It happened 44 years ago. For the first time, an IAF took off for an operational mission and provided photographs of the Suez Canal front. What was in the pictures? And why was the operation kept secret from the Americans?
On 17 September 1971, a “Stratocruiser” aircraft took off for a diagonal photography mission with the aim of gathering visual intelligence on the location of Egyptian forces on the Suez front. 22 kilometers east of the Suez canal, with the Israeli plane inside Israeli territory, an SA-2 SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) was launched and intercepted it. The flight Engineer who was on the plane, Major Hanania Gazit, is the only one who managed to abandon the plane in time. The other seven crew members were killed in the crash.
The Egyptian SAM batteries were probably brought forward to the area of the canal a short while before the Stratocruiser took off, following the interception of Egyptian “Sukhoi 7” jet six days earlier by the Israeli Air Force. IAF officers were surprised by the new location of the batteries and sought for a way to map their location without putting another crew in danger. Back at that time, the “First UAV” squadron was in its initial founding stages, equipped with 12 Teledyne Ryan “Firebee” UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) which were brought in from the USA just a few weeks earlier. That was the first UAV type to have entered service in the IAF, and until its famous mission 44 years ago was used for only four IAF missions – all non-operational missions involving teams of Americans and Israelis.
First Operational Takeoff
The IAF acquired two types of UAVs in the first stage – the “Firebee”, which was designed to carry out photographing missions to locate enemy missile batteries and the “Telem”, which was designated to masquerade as a manned aircraft, fly over the enemy SAM batteries and trigger them to fire missiles toward it. Using that strategy, the battery would have wasted its expensive missiles trying to hit the UAV while simultaneously exposing its location.
“After the Stratocruiser was shot down, I was immediately called to IAF headquarter and ordered to collect intelligence on all the Egyptian batteries across the Suez Canal”, says Lt. Col. (Res.) Shlomo Nir, the founder of the squadron and its first commander. “None of the people in the squadron was officially qualified for that mission in that time, and they asked me if I could do it without the help of the Americans. I said yes, although it was a huge gamble. We planned and executed the mission by ourselves”. Back then, the planes were positioned in IAF Airbase in Sinai, near the canal. On 19 September 1971, two days after the Stratocruiser interception, the “Firebee” took off for its first IAF operational mission under a vail of secrecy, took pictures of the SAM batteries near the canal and returned to its base. The pictures were then hastily sent to Tel-Aviv to be processed by intelligence experts.
“The sortie was successful, we were happy with the results, but there was still one problem. The flight was carried out without the Americans’ knowledge which was basically a violation of our treaty. When they found out, they refused to continue training us”, reveals Lt. Col. (Res.) Nir. “They wanted to return to the USA but we managed to persuade them into staying and finish training flights. Looking back, this was definitely a significant milestone for the squadron”.
It should be mentioned that in June 1969, in the midst of the “War of Attrition”, the Israeli first ever UAV sortie took off for an intelligence gathering mission on behalf of IDF’s Intelligence Branch. The aircraft took 50 photos of the Egyptian posts across the Suez Cannel.