UAV Squadron undergoes special exercise to track missing pilots

The drill, the first of its kind, was conducted with unit 669 and was aimed at locating a missing person- take a glimpse into this unique mission

Date: 26/02/2012, 7:23 PM     Author: May Efrat, IAF Website

This is not a routine task. UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) operators are used to searching for targets and gathering intelligence. But this time, they are not looking for suspicious vehicles, missile launchers, or ammunitions depots- but a parachute, an ejected seat, or an airplane crash site. The morning report read as follows: “Netz” type aircraft (F-16) crashed in the State of Israel.

One of the crew is wounded and the other apparently killed. Soldiers of the 669th Rescue Unit reached the general area of the crash site, along with an exploratory squad while the “First UAV” squadron rushed to their posts. They hope that from the sky they will be able to shed more light on the situation.

This is of course an exercise. The debris field is not from a real plane crash and hidden in the forest are dolls instead of pilots, but the squadron is no stranger to real situations. The squadron took part in the search for the crashed “Sufa” plane (F-16I) in 2010, looked for missing soldiers in the Second Lebanon War, and helped scan the extent of the forest fire in the Carmel last year.

“We have the means and the people who know how to decipher the pictures. In the end, finding the crash site is not very different from identifying a terrorist ambush,” explains Capt. Or, who is responsible for the exercise in the squadron. “This began from a reservist in the squadron, who was exceptionally skilled at deciphering the information. We have several teams who are among the best in the field.” Those participating in the drill, Capt. Idan and 1st Lt. I, don’t belong to the same squad. In fact, this is the first time they’ve encountered such a task. “We can’t always get the same people each time, so it is important to expose more and more operators from the squadron,” explains Capt. Or.

After a joint briefing with unit 669, Capt. Idan and 1st Lt. I arrive at the operating room and prepare for the flight. The squadron has their orders, but their job is not a simple one. “Conducting this flight demands a lot of creativity and a lot of things need to be taken into account,” says Capt. Or, “It may be that pilot does not realize he is in Israel and is hiding, then we will have to look for the slightest peek of a head or a hand. If we are in enemy territory then we are fighting against the clock, and must find the pilot before the enemy closes in.”

There is a tense atmosphere in the operating room as the operators constantly scan the area. Even with the superior view from the UAV camera, it is difficult to decipher a rock from plane debris. Slowly the details in the picture come into focus, the ejected seat is found and it is easier to recognize the doll simulating the pilot’s body. Finally, with the help of soldiers from 669, the body is located within a gorge and extracted successfully.

“It’s not easy,” admits Capt. Idan, “you need to accustom your eyes to scrutinize the picture and not miss a single detail. In the end, success means finding the person alive instead of dead, and this is always on my mind. Missions may be sisyphean, but the importance is clear to everyone,” he says. “It’s exhausting to sit for hours and do the same thing. It gets frustrating but you have to keep trying again and again,” agrees 1st Lt. I. “Emotions are involved when you know someone is on the ground.”