"This is your captain speaking," the pilot of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 said as he banked his Boeing 707 jet into a sweeping holding pattern over Cairo one recent afternoon. "They don't have radar and we kind of have to figure it out for ourselves."
He then went on to reassure his unnerved passengers that he would bring them safely to the ground.
On a British Airways jet that was descending for its final approach not long ago, a European air traffic specialist turned to his seat-mate, a Moslem, and asked him whether he knew how to pray.
"Of course, but why do you ask?"
"Because you have just begun the most dangerous five minutes you will spend in your life," the expert said looking anxiously out of his window.
Like the TWA captain, domestic and international airline pilots who regularly use what local authorities imaginatively boast is "the busiest and safest airport in the Middle East" complain that they often have to control themselves down the runway because air traffic controllers lack the equipment and training to confidently sort out the planes overhead.
To assist them in getting 5 million passengers in and out at Cairo International Airport each year, the controllers have only a sporadically functioning radar (installed in 1964), a weak and noisy radio a faulty instrument landing system and several pairs of cracked binoculars, according to the European expert, who has watched the tower operators in action.
An Egyptair pilot, Capt. Safwat Ismail, recently complained to the Cairo newspaper Al Ahram of a near head-on collision. He lifted his Boeing 737 directly into the path of a Middle East Airlines 707 that was mistakenly trying to land at the wrond end of the runway, he said.
"The controller expected to see the (landing) plane coming from the other direction," Ismail said. "He was looking at the runway through binoculars, and with such a primitive device he couldn't see the mistake of the 707. If there had been radar, the controllers could have warned both of us."
"We have stacks of near-misses in the Cairo area and we're fed up," said the captain of a Boeing 747 who flies regularly into Cairo. "I've been flying for 21 years and I swear to God Cairo is the most dangerous airport I've ever used."
The airport, built as Payne Field by the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, is situated about 12 miles northwest of Cairo at the edge of the desert, bordering the busy suburb of Heliopolis. At present, all flights take off and land on one old 2.2-mile, north-south runway, which European experts say is inadequately lighted.
A parallel runway that is about half a mile longer has been under construction for eight years and is almost ready for flight operations. However, engineering problems have delayed its use. Among the problems is one of control. The runway was built on a plateau that is higher than the old airport control tower and as a result controllers lose sight of planes after they land and before they take off. When it is ready for operations, a new tower nearer the new runway will remedy the visibility problem.
But despite the runway inadequacies, lack of modern air safety equipment and control procedures that often leave them shaking their heads in bewilderment, pilots emphasized in interviews that they feel reasonably confident about using the airport.
"First, we know their shortcomings and operate accordingly," one said. "You know you have to be a little more on the ball and keep a sharp lookout, so everyone flying in here is more alert than he would be if he was being controlled by instruments and sophisticated operators into places like Heathrow (London) or J.F.K. (New York).
"But the most important safety factor is the weather. Cairo is perfectly clear 99 percent of the time. With 20-mile visibility almost all the time we can see each other and the airport. We help the controllers by telling them where we are, something they can't know otherwise without radar."
Although the pilots try to help, the air traffic controllers (who earn less than $200 a month) sometimes ignore them, the airline captains complain. One experience common to all was that of the Cairo tower's operator abruptly turning off his radio transmitter and refusing to answer their calls, either out of pique over a captain's irritation with imprecise directions or panic because he had lost track of the altitudes and separation of the aircraft circling overhead.
"The tower operator panicked one day when I was watching him try to control three plans -- a TWA, a Pakistan International and a Japan Air Lines -- all trying to land," the European control expert said. "He lost track of them, but instead of trying to sort them out he just turned off his transmit switch and looked anxious while the three pilots sorted themselves out by radio and landed one by one on their own."
Egyptian civil aviation authorities deny that anything at all is wrong or out of order, either in their procedures or equipment.
"Everything is working, the radar is working and everything is in good condition," said retired Air Force Gen. Sayed Shannani, chairman of Egypt's aviation authority.
Shannani insisted that despite the unanimous complaints of the airline captains that Egyptian air safety equipment is outdated and frequently out of order, the radio navigational aids that mark Egypt's air corridors and the approach control and tower control devices used to guide planes into landings are more than adequate for safety.