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Book Review: Phoenix Over the Nile: A History of Egyptian Air Power, 1932-1994 (Lon Nordeen and David Nicolle)

Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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Phoenix Over the Nile: A History of Egyptian Air Power, 1932-1994, by Lon Nordeen and David Nicolle, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1996, $49, and Israeli Fighter Aces: The Definitive History, by Peter Mersky, Specialty Press, 11481 Kost Dam Road, North Branch, Minn., 1997, $24.95 plus $4.50 shipping and handling.

At the height of the Holy Day War of October 1973 (so called because it began on Yom Kippur and the 10th day of Ramadan), Air Marshal Husni Mubarak, commander in chief of the Egyptian Air Force, spoke with an Israeli fighter pilot who had been shot down and captured in a dogfight over al-Mansurah. Mubarak, remembering how the Israelis had virtually annihilated his country's air force in one perfectly orchestrated comprehensive strike on June 5, 1967, asked his prisoner, "What has happened to the standards of your air force?" The Israeli replied, "It is not us, I think you have changed."

It was not the only time that could be said. Since its official formation in 1932, the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) had survived many changes of status and fortune, usually coming off as second best; and of course, it suffered humiliating defeat in 1967. However, even the Israelis did not conceal how surprised and impressed they were by the dramatic improvement in equipment, tactical doctrine, training and discipline displayed by the EAF just six years later.

By the time a cease-fire finally went into effect on October 24, 1973, the Egyptian airmen had acquired something else of equal importance–self-confidence and self-respect. The price had been high, though. Colonel Adil Shararah, who flew ground attack missions in a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17, recalled: "My squadron had 24 pilots, and after the war there were eight left. About four were able to eject and were captured, but the others were all dead. We lost 16 aircraft to fighters and air defenses."

Combining the technical knowledge of Lon O. Nordeen, manager of international business development for McDonnell-Douglas Aerospace, and the expertise in Middle Eastern military history of English author David Nicolle, Phoenix Over the Nile provides a comprehensive history of an air arm that has too often been overlooked and dismissed. Starting with the EAF's origins under British tutelage, the book traces its fitful evolution into a significant player in 20th-century Middle Eastern conflicts–including not only the Arab-Israeli wars but also World War II, incursions into Yemen and the Sudan, border clashes with Libya, and the Gulf War. Phoenix Over the Nile is a reference book and much more–essential reading for anyone interested in aerial conflicts in the Middle East.

As much a scholastic breakthrough in its own right as Phoenix Over the Nile, naval aviation writer Peter Mersky's Israeli Fighter Aces: The Definitive History is a study of the air arm that set the standard to which its Arab adversaries had to aspire. Born in battle like the country itself, Israel's Heyl Ha'Avir (Defense Force/Air Force, or IDF/AF) commenced operations with smuggled aircraft and a sizable contingent of foreign volunteers, including some World War II fighter pilots who increased their scores to five or more during the 1948-49 war. Israel did not produce an indigenous ace until 1967, but since then at least 39 pilots have claimed anywhere from five to 17 aerial victories. Until recently, however, few of them have been known by name, due both to security reasons and to the Israeli preference for thinking of themselves as a team rather than as a collection of "top guns." Even now, Mersky's reference to his book as a "definitive history" is misleadingly premature. Although he identifies many outstanding fighters, there are others, still in active service, who remain anonymous. Therefore, the definitive history remains to be written.

Nevertheless, Israeli Fighter Aces is an excellent overview of the development of the IDF/AF's fighter arm over half a century, replete with firsthand accounts, a wealth of photographs–many in color–and a good selection of color aircraft profiles. It may not be the definitive history, but it will undoubtedly be the best book on the subject until (dare we dream it?), following a long period of peace in the Middle East, the last IDF/AF aces reach graceful retirement, allowing a future aviation author to fill in the blanks.

Jon Guttman

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