Promoting Skydiving in Egypt
By Hoda Nassef
The Egyptian Sport Parachuting & Aeronautic Federation (ESPAF) was founded in Egypt in 1988, but was active only in 1991. Abroad, parachuting sport was founded in the early fifties, immediately after World War II in France and Germany, followed by the U.S.A. Getting a stiff neck looking up at this thin almost-two-metre tall lanky human bird, I invited him to have a cup of tea at a coffee shop after the Ramadan Iftar in order to learn more about his favourite sport: jumping out of aeroplanes!
Mr. Mostafa Saeed (Mostafa Mohamed Saeed Ahmed Abdel-Fattah - his full name, appropriate to his height!) – born on 15 June 1972, educated in Cairo, and currently a Financial Controller in an international company, said that he joined the Egyptian Sport Parachuting & Aeronautic Federation when he was fourteen years old. Unfortunately, he can no longer enjoy skydiving, because the federation has been inactive for several months now, and might cease to exist in Egypt, if quick and drastic measures are not taken.
ESPAF has over 4,000 members in Egypt alone, with at least 3,500 of the members in parachuting. Most of the skydivers are males. Previously, there was no such thing as a female skydiver; now, one-third of the skydivers are females! Fifteen years ago, in 1987, Mostafa Saeed started his first skydiving training, at the only location which existed then, and made his first jump when he was fourteen, even though in Egypt one has to be at least sixteen years old, whereas abroad, the minimum age is thirteen. Currently, skydivers learn parachuting in most of the major sport clubs in Egypt, such as the Shams, Gezira, Maadi, Zamalek, Zehour and Shooting Clubs. Training is also different abroad, where parachuting is learnt in “drop zone” areas.
I asked Saeed what was the difference between riding or piloting small one-propeller planes, and piloting balloons, and if balloon riding was in the context of the same federation. He said, “Yes, except that it is rare in Egypt, but the few companies who own the balloons usually use them for tourism, such as in giving rides at a fee, or, rent them for advertising purposes and marriage announcements.” To my knowledge, there is one company that organises ‘flights’ over Luxor, and another one in Alexandria.
ESPAF is sponsored and funded by the Ministry of Youth, and has many branches, or teams, in all the main sport clubs throughout Egypt. The last CEO was Gen. Kazem Sallam Zanaty, who chaired the federation for two and half years, but resigned two months ago, along with nine other members of the board. Before him as Chairman (or CEO), was Gen. Talaat Harb Rasmy. Mostafa Saeed said that the Ministry of Youth should select a new CEO and a group of board members. According to Saeed, the Ministry of Youth funds ESPAF L.E. 250,000 annually. Yet, surprisingly, they do not own a single plane, but rent them occasionally from the Egyptian Army when required. He said that with the money funded annually for over a decade, they have nothing to show for it. “We could have done a lot with that money, as well as participate in local and international skydiving performances,” he added. “Is the Treasurer of the ESPAF then responsible for the discrepancies?” I enquired naively. “The federation hasn’t any Treasurer, but hired accountants, who take their instructions from the managers. It was just perhaps mismanagement,” he answered.
Mostafa Saeed, a skydiving instructor at the Shams Club, lamented that Egypt entered only three Arab championships in skydiving. The first competition was in the U.A.E., the second was in Jeddah, and the third competition was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was the only Egyptian skydiver who participated in all three. However, Egypt won third place in the Emirates, then third place again in Jeddah, and last year Egypt reached fifth place in Riyadh, S.A. Saeed explained that each group consisted of five participants in the competition, where they were scored individually, then collectively as a team. He also explained to me that there are several types of competitions. The three championships Egypt participated in were precision dives, for “accuracy”. This consists of jumping from the plane, controlling the chute, then landing precisely on a narrow target (bull’s-eye) thousands of feet on ground bellow. He admitted that reaching only the fifth place was a very poor score indeed for a professional skydiving team, and remarked that things are getting from bad to worse, and that the federation has literally stopped activities for nearly two years.
