40 years have passed since the daring hostage rescue operation in Uganda in which the IAF displayed courage, creativity and originality. Lt. Col. (Res) Arye, one of the operation’s designers, revisits the day of the operation step by step. Additionally, an official delegation will take off for Entebbe tomorrow, escorted by IAF aircraft
Zohar Boneh | Translation: Ohad Zeltzer Zubida & Ofri Aharon
“The call from IAF HQ caught me while I was resting at home”, recreates Lt. Col. (Res’) Arye Gilad, who was Head of the Transport Operations Department in July 1976. “The IAF Commander wants to meet you immediately’ I was told. I sped to HQ in order to meet the late Maj. Gen. Benny Peled, who gave me an intriguing mission. ‘I am on the way to a meeting with the Chief of Staff and I need a list of all of the transport aircraft, if they have the ability to reach Entebbe, Uganda, how much cargo they can transport, how many soldiers they can contain and how long the flight is. I need it in ten minutes”.
After intensive planning, test flights and countless meetings, the same “intriguing mission” was executed, which is known today as Operation “Thunder Ball” in Entebbe, in which the passengers and aircrew of a hijacked “Air France” flight who were taken hostage by terrorists were rescued.
This week, 40 years after the exceptional operation, an official delegation led by the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will take off for Uganda escorted by an IAF Hercules C-130 “Karnaf” and Boeing 707 “Re’em” which will reenact the aerial part of the mission. “We will fly in the same aircraft that took part in the operation, number 420”, shared the Commander of the “Knights of the Yellow Bird” Squadron which operates the “Karnaf”. “The closure is tremendous. The flight is still tactically problematic, even 40 years later, but this time we will perform it even better”.
How it all Started
Back to 1976. “I sat in my chair in my office and didn’t know how to deal with this mess”, Lt. Col. Gilad shares with us today. “I suddenly noticed that I had aviation literature and among the books one book that I wrote, in which, by chance, there was a table with all of the details that the Commander had asked for minutes before. I grabbed a note and wrote everything down for him. When I went back to give it to him, he looked at me in awe and simply did not understand how I did it”.
Slowly, the operation began to take shape. “The small team that I was with prepared meticulously, but there were gaps in our intelligence. They had MiGs, we knew that they did not have the abilities to intercept at night, but there were still many holes in our intelligence”, explained Lt. Col. (Res’) Gilad.
“We had a few problems with planning the operation. First and foremost: the C-130 Hercules cannot land without seeing the runway. We were worried the runway lights would be off, or that the Ugandans would turn them off the moment a military operation would begin. Thus, we planned the operation so that the first aircraft would land alongside a British aircraft that was meant to land in the airport anyways and ensure that the runway lights would be on. Later, two soldiers would run along the runway and scatter signals that can be seen in the dark which would allow the other three aircraft to land as well”.
“Another problem that arose was the amount of fuel in the Hercules. We knew they wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it back home. We had two options, either stop in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and fuel the aircraft, or depend on there being huge fuel tanks near the aircraft and pump gas from them”.
The following day, Spec Ops Unit “Sayeret Matkal” conducted an exercise which included the landing of a ‘Hercules’ and a simulation of a hostage rescue scenario in an airport. While waiting at the entrance to the unit’s Base, Lt. Col. (Res) Gilad was called the Chief of Staff’s office. “In half an hour and with the help of one map, I explained every detail of the operation and the questions the Chief of Staff had for me were difficult to answer”, he recalled. “He asked, for example, ‘what will we do if the lights will be off when the first aircraft arrives?’. I looked at him, knowing that my answer would determine the fate of the operation”.
The operation was only officially approved while the aircraft were already in the air, meaning that they took off knowing they might have to come back. While flying, they received the good news from different sources: the operation was approved, they had received permission to engage and Kenya approved that the aircraft could land in Nairobi.
“Thus, after five challenging and sleepless days, an almost insane operation went on its way. The IAF’s abilities were realized to their fullest extent here and most importantly, under a cloak of complete confidentiality”.