Military Aviation

Did you know the former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak was a good military pilot? Pt. 2: Nocturnal Il-28 Reconnaissance Sorties over Israel

Between others, in 1959-1960, Mubarak and his unit’s Il-28Rs flew a series of nocturnal reconnaissance sorties over Israel: the last such sorties flown by any Arab air force ever since.

In 1957, Mubarak was re-qualified for multi-engined aircraft to help train and graduate more than 50 future crews of Ilyushin Il-28 bombers (each crew consisted of the pilot, navigator and the gunner).

This resulted in his ultimate ‘specialisation’: after helping work-up the Air Force Academy, in 1959 he was sent for conversion training to Il-28s at the Kant AB, in the USSR. Upon his return from the Soviet Union, Mubarak was assigned the command of the Abu Suweir-based Air Group 61, including three squadrons equipped with Il-28 and Il-28R bombers and reconnaissance bombers.

Between others, in 1959-1960, Mubarak and his unit’s Il-28Rs flew a series of nocturnal reconnaissance sorties over Israel: the last such sorties flown by any Arab air force ever since. Usually, they would take off from Egypt, overfly Israel and land in Syria; then they would return. None was ever intercepted by the Israelis, but four of Air Group 61’s Il-28Rs were ‘lost’ because of the anti-Egyptian coup in Damascus of September 1961, when Syria split from the United Arab Republic. This is how Syria has got its only four Il-28s.

A trio of Air Group 61’s Il-28s overflying Cairo during one of parades in the early 1960s. Notably, all wore the unit insignia on their forward fuselage – in form of a black bomb. (David Nicolle Collection)

Meanwhile, what was since 1958 officially designated the United Arab Republic Air Force (UARAF) was searching for a fighter-bomber capable of delivering 3,000kg bombload at a speed of 1,000km/h (i.e. an aircraft in the class of the F-4 Phantom or F-105 Thunderchief). The Soviets had no such type in service: the Tu-16 was the closest to such a requirement and thus, in 1961, Moscow offered this type to Egypt instead. Already during the same year, Mubarak was thus back in the USSR to – together with a group of 10 other Egyptian pilots, navigators, radio operators and gunners – undergo a (four-months) conversion course to Tupolev Tu-16 bombers at Ryazan AB. However, subsequent developments slowed down the Egyptian acquisition.

In October 1962, Egypt launched its military intervention in Yemen on the side of the local Republicans, and against Saudi-financed and British-advised Royalists. Still commanded by Hosni Mubarak, Air Group 61 flew most of air strikes in support of Egyptian and Republican ground forces. Initially, these were undertaken from air bases in southern Egypt – like Asyut, Luxor, and, later on, Hurghada – until the Egyptians constructed the air base of Hodeida (also Hudaydah), on the Yemeni coast of the Red Sea.

Moreover, and what is next to unknown, right from the start of that intervention – i.e. in October 1962 – the UARAF’s Il-28s were reinforced by a squadron of Tu-16s bombers of the 244 Bomber Regiment, 56 ‘Bereslavskoy’ Aviation Division of the Soviet Bomber Aviation. These flew their air strikes from bases in Egypt, always by night and after transiting the Red Sea at low altitude, in order to avoid detection by British-operated radar stations in south-western Saudi Arabia. Their operations impressed the Egyptians sufficiently to place an order for 24 Tu-16s. However, the cost of the war in Yemen and the intensive deployment of Il-28-crews, prevented the UARAF from obtaining them right away. Thus, Mubarak and his crews continued flying Il-28s over Yemen, even if some of them were trained by the Soviets in Egypt and even flew joint Tu-16 operations.

An Il-28 bomber of the Air Group 61 releasing its bombload on a target in Yemen. Notable are the UARAF national markings (red-white-black flag and roundel, with two green stars) code ‘N’ (used instead of serials until around 1966), and the unit insignia in form of a black bomb. (Via Nour Bardai)

In March 1964, Mubarak entered a staff course at the Frunze Military Academy in the USSR. After graduating in April 1965, he returned to Egypt to work up the first UARAF unit equipped with Tu-16s: the Air Group 65. Before soon, Egyptian Tu-16s flew their first strikes on targets in Yemen, but also in Saudi Arabia: most of the sorties in question were led by Mubarak personally.

As of 1966, when Tu-16s were officially presented to the Egyptian public, this unit consisted of three squadrons: two (Nos. 34 and 36) were equipped with Tu- 16 bombers, while one (No. 95 Squadron) was equipped with 6 Tu-16KS’, each of which could carry two Mikoyan KS-1 radio-command guided missiles (ASCC/NATO-code ‘AS-1 Kennel’), with the range of 100km. Related training for Mubarak’s crews was provided by a team of 19 Soviet advisors, in July-August 1966.

Unsurprisingly, Air Group 65’s main and secondary bases – Cairo West AB and Bani Suweif AB, respectively – and its 23 Tu-16s (one bomber was written off in 1966 under unknown circumstances) – became the primary target for the Israeli Air Force during the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Early during that conflict, on the morning of Jun. 5, their air strikes knocked out 17 Egyptian bombers on the ground (the Israelis claimed the destruction of no less than 30, and this figure is repeated by all Western sources ever since, although there were never as many Tu-16s in Egypt).

A trio of Tu-16 bombers of the Air Group 65 as seen while overflying Cairo during the parade in 1966, when they were presented in the public for the first time. (Nour Bardai Collection)

Six other bombers survived the first onslaught only because mere five minutes before the Israelis attacked, a formation led by Mubarak himself launched from Cairo West for a training sortie.

Mubarak then became a victim of the general shock and chaos in the UARAF’s chain of command, and his own mistakes. On order from Cairo, he led his six bombers (these were armed with practice bombs only) into a landing at Luxor airport. Once on the ground, he then made a telephone call on a public line to Cairo to ask for further instructions (Luxor was no military facility).

The Israelis have tapped most important telephone cables in Egypt and thus received first-hand intelligence on the presence of six Tu-16s at Luxor. Less than one hour later, their fighter-bombers attacked and destroyed all six Tupolevs on the ground. The UARAF’s primary strike force – and Mubarak with it – was thus out of the fight right at the start of the war.

(…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

A famous Israeli reconnaissance photo, showing the destruction of the UARAF Tu-16 fleet at Cairo West AB, on the morning of 5 June 1967. (IDF)

Top Il-28 image: Staff Sgt. Bill Thompson / U.S. Air Force

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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