“But you are contradicting yourself,” I remarked. “If the federation has stopped activities for two years now, as you said, what about the competition in Saudi Arabia last year?” I asked. “Wasn’t that part of the federation’s activities?” I added. Saeed replied, “At present, there is a separate Ministry for Aviation, but the previous competitions were under the auspices of the Ministry of Transportation. In other words, we joined the competitions at the Ministry’s invitation. However,” he added, “all current activities are ‘false’, and have nothing to do directly with the federation, which is actually sponsored and funded by the Ministry of Youth.”
As regards to any military restrictions or regulations, he said that in Egypt there are no regulations for or against skydiving, but there are strict regulations directed to the flights themselves. No flights or take-offs are allowed – even local sport flights – without taking the Egyptian Army’s official permission. He explained that for security reasons, no planes are permitted to take off, without the Army’s approval first. But, he added, that although this understandable and a reasonable rule, the 6th of October airspace is allotted to skydiving, yet, in his opinion, they still have to go through the unnecessary hassle of getting an approval for each flight.
Instead of delving into the legal problems they now face, I will reveal to you more about this daring sport, the past activities, the short history of parachuting, or ‘skydiving’, in Egypt, and the daredevils who love this sport. “Does this skydiving federation participate in shows or performances? When and where do the skydivers make a show in Egypt?” I enquired, tactfully changing the subject. Saeed said that it happens occasionally, by specific requests from government authorities. The parachuting performances occur for national events and celebrations.
It was interesting to discover that the ESPAF does not have any “free-lancing” pilots, and if there is a performance or competition, the federation hires pilots from the Army for the occasion. Furthermore, up to date, not a single skydiving competition has been hosted or performed in Egypt.
“There are all types of skydiving, as well as all types of parachutes, groups, formations, jumps and dives,” he said. “I will explain in short the basics of group dives, as this is the most required type of skydiving performance in international competitions,” he elaborated. “For professional skydivers, the plane should be at a minimum height of 14,000 ft., but as for beginners, after they practice on ground, their first real aeroplane dives start at an elevation of 3 to 4,000 feet above ground.”
All parachutes are made from the same fabric (“rip-stop nylon”), but vary in colour, cut and shape, depending on the dive function (such as normal parachuting, hand-gliding, skydiving, etc.) Each sport has a special parachute design and size; from 70 square feet of fabric, up to 300 square feet. These big parachutes, he explained, are for the “accuracy” performances, whereas the smaller chutes are used for “relative work”, “style”, and “free flying”. To maintain equilibrium, Saeed said that it takes a bit of practice at first, and then comes automatically and naturally; “It’s like learning to ride a bicycle; at first it seems difficult, then you cannot forget, and automatically ride again,” he added. I commented on his height, and he admitted that it is a bit easier for a shorter person to skydive. Also, it is preferable if he or she is neither fat nor too thin.
I asked Mr. Saeed to describe his first jump, if he was afraid, and if the force of air hitting against him gave him a shock. He said, “I felt nothing! At the first jump, you feel numb; it’s like as if you’re in a trance. Almost all skydivers feel nothing at their first jump, because they don’t know what to expect. They are scared only before their second jump!”
“Who is the best skydiver in Egypt?” I asked Mostafa Saeed. In Saeed’s opinion, the best skydiver in Egypt is Brigadier Mamdouh Lasheen, who’s about 54 years old now and has resigned from the Army, but still skydives as a hobby. His favourite foreign skydivers are mostly Americans.
In conclusion, Mr. Mostafa Saeed said: “Skydiving has great potentials in Egypt, because Egypt is the ideal place and climate for skydiving, especially as it is sunny all year round, and almost always cloudless. This sport could even help in ameliorating Egypt’s economy, if it is handled and promoted correctly by the Ministry of Youth or the Ministry of Tourism, or even by a private international or local company. I earnestly believe that there is a great future for skydiving in Egypt. The good part is that no matter what the local or surrounding economic and political situations are, skydiving tourism would not be affected by it, because all skydivers are willing to go to the far extremes of the world to participate in competitions, and enjoy their sport. Egypt is ideal,” he insisted, “due to the flat landscape, with no strong winds or clouds to hinder them most of the year. We should make use of this great.”