Dangerous skies Dangerous skies

פתאום כל החלטה היא סיכון. אחד התדריכים במהלך הסדנה Dangerous skies

/ Dangerous skies A decade after 9/11, the aerial terrorist threat continues to hover thickly in the world sky. The attempt to deal with different aspects of the threat, forces IAF pilots face difficult dilemmas that have one common denominator: act here and now

Yael Harari and Dana Russo

You decide to take a vacation. You board a plane, toward your inner peace, take your seat and stretch your legs luxuriously. The plane takes off and then, in the air, the peace and quiet start seeping in.
But in some cases in the past, at this point exactly, chaos began instead. These cases all cluster under the title “Aerial terrorist attacks” and dealing with them in some cases, lead to tremendous success and in others to great sadness.

“We Will Not Be Kidnapped”
September 6th 1970. “It was a flight from Amsterdam to New York”, said Captain Uri Bar-lev in a conference at Fischer Institute in the year 2001. “Before the flight, while still on ground at Amsterdam, I was sitting in the cockpit when the El-Al security officer came in and told me that he had noticed three passengers with suspicious appearances”.
Two of these passengers held diplomatic passports from Senegal and the others had passports from Nicaragua. After a consultation, the “diplomats” were transferred to the “Pan-Am” flight that was consequently hijacked and landed in Cairo, while the other two were allowed to board the flight after a physical exam.

“We boarded the plane in the afternoon hours, with 145 passengers and ten flight crew members”, describes Bar-lev. “When we were at an altitude of 29,000 feet, climbing the air, we got a warning sign for hijacking. Immediately afterward we heard powerful strikes on the cockpit’s door and the voice of a steward saying that there is a man holding a gun and a grenade and a woman holding two grenades right alongside him and that they’re demanding that we open the cockpit door. While they pointed a gun at a stewardess’s head, they said that if we don’t open the door they’ll shoot her. My first response, which I stated rather loudly, was that we will not be kidnapped”.

“Am I God?”
Captain Uri Bar-lev was faced with difficult ethical consequences when he decided not to acquiesce to the hijackers’ request even though the stewardess’s life was in immediate danger. In hindsight, he made the right choice.
“Am I God, who can decide the fate of a girl with a gun to her head? And if I don’t open the door, I must face the chance that her life and other passengers’ as well, might get taken away?” Bar-lev raises the question and immediately answers it: “It was clear to me that in order to stop the hijack and save the stewardess I have to get the power out of their hands and back into mine while searching for a solution. Because I knew that all the passengers are strapped into their seats, I “threw” the plane into negative G-force, so that the attackers, who weren’t in their seats, would lose their balance and security officers could gain control of them”.

Difficult Decisions
Aerial Terrorist Attacks have many faces, only one of which is hijacking. The fear of the use of commercial planes to hit Israeli targets or citizens is always taken into consideration, especially since the seventies during which there was a series of Aerial Terrorist Attacks and warnings of a plan set to crash a plane in central Tel Aviv.

The preparations for the unknown sometimes invite complex dilemmas and moreover, caution none withstanding, when you need to make a quick decision with missing details, it won’t always be the right one.
History hasn’t given many combat pilots the opportunity to deal with Aerial Terrorist Attacks. But out of a justified assumption that anything can happen in our world, not one pilot stays indifferent to the thought of dilemmas that he might be faced with one day, just when he’s on routine alert at his squadron.

Shoot or not?
The IAF takes central part in the combat efforts against Aerial Terrorist Attacks and works hard in order to deal with the phenomenon in the best way possible.
Throughout a whole week, “reality” of aerial terrorist events wrapped the skies of Israel from every direction: Foreign planes invaded Israeli borders, UAVs hovered over sensitive areas and large commercial planes threatened the towers of Tel Aviv.
Throughout that whole week, none of the IAF bases rested for a moment while trying to prevent the “flying terrorists” from achieving their goals, even though these terrorists were just their pilot friends from the neighboring base.
And thus, the people of the “Knights of the Double Tail” squadron from Tel Nof Airbase, which was the squadron that planned and led the exercise, were forced to enter the mind frames of aerial terrorists. They created an “Aerial Terrorist Attacks” workshop, which encompasses the myriad dilemmas and situations that fall under the definition.

“At the end of the day, protecting our nation’s skies divides into two categories: during combat and in times of calm”, Major Ophir, Deputy Commander of the squadron, explains the complex definition of “aerial terror”.
“In combat, decision-making is quite simple: You take down any enemy plane that enters our country. But when we’re not in war and the intentions of planes entering the country’s territory is unclear, the dilemmas unfold and anything could be an ‘Aerial Terrorist Attack’”.

No Surprises
It is of fundamental importance for the “Defenders of the South” squadron from Nevatim base to participate in the Aerial Terrorist workshop, and after a briefing, they take off. Now they are on their way to deal with six different scenarios, extreme operational terrorist scenarios that originated in the burning minds of the planners of the exercise. Now these planners’ fertile minds and made-up situations, become reality.
A first plane crosses the Israeli border. It is a combat plane, but one that is making its way from a country with which Israel have a peace treaty. There is no response to communication attempts as the plane makes its way toward one of the areas in the country that is classified as “sensitive”. Suddenly, every decision is a risk.

The next plane on the horizon doesn’t relieve any stress. It’s a plane from a neighboring country that is entering Israel, making its way to Jerusalem and begins dropping bombs. “Did someone here even doubt if we should bring that plane down or not?” silence ensues in the briefing room.

But this is a simpler scenario than those yet to come. A plane bombing the capitol city doesn’t leave the Israeli pilot many options but to bring him down. But what happens when bringing down a plane endangers tens, if not thousands of people?

“In the next scenario we had a large commercial plane that we discovered from afar, but suddenly we noticed a combat plane close by it”, Major Itai, Deputy Commander of the ” Defenders of the South” squadron, says during the debriefing. “This is one of the toughest dilemmas. But even in these kinds of situations, we know what to do”.

Almost ten years ago, the world learned that the scenario of a plane crashing into a building is not an imaginary one, and still, it’s crucially important for the planners of the workshop to prepare the pilots for different scenarios as well and make sure that they’re ready at any given moment.

“This is the first workshop that includes absolutely everyone. All the bases and all the squadrons, because we really can’t predict what will happen and where”, explains Major Ophir. “It encompasses every dilemma and every command that could potentially catch us off guard. These are situations in which you could be sitting in your squadron, drinking coffee, interviewing for the IAF magazine, and suddenly there’s a siren and you simply grab your helmet and run to your plane”.