

El-Nadi was honoured by Google in 2014 to mark the pioneering
female pilot's birthday

El-Nadi's father objected to her desire to become a pilot, while her mother also expressed concern about her daughter's desire to pursue what was considered a dangerous profession still in its infancy.

Undeterred, she joined a fledgling Egypt Air flying school based at the country’s Almaza airport in Cairo without his knowledge.

Trained by an English pilot named Dan Karol, El-Nadi attained her license after only 67 days of training, making headlines worldwide, and in December 1933 placed second in a race, involving pilots from other countries, from Cairo to Alexandria. El-Nadi's classmates were all men, 33 in total, and the aspiring pilot, unable to afford the fees, worked stints as the school’s secretary and telephone operator in order to pay for her tuition.

She flew for a total of five years before a spinal injury forced her to retire. Although her career was cut short, her example served as inspiration for fellow women keen to work in the aviation sector, both in Egypt and beyond.

El-Nadi's career also saw her lauded as a prominent figure in Egyptian feminism, with figures including Huda Sha'arawi, founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union giving praise.

"My father's omnipotence was suffocating. I learned to fly because I love to be free. It was a revolution from me, despite of me," said el-Nadi.

"[I felt that] If I want something that I believe is good,I must continue. As soon as I took off I felt the plane was light and I owned the whole world. Freedom. Freedom. The freedom you always dreamt of, Lotfia, well here it is, you got it."