"Swifter Than Eagles, Stronger Than Lions": A Visit to the Israel Air and Space Force

Article excerpt

"Swifter than eagles, stronger than lions" is how the author of the Book of Samuel describes two heroes of ancient Israel, King Saul and his son Jonathan. These words apply equally well, however, to some heroes of modern Israel: the men and women of the Israel Air and Space Force (IASF). From its birth during the Jewish state's 1948 War of Independence to the present day, the IASF has accumulated a record of accomplishment unequaled in the annals of air warfare. Operation Focus, the virtually complete destruction of Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 Six-Day War, and Operation Insect, the similarly complete destruction of the Syrian air defense network in the Bekaa at the outset of the 1982 Lebanon War, are famous the world over, as are Operation Jonathan, the bold anti-terrorist strike to rescue Israeli hostages at Entebbe, and Operation Opera, the spectacular attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

One can read all of this illustrious history in the many books and articles written about the IASF over the years, but the printed page is no substitute for an actual visit to its bases, where one can touch its aircraft and meet its personnel.

Together with about fifty interested (and interesting) people, I recently availed myself of such an opportunity as a guest of the Israel Air Force Center (IAFC). We were escorted on eye-opening excursions to three IASF bases--Ramat David in the north of the country, Tel Nof in the center, and Hatzerim in the south--and we were treated to a fascinating tour of the IAFC's home in Herzliya.

Our visit began with a post-Shabbat dinner attended by General Asaf Agmon (Res.) and Major N, (1) at which we heard the heartwarming story of Ethiopian Jewry's rescue and watched some still classified footage of the event. The general, who is currently the head of the Fisher Brothers Institute, a research arm of the IAFC, commanded the airborne component of Operation Solomon, in which approximately 14,000 Jews were flown to Israel from Ethiopia in a single day. He also played a central role in the more clandestine Operation Moses, in which approximately 8,000-9,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to the Jewish state, many through a secret airlift that emanated from the Sudan. Gen. Agmon, a former C130 Hercules pilot, told us of the dangerous night flights that he made into Sudan in his large transport aircraft to whisk away the refugees. Now an engineer in the IASF, Maj. N spoke of his perilous journey of hundreds of miles from his village in Ethiopia to a staging area in the Sudan, where he was saved by none other than Gen. Agmon. The compelling story related by Gen. Agmon and Maj. N immediately brought to mind the rescue of Iraqi and Yemenite Jewry in the late 1940s, which also involved massive airlifts of refugees to Israel.

The next day, the group set out for Tel Nof, a sprawling base not far from Tel Aviv, where 133 "Knights of the Twin Tail" Squadron, the IASF's first F-15 Eagle unit, served as our initial host. We relaxed in the squadron's operations room while Lieutenant S, a navigator, (2) spoke about the unit, which shot down almost 50 Syrian MiGs in dogfights through the end of the Lebanon War, all without a single loss. S then brought us to see a fully armed F15 on alert status in its hardened air shelter (HAS) at the edge of one of Tel Nof's huge runways. Like all young officers and enlisted personnel that we would meet on our visit to the IASE S is highly intelligent, physically fit, and mature far beyond his years.

At our second stop at Tel Nor, with Unit 669, the IASF's elite airborne rescue unit, we,, received a briefing from Captain Y, one of its operators. These men and women, trained as both elite infantry and medics, are entrusted with the task of removing wounded Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers--and, quite often, injured enemy combatants--from the battlefield. The personnel of Unit 669 frequently go in under fire, as we would learn later from another operator, and they are prepared to venture far behind enemy lines in order to recover the wounded, in line with the IDF's time-honored tradition of never leaving a soldier behind on the battlefield. …