The Iraqi MiG parked in the Hatzor Base
Colonel (Res.) Danny Shapira and the MiG-21 Plane The winds of change in the Middle East brought waves of defections and stories about Libyan, Syrian and Iranian military peoples who fled their countries. This week marks 45 years since the historical defection of Iraqi pilot Munir Radfa with his Mig-21
When a pair of defected Libyan pilots stood helpless in front of the cameras at the international airport in Malta, it was difficult not to sympathize with them, not to feel warmth and fondness toward the display of nobility and the courage by two people who left everything behind and flew toward the unknown.
In cases of defection, immediately upon the completion of a laborious series of investigations, the pilots’ faces are blurred, their identities replaced, as they get sucked into a world of absolute ambiguity. Not many of them get to share their fascinating stories with people before the opaque veil covering their stories fades away.
Captain Munir Radfa was one of those pilots who had defected and consequently gained admiration and true friends. Exactly 45 years ago, when he fled from Iraq on his MiG-21 aircraft and landed at the Hazor base in Israel, he had the opportunity to meet his operators: the “Mossad” agents who initiated the carefully planned process of defection.
“Operation Diamond” as it was called, took around four years and was sealed with the arrival of the Iraqi MiG-21 aircraft and its pilot, Captain Radfa.
During the time period, “Mossad” agents strengthened their relationship with Radfa, relocated his family to Israel with his consent, and waited for the day he would arrive with his plane.
To know the enemy
“The goal was to really get to know the enemy. To get a MiG-21 aircraft in any possible way and understand what threats are facing us”, says Colonel (res.) Danny Shapiro, Chief Test Pilot at the time at the Air Force.
One day after the arrival of the plane, Shapiro was asked to study the plane as well as possible, and to take the first opportunity to be airborne and simulate aerial combat with Israeli planes.
“During the period in which I learned from him, we really connected to each other and became good friends. Eventually I would start visiting him at his home, and he would visit us with his wife and children”, says Shapiro, who admits that he was lucky to meet Radfa. “He was a man of great stature. Stood his ground and knew what he wanted. He was incredibly smart and never regretted one step he chose to take on his journey”.
Danny says that fears none withstanding, Munir was determined all along. “Radfa said he flew that day with a clear mind. He revved up the engines, lifted into the air and settled on track. At some point before leaving Iraqi territory, Iraqi aircrafts tried to intercept him but to no avail: He crossed the predetermined point in the Dead Sea, and arrived successfully at Hazor Airbase”.
Long after the exposure of the story, dozens of rumors sprang up to explain Radfa’s reason for defection. “Munir told me one day that he was simply afraid to live there. He was afraid for his family and for his own life. He used to say that, in Iraq, he had to make the right choice. If he didn’t, he would run the risk of getting hanged”, said Shapiro.
“We shared an amazing relationship while he was here. Just before he left the country, before the exposure of the affair, he would come over here to my house. Neighbors and friends would look at the new friend and we had to make up cover stories on the spot. We said Munir is an Iranian tourist, if I remember correctly, who just want to learn more about our country”.
One of three
Munir Radfa is one of three pilots who defected and have come here since the establishment of the State of Israel. The first was Captain Mahmoud Abbas Hilmi, a “Yak” pilot in the Egyptian Air force. In January of 1964, Hilmi, a senior flight instructor, landed at Hatzor Base with his aircraft. The plane never received permission to fly again, but Hilmi was allowed to leave the country and move to Argentina. A year and a half later, his body was found lying in his Buenos Aires apartment.
Two years later, the previously discussed Munir Radfa defected and left for Israel after four years of close collaboration with the Israeli “Mossad”. The next defection took place 13 years later in the year 1989, when Major Bassam Adel, a Syrian MiG-23 pilot, defected with his aircraft. After landing in northern Israel, Adel described his nerve wracking journey.
“I flew at an altitude of about 50 feet at the more than 1,000 kilometers per hour”. After his arrival, Adel and was investigated and given a new identity. Within a few weeks, he moved to a foreign country and is counted as yet another entry into the obscure world of defectors.