Cold War Era

Did you know the former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak was a good military pilot? Pt. 1: Spitfire Pilot

Very little is known about Hosni Mubarak’s military career in the public: at most, Egyptians might recall him as a ‘hero’, even a ‘victor’ of the October 1973 War with Israel

Last year, I’ve started a series of posts on ‘notable Arab MiG-pilots’. I’ve told the stories of Muhammed Mansour (Syria) and how he developed what is nowadays known as the ‘Cobra’ manoeuvre. Then I wrote about Abdel Moneim el-Shennawy (Egypt), a pilot that accumulated 8,650 hours on fast jets alone during 31 years of his flying career (yet known in the West ‘just’ for landing a MiG-15 on the Schwechat Airport in Austria, in 1957). I also told the story of Nasser Abdullah Luaybi (Iraq), a MiG-21-pilot killed in an air combat during the Iran-Iraq War. Earlier, and somewhere else, I told the story of Hafez al-Assad’s career with the Syrian Arab Air Force. Sadly, other obligations kept me away from continuing. With some time on hand, let me get back to that practice – even if the following story might not be ‘precisely’ related to another ‘notable Arab MiG-pilot’.

As those following related news might know, few weeks ago, on 25 February 2020, Hosni Mubarak, former president of Egypt, passed away. Nowadays, and generally, Mubarak is foremost recalled for his political career, i.e. as the former president of Egypt. This is little surprising considering he presided his country from 1981 until 2011: i.e. two entire generations of Egyptians knew no other president. Before that, ‘everybody knows’, he used to serve as commander of the Egyptian Air Force, from 1972 until 1975, and rose in rank to that of Air Chief Marshal.

Ironically, very little is known about his military career in the public: at most, Egyptians might recall him as a ‘hero’, even a ‘victor’ of the October 1973 War with Israel – which is a notion widely belittled in the West. Shouldn’t mean those Westerners ridiculing such viewpoints know anything more about Mubarak as an officer (quite on the contrary). Thus, let me concentrate on just that part of his life, and explain what do I happen to know (or think to know), about him.

Hosni Mubarak was born on 4 May 1928 in Kfar el-Meselha, in Monufia Governorate (south-western side of the Nile Delta). He graduated from the Military Academy in 1949, and then joined the Air Force College, in February 1949, to graduate on 13 March 1950. (This was a standard practice in Egypt – and in Syfia – of the time: cadets had to first graduate two years of the military academy before ‘switching’ to the air force college; this changed only once the ‘full’ air force academy was established, in 1958-1959).

Now, the official version is that Mubarak then ‘spent two years in Spitfire fighter squadron’ – before ‘returning to Bilbeis to serve as instructor’. I’m not entirely sure this is correct, for the following reasons.

Hosni Mubarak

Certainly enough, the Royal Egyptian Air Force (REAF) was flying diverse Spitfire marks already since the mid-1940s. But, all the older marks (like Mk Vc and F.Mk 9) were worn out and out of service by 1950, when 19 refurbished Spitfire F.Mk 22s and a single Spitfire T.Mk 9 were acquired from Great Britain. Foremost, these new Spits have never served in any kind of a ‘fighter squadron’: piston-engined fighters were obsolete by the time, and replaced by jet-powered Vampires. Therefore, all the Spits were assigned to the Fighter Conversion Unit (FCU), at Almaza AB (nowadays a suburb of Cairo and the site of the Egyptian Air Force Museum). With other words: ever since their arrival in Egypt, they were used to prepare student pilots to flying jets. From this, it’s on hand that quite soon after graduating, Mubarak was appointed a flight instructor. This in turn is confirmed by the fact that the same, official Egyptian history is citing Mubarak as serving as instructor pilot from 1950 until 1957.

Such conclusion is also confirmed by photos from the mid-1950s showing him with a group of instructors and students in front of one of REAF’s Spitfire F.Mk 22s; indeed, multiple Egyptian pilots have recalled that Mubarak trained them to fly Chipmuks and Harvards at the Air Force College in Bilbeis, in 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1955. Interesting, none of them recalled Mubarak training them to fly jets like Meteor F.Mk 4s or F.Mk 8s, or Vampires (a squadron of which was based at Almaza as of 1954-1955), although these formed the backbone of the fighter force.

That is not to say that Mubarak was a ‘bad pilot’ or anything of that kind: on the contrary! Good instructor pilots were highly appreciated. Because the air force was training a very large number of new students at the time, they were de-facto ‘most important’ pilots in Egypt of the 1950s – and they were under heavy strain once Egypt placed its first orders for MiGs and Ilyushins in 1955. This is the most likely reason why Mubarak continued serving as instructor pilot for unusually long, even after being assigned to the staff of the Air Force College, in 1955, and then during the Suez War of 1956 and after.

Eventually, during his seven years in Bilbeis – and together with other famous Egyptian instructor pilots, like Madkour Abu al-Ezz and Shalaby el-Hinnawy – Mubarak trained not only seven generations of future Egyptian pilots, but also the first group of Somali military pilots, and two groups of Saudi military pilots.

Those who went through such experience know how close instructor pilots and their students can get during their joint service (or what kind of enemies they can become): unsurprisingly, many of older Egyptian pilots still recall Mubarak as something of their ‘spiritual father’.

(…to be continued….. BTW, even more on this story can be found in recently published books of the @War series, like ‘Wings over Sinai’ and ‘Hot Skies over Yemen’, Vols 1 and 2, all available at

Photo credit: DCS and Farouk Ibrahim / Associated Press via The New York Times

Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper is an Austrian aerial warfare analyst and historian. Following a career in the worldwide transportation business – during which he established a network of contacts in the Middle East and Africa – he moved into narrow-focus analysis and writing on small, little-known air forces and conflicts, about which he has collected extensive archives. This has resulted in specialisation in Middle Eastern, African and Asian air forces. As well as authoring and co-authoring 560 books and over 1,000 articles, he has co-authored the Arab MiGs book series – a six-volume, in-depth analysis of the Arab air forces at war with Israel, in the 1955–73 period. Cooper has been working as editor of the five @War series since 2017.

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