Above the Pyramids

Above the Pyramids

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  • Jan, 10 , 23

At the time of his death in May 1918, Raoul Lufbery was the most highly regarded American fighter pilot in the brief history of US military aviation. Born to a French mother and an American father, Lufbery had been mostly on his own since childhood and traveled around the world working odd jobs since he was a teenager. He fought in the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille, and was the first commander of the iconic 94th Aero “Hat in the Ring” Squadron. With his mustache, ever-present cigarette, and pet lion cubs, Lufbery inspired the archetype of the dashing fighter pilot, and he remains a larger-than-life figure in aviation circles.

Before the Great War, Lufbery was very much the sidekick to a pilot much less known today, a young Frenchman named Marc Pourpe. Pourpe’s father, Armand, a French naval officer, died when Marc was just five years old. Marc’s mother, Liane de Pougy, was a celebrity dancer and courtesan, a favorite of the Parisian tabloids for her numerous affairs with aristocratic men and women from the various ruling families of Europe. Pourpe grew up in Suez before attending preparatory school at Harrow and then the Collège Chaptal in Paris. Upon the completion of his gentlemanly education, Marc began flying and constructing aircraft, even aircraft of his own design. By the time he received his formal pilot’s license in 1911, Pourpe was one of the foremost instructors of other would-be pilots in France. After establishing himself as an exciting exhibition flier at home, Pourpe traveled throughout the empire on barnstorming trips intended to enhance French prestige in far-off places including Calcutta, Singapore, Hanoi, and Cairo.

Pourpe met Lufbery in Calcutta. The globetrotting Lufbery overheard French and approached Pourpe and his party to ask for work. Without any prior experience, Raoul was brought on as an aircraft mechanic. From 1912 through early 1914, Lufbery accompanied Pourpe on grand adventures, including the first flight down the Nile from Cairo to Khartoum. Just before Christmas, on December 17, 1914, Pourpe prepared for the journey with a flight over Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza:


“‘Pourpe’s flight above the Pyramids took place on De­cember 17, to the amazement of the Cairenes who saw a plane fly over their city for the first time. Pourpe took off from the Heliopolis airfield at 11 a.m., despite strong winds. He flew 1,100 meters above Cairo, crossed over the Nile, descended to 800 meters to fly over the plain of Giza, and circled above the pharaohs’ tombs. His trip there took him twenty-five minutes, but he made it back in only seven thanks to the wind that was pushing him and allowed him to reach a ‘dizzying’—as Pourpe put it—speed of 180 km/h.

‘It would be pointless to try to convey the joy the Cai­renes expressed when someone flew over their city for the first time,’ wrote the Journal du Caire. ‘The impromptu quality of Pourpe’s daring excursion certainly caused some potential spectators to miss it. Still, many people saw him fly above the metropolis and cheered for him. Everyone greatly admires the young and brave French pilot.’”


The First World War would begin less than a year later, and neither Marc Pourpe nor Raoul Lufbery would see its end. The excerpt above is from Raoul Lufbery and Marc Pourpe: From the Birth of Aviation to the Lafayette Escadrille; 1909–1918. The first roughly half of the book is a translation of Two Great Knights of Adventure by Jacques Mortane. Mortane was a personal friend to Pourpe and Lufbery and published his tribute to them in 1936, which was never translated to English and is long out of print. The second half of this new book is populated with content from the collection of noted WWI aviation historian Dennis Gordon and from the Lufbery family archive, as provided by Raoul Lufbery III. The book is available for preorder at the link below.

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