Five years ago this week, a black mushroom of smoke that rose over the Carmel ridge was viewed from the mountain in which the IAF’s Northern ATC (Air Traffic Control) Unit is positioned. After foreign forces landed, ATC soldiers were required to coordinate dozens of aircraft – in a foreign language. The Then Northern ATC Unit Commander recalls one of the most dramatic events in the history of the division
Shahar Zorani | Translation: Ofri Aharon & Ohad Zeltzer Zubida
December 2, 2010, evening: the soldiers of the Northern ATC Unit left the bunker to the dining-room. Instead of the usual green view seen from the mountain on which the unit is located, an ominous black cloud was revealed to them. “We spotted smoke from the unit that looked like an atomic mushroom and rumors about a massive fire began to circulate immediately”, recreates Lt. Col. (Res.) Gil, which was the Northern ATC Unit Commander then. “We did not have any aircraft that could complete the firefighting mission except for small agriculture planes, we understood that forces from all over the world will be dispatched”.
The “Carmel fire”, which already after its first day became the largest fire disaster in Israeli history, broke out on December 2 and lasted four whole days. The raging fire took the lives of 44 people, between them 37 Prison Servicemen, a bus driver and 6 other policemen and woman that attempted to save the passengers and completely destroyed the forest and civilian houses in a large part of the Carmel Park and the settlements around it.
The IAF took part in the aerial firefighting efforts, as its main mission was ATC of the foreign aerial forces. The coordination mission between the aerial forces which tried to extinguish the fire was no simple task: spraying aircraft, firefighting helicopters, UAV’s, Russian “Ilyushin” planes and American “Super-Tankers”, a total of 30 aircraft, which operated almost simultaneously in an extremely small area – 15 square Kilometers. The Northern ATC Unit commander during the fire, Lt. Col. Gil, hasn’t forgotten one of the most dramatic and significant events in which the ATC Unit took part in the past few years.
Like an Operational Attack
The Northern ATC Unit soldiers were required to coordinate between the different aircraft and bring them to their destination safely. “We began to study each plane and its characteristics”, Lt. Col. Gil recalls the first moments of the event. Throughout the Fire, 659 sorties were executed, an enormous amount in a short time.
The large scale fire and short time at hand required the northern ATC unit to stay focused, prove their control abilities and understand the situation at an optimal level at any given moment. They helped brief air force representatives from foreign countries and conducted missions in the control station. “We were required to manage the small, complicated and crowded area, with efficiency and safety. There were many management stations and we operated different forces”, stated Lt. Col. (Res.) Gil. “We utilized all of the insights and methods that we have from previous operations in this area”.
“In comparison to a war that takes place 24/7, a war with fire can only be managed during the day. Conducting flights at low levels in dark areas that are only lit by flames is extremely dangerous. War with fire from the air was only conducted in the light of day, which allowed us to work and plan for the next day throughout the night. We had to be precise and aware; our goal was to save lives”.
IAF in air and on ground
As stated, the aircraft that participated in putting out the fire weren’t Israelis. Other than needing to coordinate with multiple planes, the ATC unit needed to do so in English, which was a challenge within itself. The commander of the unit required an Israeli pilot to ensure efficient work and as such help was distributed which created a mutual language. “Other than two British pilots, no other pilots had English as their mother-tongue”, explained Lieut. Col. (Res.) Gil.
“The many fire fighter teams that were sent by the IAF to the field worked efficiently”, shared fireman officer Amir Levy, commander of the fire department in the western-Galilee in an exclusive interview with IAF Magazine. “Even with the many exercises conducted for years, this fire was something we could not control on our own. The cooperation between the forces was exceptional and the IAF fire department’s contribution was significant. The civilian fire fighters, like the IAF fire fighters that joined us in the command post, gave us the feeling that we would be able to overcome the challenge set in front of us”.