Airborne Rescue and Evacuation: Unit 669 Celebrates 40 Years

Did you know: one of the IDF (Zahal)’s greatest units – Unit 669 – was originally comprised of only 12 soldiers? Back in 1974, soldiers and offices were conscripted into the unit because no one joined it voluntarily. Nowadays it is one of the most difficult units to be a part of and it has successfully completed countless rescue missions. Here is a look back on how it all started.

During the very first hours of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, IAF pilot Ishai Ktsiri’s plane was shot down and he was forced to eject. Ishai was wounded, but still very much alive. Soldiers from theArmored Corps reported the location of the pilot so that the Sayeret Matkal, the IDF (Zahal) special forces unit, could find and rescue him. Unfortunately, the Sayeret arrived too late and Ishai was taken captive as a prisoner of war.

Throughout that war, the Israeli Air Force lost more than 100 aircraft during combat and many pilots were taken captive. Reports and analysis later showed that the IDF (Zahal) had only a slim chance of rescuing ejected pilots behind enemy lines during the war. Facing these facts, Benny Peled, a former IAF commander, decided to form a new extraction unit, Unit 669.

“Today, the unit is an elite part of the IDF (Zahal) and its soldiers are selected with silver gloves. Forty years ago, nobody wanted to be part of it,” explains Avner Ilnai, the unit commander from 1976 to 1978. Aversion towards joining 669 was so high in the beginning years that the first four officers were brought in against their will. Ilnai himself claims he was too young and inexperienced for the task but was nevertheless selected.

Airborne Rescue and Evacuation: Unit 669 Celebrates 40 Years

First class of 669, April 1974. Photos from Ilnai’s book “669.”

Yet the lack of previous experience or structure gave the first commanders an opportunity to build the unit as they wished. Yoram Shachar – the first unit commander – decided to learn from the United States Army together with Ilnai and they took part of a pararescue course in the United States Navy. “They kept throwing us into the Gulf of Mexico,” recounts Ilnai. During these courses, the commanders acquired a large set of new skills, including helicopter rescue, to contribute to the new Unit 669.

Airborne Rescue and Evacuation: Unit 669 Celebrates 40 Years

After returning to Israel, the two officers became teachers for their soldiers. “We had to learn as we went along,” points out Ilnai. “We would go rappelling in the Yehuda Desert and every year we learned something new.” After beginning with only 12 soldiers, the first class of Unit 669 finished its training with 20 soldiers. Finally in December 1974, 669 became an operational unit.

The First Rescue Mission: A German Tourist

In 1975, a German tourist hiking near the Wadi Murabba’at in the Judean Desert lost his way. Unit 669 was informed of the incident, dispatched five soldiers aboard a Bell 205 helicopter, and searched for the hiker who was eventually found on a high cliff in the ravine.

After successfully completing their first rescue mission, Unit 669 continued to established its name and notoriety by rescuing wounded soldiers and assisting other elite units, especially during the First Lebanon War.

Airborne Rescue and Evacuation: Unit 669 Celebrates 40 Years

The 101 Paratrooper Ambush

In 1999, paratroopers stationed in northern Israel were sent on an ambush mission inside of Lebanon. Unfortunately, a Hezbollah terrorist cell was waiting for their arrival. The unit faced heavy fire and the platoon commander was hit. The hilly terrain of the area made a ground evacuation nearly impossible. In response, a Unit 669 Black Hawk helicopter was sent over the border.

The terrorists began to fire mortars and rockets both at the paratroopers and the helicopter. Despite the heavy gunfire from the enemy, Unit 669 soldiers repelled from the helicopter in order to extract the wounded commander. The unit provided the officer with emergency medical care and evacuated him to an Israeli hospital. The commander eventually healed and returned to the Paratroopers Unit to command his soldiers.

Airborne Rescue and Evacuation: Unit 669 Celebrates 40 Years

The 669 heliborne medevac extraction unit has taken part in many missions since then, most of which remain secret. The unit has managed to take part in various wars and operations, the most recent being Operation Protective Edge. In total, the unit managed to evacuate 254 soldiers using transport helicopters, and 151 of these evacuations were performed under fire.

“Combat search and rescue is a profession. It flows in the veins of the soldiers of the unit. It is their first breath when they get up in the morning and their last thought before they fall asleep at night,” summarized Lt. Col. Amir, the unit commander. “The soldiers of Unit 669, both in the past and the present, in the reserves and in mandatory military service, are all dedicated. They have all written the history pages of Unit 669 over the past 40 years and will continue to do so over the next 40 years.”

Airborne Rescue and Evacuation: Unit 669 Celebrates 40 Years

From Mako and IAF websites