Lotfia ElNadi took feminism to new heights in the most literal way possible: by becoming the first female pilot in history. Letting nothing stop her but her desire to fly, she did what no female before her had done. And even got recognized for it. In her biographical documentary “Take off from the Sand,” she puts words to the emotions we sometimes all feel: “When something is excessive, it turns to its opposite. The excessive pressure forced upon me made me love freedom.”
Here are some facts from ElNadi’s life, taken from “The Book of Awesome Women” in the hopes that you too can reach great heights.
- 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. ElNadi 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 for EgyptAir 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 ElNadi 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, ElNadi 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 but 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 ElNadi a plane of her own.
- ElNadi 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 10 years after ElNadi 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, ElNadi 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 80s, 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.