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Frank McClean spent his life traveling and experimenting with aviation Photo by: Fleet Air Museum

Forgotten hero Frank McClean paved the way for modern airplane travel

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Frank McClean spent his life traveling and experimenting with aviation Photo by: Fleet Air Museum

Frank McClean spent his life traveling and experimenting with aviation. His early flights in Egypt helped pave the way for commercial flights in the 1930’s.

Born in England to Irish immigrant parents in 1876, McClean’s interest in flying introduced him to some of aviation’s biggest names. In 1908 he met and flew with one of the Wright Brothers in France. Orville and Wilbur Wright are remembered for their successful flight in North Carolina in 1908. McClean gave financial aid to the Short brothers: Oswald, Horace and Eustace who had one of the earliest aviation manufacturing companies.  In addition he bought and tested some of their airplanes.

It was one of the Shorts’ planes that helped McClean achieve celebrity status in his own right. In 1912 he flew one of their seaplanes between the towers of Tower Bridge in London. His feat made headlines and he became a celebrity overnight. He then flew under London Bridge, Blackfriars, and Waterloo, which were lower bridges.

The BBC quoted that Flight Magazine’s reported on August 7, 1912, “Approaching London Mr McClean brought his machine lower down and negotiated the Tower Bridge between the lower and upper spans, but the remaining bridges to Westminster he flew underneath, the water being just touched at Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges. He reached Westminster about 8.30 and was taken ashore to Westminster Pier.”

The next year McClean traveled to Egypt and he took off in the Short seaplane for the Nile Delta. He turned south towards Cairo and landed on the Nile River. Helping him reach his destination of Khartoum was his co-pilot, Alec Ogilvie, a four man support team, and McClean’s sister Anna. Since the seaplane could only seat four, they took turns traveling in the seaplane and traveling overland.

Flying the Short seaplane was not an easy feat. The engine broke down 13 times during his travels. After he reached Aswan, he had engine trouble and the wait for new engine cylinders from England took a month. Unusually impatient, McClean wrote to Horace Short in a letter, he was “getting tired of this series of happenings.”

As frustrating as it could be for McClean, his travels helped pave the way for future aviators. In 1925 British aviator Sir Alan Cobham’s route to Cape Town included several stops on the Nile where McClean had been about ten years earlier.

McClean flew with the Royal Naval Air Service during World War I and afterwards spent a short time flying with the Royal Air Force.

By the 1930’s, Egypt became an important stop in routes taking people all over the British empire. Travelers would stop and see the sights Cairo had to offer before continuing on their commercial flights. Egypt enjoyed this prominence until the end of World War II, after which Beirut had greater aviation importance. After the end of WWI, the British Air Ministry Teams began organizing a route of seaplane landing spots that later linked Egypt and South Africa.

Although, he had done much for early aviation, McClean did not contribute to commercial aviation and after a long illness he died in 1955 at the age of 79.

For more on aviation in the early twentieth century, read Gerald Butt’s History in the Arab Skies: Aviation’s Impact on the Middle East.

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