Operational squadron leader pilots carry a significant amount of weight upon their shoulders. At crunch time, they are the ones who must make life and death decisions: Should we fly over a missile battery or should we retreat? What is more urgent, attacking a missile launching area or assisting an infantry corps unit in distress?
Yael Harari, Michal Weissbrod and Gil Shani
In every squadron, a chosen few become ‘leading pilots’. A leader’s job is to oversee and command various operations, and function as the responsible ‘adult’ during a particular operational mission. Leaders specialize in all gray areas of reality, dealing with questions that could never have a right answer.
The “Flying Dragon” squadron is responsible for training the chosen leaders while introducing the younger pilots to as many dilemmas as possible. The more complicated, the better.
It is a sunny morning at the combat airplane formations of “Ramon” airbase. The future leaders are headed toward the strip, preparing for take-off.
The goal: to attack a rocket launching area in Gaza Strip. The strong light of a firework crossed the sky simulating a racket attack on Israel. The attack point is now being given to the pilots. Up until now, everything sounds awfully simple but the whole scenario gets complicated quickly. Truthfully, it becomes a lot more similar to reality.
Once the helicopters near the launching area, the many people standing around it unravel. The attack point is surrounded by civilians. At that exact moment a dilemma raises. The pilots are aware of the fact that if they release ammunition now, many people will get injured. “Dealing with these sorts of events requires a large amount of caution, a lot like working with tweezers, we have to be very reasonable”, explains First Lieutenant Amir, who is in charge of the operation, to the IAF magazine.”There is no black and white in these situations, no right and wrong”, he continues. “Each of us has his own solution to different dilemmas. Each has his own way of thinking and perspective on the complex situations they face. Now, the leaders have to use every bit of their common sense and decision-making power. This time they aren’t relying on technical knowledge or aerial capabilities. After a series of questions such as: “Is the launcher absolutely armed?”, “Are the people standing around it involved or uninvolved?” they have to make a decision. There can still be a few seconds of hesitation while one or two other questions are asked in order to make the absolutely correct decision, but by that time it’s too late: another qassam rocket was launched towards Israel.
“I realized that if I don’t break the law, I will become a captive”
Ambition and devotion are the main values that the IAF imparts upon its people. Sometimes, the hardest decision is to notify everyone in the communicating lines that you are turning back toward home. “It’s always much harder to decide not to complete the assignment “, says a senior pilot of the “Scorpion” squadron, “It contradicts everything you were raised upon”.
On the other hand, a leader could go out of his way to complete a mission. “In 1986, when Ron Arad and Aviram Ishay’s airplane was attacked during a Sidon operation, there were two other airplanes in the sky protecting them” said Colonel H’, a senior combat pilot who today operates as an IDF attaché in London, to the IAF magazine. “Once Ron and Aviram abandoned the airplane they only succeeded in keeping touch with Aviram who parachuted down a wadi onto a raspberry bush. Soon enough, they were out of fuel. They alerted me and another pilot as we were on standby. A siren began wailing and we took off. We were briefed in-flight. Right after takeoff, the other pilot’s airplane was damaged so he had to make an emergency landing. I continued alone into Lebanon, which was uncommon. I didn’t even think of turning back and landing, so I just kept on flying”.
He hovered while trying to locate Aviram. “I decided to try and see where he was and began flying at low altitudes so that I could keep in touch with him. I saw all kinds of cars and vans nearing Aviram’s location in order to kidnap him. I realized that if I didn’t break the law they will take me hostage. It was noon and you could definitely see the Anti Aircrafts. It felt like a bullet was coming toward me out of every Lebanese window, attempting to take me down. I was all by myself for a while but you can’t really feel fear at that point. I was really breaking every law possible: I was flying low, making up tactics and making noise in an attempt to impart fear. It was already very dark and the amount of fuel I had left was half of that permitted”.
Later on, another combat airplane was instructed to take off and other helicopters arrived to extract the pilot. “I was directing them and helping them make decisions. I was there all along, imposing my opinions. It was a flight full of dilemmas and leadership decision making. From the first moment to the last”.