The Egyptian Air Force proudly celebrates 75 years of fights and flights. Amirah Ibrahim reviews the ups and downs of the oldest air force in the Middle East
Gems in the sky
As Egypt's Air Force marks its 75th anniversary, its pilots are ready for anything
The Air Force celebrates the anniversary of a famous air battle, Al-Mansoura, on 14 October 1973, a date that has since marked Air Force Day. On that day, 160 jet fighters, most belonging to Israel, battled for 53 minutes over the Nile Delta town of Al-Mansoura. Despite the numerical superiority of the Israeli warplanes, and in terms of quality as well, 18 Israeli planes were downed. The rest retreated.
"It was such an amazing experience to watch 220 warplanes on 6 October taking off from 20 airports and air bases around Egypt," Air Force Commander Lt Gen Magdi Shaarawi said.
"All succeeded in reaching the battle zone at the same time. Also to see such a high percentage, 98 per cent of the planning, coming off as planned.
"The battles on 14 October caused the enemy serious losses but most important it put an end to its alleged superiority and forced everybody to think again about Egypt's military abilities. This certainly paved the way for peace later on," Shaarawi added.
"It was the October War battles that Air Force men demolished the shame of 1967 defeat, though they are still blamed for what happened," Shaarawi told a press conference held to mark the anniversary.
Shaarawi instinctively points to the 1967 experience as a milestone for the Air Force. "Whenever I think about what we should have done and what we shouldn't have, I come to believe that this  should never ever happen again. I keep warning my young pilots to be careful never to allow it to happen in the future," Shaarawi added, recalling a dark period in the Air Force's history.
"Less than 40 days following the 1967 War, Air Force pilots launched successful attacks on 14 and 15 July on Israeli troops in Sinai. The process of rebuilding the Air Force began then, in mainly two stages, prior to the 1973 War, then after.
"The fleet was supported with more planes to compensate the heavy losses. Tarmacs were constructed as part of a complete network of air bases and airports. Meanwhile, an extensive training plan was adopted which resulted in achieving tasks with outstanding proficiency during the 1973 War.
"Following the 1973 War, we diversified the sources of our weaponry and began purchasing arms from both East and West. Currently, we obtain weapons and armament systems from seven or eight friendly countries, ranging from the US in the west to China in the east. This also includes developing training assistance programmes."
Shaarawi, who graduated from the Egyptian Air Academy in 1966, said Air Force engineers are maintaining an excellent performance of warplanes, some of which have served the corps for decades. "We have carried out a continuous process of updating our equipment and communication systems. Among the old jet fighters still serving in the Egyptian Air Force is the Soviet-manufactured MiG-21, which took part in the 1973 air battles.
"At the same time, the Air Force also owns the world's most advanced warplanes. In addition to the F-16 and the Mirage 2000/5, we have the best anti-armour helicopters, American-made H-64 Apache, unmanned drones, E-2C early warning aircraft and French-made Gazelle.
"However, Air Force power is not measured by the size of its fleet or its advanced equipment. It is the ability to perform and achieve missions commissioned. So far, I can definitely say that our Air Force is absolutely capable of carrying out any mission ordered by the military command." Shaarawi refused to link the Air Force's armament policies with those of neighbouring countries. "It is not what you have in terms of weapons, but what you can do with them and how well you can perform to achieve your goals."
Shaarawi, who during his 35-year career in the Air Force flew MiG-15s, MiG-17s, MiG-21s and SU-7s, strongly disagreed with the idea that peace as an option is equated with laziness. "I describe that notion as an absence of consciousness. Neither political observers nor analysts can predict what will happen in the world at present. What would make a nation respect the other is which one has more comprehensive power, be it the economy, military or politically." Shaarawi refused to use peace as a pretext to stop upgrading military forces, citing as an example that the Air Force has had possession of F-16 fighters for the past 25 years.
However, the Air Force plays an effective role in civil life, contributing to dealing with crises inside the country as well as providing aid to friendly and neighbouring countries.
"Over the last decade, the Air Force has increasingly contributed to international aid operations in the Far East to the southern most parts of Africa. The Air Force has transported peacekeeping troops to Bosnia and Somalia, carried out rescue operations and sent aid to earthquake- and flood-hit regions in Sudan, Turkey, Algeria, Lebanon and recently the US."
Shaarawi underlined the cooperation between the Air Force and border guards to combat drug plantation in Sinai through periodical campaigns conducted throughout the year. "Our units also contribute with environmental bodies to protect remote protectorates in the Western Desert against any violation.
"Securing territorial waters with the help of the navy is also one of our national missions."
Shaarawi also highlighted the manner by which the progress of his fighting men is evaluated. "Jet fighters are connected to control and command systems, and pilots are trained via joint actions with units from every branch of the armed forces. We are committed to applying over the course of the year joint exercises with other branches of the armed forces. In addition, the Air Force is engaged in several joint exercises over the year with foreign air forces. This has also enhanced our experience."
When asked to name the greatest Air Force commanders in Egyptian history Shaarawi stuck with his manoeuvring, some would say evasive, skills. "Many, many could be on the list. Every commander had his touch, vision and achievements. Yet, one who cannot but be mentioned is Commander Madkour Abul-Ezz, who came to prominence following the 1967 defeat. On 14 July 1967, using what planes were left, the Air Force launched a strike against Israeli targets located east of the Suez Canal. The Israelis were forced to withdraw temporarily from the front line. But then they built the Bar Lev barrier and more missions were commissioned by the reconnaissance corps to scout Israeli concentrations behind the barrier," said Shaarawi who was then serving in the Air Force's reconnaissance unit. "Abul-Ezz launched an extensive process to rebuild the destroyed air force."
The second name provided by Shaarawi was President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's Air Force commander from 1972-1975. "He was given the post at a very difficult time after our military troops had been defeated and war was the only option. On the other side, the enemy's air force had the most advanced warplanes and equipment. But he achieved his mission which for the most part led to the October 1973 victory. Thus he deserved being promoted from general to lieutenant general. But more important was the honour he was bestowed by the public which has admired him ever since," Shaarawi added.
This year marks the Egyptian Air Force's 75 anniversary of outstanding performance in the region and the world. "It is a joyous occasion for all Egyptians and the entire Arab nation," Shaarawi said, highlighting the role of Egypt's Air Force in protecting neighbouring skies.
The festivities included the opening of a number of air bases in Cairo and other governorates for the public for four days, ending tomorrow. Symbolic gifts will be distributed to university students to increase awareness of the event. A seminar on strategy was held yesterday to discuss the development of the Air Force during its 75 years and the challenges that lie ahead.
Two projects are due to be inaugurated. One is a specialised air force hospital located in New Cairo, equipped with hi-tech medical facilities to serve Air Force personnel and their families. The second is an air force museum at Almaza Air Base, the first air base in Egypt. "The museum tells the history of our Air Force over the past 75 years," Shaarawi said.
"In addition, wide-ranging tactical air manoeuvres, Magd 3 (Glory 3), is scheduled for 31 October at Wadi Al-Natron where 120 planes are due to take part in the exercise. The planes will take off from 16 air bases from various distances; some are 900km away while others are 150km far. Although they are travelling at different speeds, all should reach the exercise theatre at the same moment to start the manoeuvres."