39 years passed since the arrival of the first F-15 (“Baz” Hebrew for Falcon) in Israel, the IAF site remembers the jet’s glory moments: shot-downs of enemy aircraft, the operations and the sortie above Auschwitz death camp
David Greenwald | Translation: Ohad Zeltzer Zubida
39 years have passed since the arrival of the first F-15A/B to the Tel-Nof Airbase. Over the years, the “Knights of the Twin Tail” and the “Edge of the Spear” Squadrons aerial supremacy jets managed to defend, attack, escort, shot-down and take part in historical events which molded the world of aerial warfare, the Israeli Air Force and the Israeli Collective Memory. These are the most remarkable events.
A Global Premiere
On July 27, 1979, The Israeli Air Force was credited with a historical achievement when the “Knights of the Twin Tail” Squadron’s F-15 jets downed a Syrian MiG-21 jet and noted the first ever F-15 down. It happened after two Syrian MiG-21 quartets moved towards Israeli fighter jets with the purpose of interception and during an aerial battle that commenced between the F-15s, IAI Kfirs and the Syrian jets, the F-15s shot-down four MiGs. The premier down was credited to Maj. Moshe Melnik, while Maj. Gen. (Res.) Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, the squadron commander who would later become the IAF Commander, took part in the mission and downed a MiG by means of the jet’s cannon.
“The radio was very quickly filled with readings of: ‘I downed’, ‘I downed’ and I understood that the battle was fruitful. A minute later, it was all over”, shared Col. (Res.) Melnik. “Everyone reported what they had done – and I waited for everyone to finish – and said the sentence that is credited to me to this day: ‘say what you want, I was first’”.
It may have arrived as a jet designated for interception and aerial supremacy, but on October 1, 1985, the F-15 proved that it was cut out for strike missions. During Operation “Wooden Leg”, eight F-15 flew to Tunis, about 1,600 miles from Israel, in order to destroy the PLO terror organization’s Headquarters. It was an easy choice: its technical reliability, its two engines and its refueling capabilities, made it the ideal jet for the mission.
“It’s one of those flights you perform once in a lifetime, you can’t miss, because you’re carrying so many expectations”, said the “Knights of the Twin Tail” Squadron Commander (during the operation) Col. (Res.) Micki Lev. “This time, the carry was very heavy. The flight was defined as a national assignment. The pre-sortie preparations were immense, the far-away target required sophisticated and meticulous logistics. We tried to imagine every kind of problem or malfunction that might occur and prepared a proper response. The success of the mission was dependent on the harmony, one mistake in any stage could destroy everything”.
The strikes were accurate: the head of the PLO’s office, the head of the organizations operations division and the “Force 17” offices, were completely destroyed, and 70 terrorists were killed. This was the farthest attack that the IAF has every executed.
Landing Without a Wing
In the summer of 1983, during a training flight in the Negev, an F-15 and a “Skyhawk” A-4 from the “Edge of the Spear” Squadron crashed into each other. The Skyhawk exploded immediately and its pilot ejected safely. The F-15 was also hit badly. Its right wing had completely ripped off and the jet entered a spin and began to dive.
“There was an immense flow of air from the wing and I understood it was badly damaged”, shared Capt. Nadav, the pilot. “I said to G’ (the WPO) ‘we’re going to eject, prepare yourself’ but I still didn’t rush into it”.
In an attempt to control the jet spin, Capt, Nadav activated the after burner and caused an immediate clime in the jets speed and he also asymmetrically activated the engines.
“The F-15 was under control and directed to emergency landing in the Ramon Airbase. The jet entered the runway at a speed of 280 knots, two times the normal landing speed and eventually stopped only a few meters before the net. I opened the canopy, and reached for G’ for a handshake. I turned my head and my smile became an exclamation of surprise: ‘there’s no wing!’ It was the first time that I understood what had occurred”, added Maj. Nadav. “We exited in complete shock. A huge, unexplained smile was smacked on my face. I had always had complete confidence in the F-15. Now it had only strengthened”.
The McDonnell Douglas Corporation, the manufacturers of the jet that did not believe the story and were amazed at the sight of the photos, gifted the IAF an alternative wing and covered the cost of the repairs. The jet was renovated in a short time and returned to operational activity in the squadron.
The Last Down
The “Edge of the Spear” Squadron pilots, which, in November 1985, took off for a routine mission over Lebanon, had no idea that they would be the IAF’s last pilots to shoot-down an enemy plane, a fact that is still true for now. During an escort mission of photography sortie, the pilots noticed two Syrian MiG-23s patrolling and flew towards them.
The Syrian pilots were not intimidated and they also changed direction towards the Israeli jets. As opposed to past occurrences in which IAF pilots would disengage when arriving at 20 kilometers from the target, this time the IAF jets were given free fire permission.
The distance between the jets began to shrink. “We entered the proper range and shot. The first missile was launched by Brig. Gen. (Res) Avner Naveh, the leader and immediately after him we shot the second. Both of them missed”, related Maj. Ofer Paz.
“We switched to heat-seeking missiles”, continued Lt. Col. (Res.) Yuval Ben-Dor. “When I changed the weapons system to heat-seeking, my missile locked on the radar missile I shot beforehand. I relocked the missile manually and we shot again without targets distribution. The Syrian jet exploded as we flew over it in a sharp right turn towards the second jet”,
the aircrew members did not know who downed the Syrian jet and the down was divided between them. The second MiG was downed soon afterwards.
The Sortie Over Auschwitz
As a part of the celebration in honor of the Polish Air Forces 85th year, the IAF was invited to take part in an air exhibition in the town of Radom. On September 4, 2003, four days after the end of the exhibition, three F-15s executed a flyover in a tight formation over the Auschwitz Death Camp.
“We, the Israeli Air Force Pilots in the skies of the horror camp, have arisen from the ashes of the millions of victims, bear their silent cry, salute their bravery and promise to be the Jewish people’s and their country’s shield”, said Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, leader of the formation and the current IAF Commander .
The photo of the flyover touched millions of Jews in Israel and abroad and has become a symbol in the force.
“We stood there and looked at the sky, waiting to see the IAF jets arrive. And I thought about how all of the people who were there 60 and more years ago looked up at the sky and awaited the aircrafts that would redeem this place from its awful rate of destruction”, shared Maj. Gen. (Res.) Ido Nehushtan, the leader of the delegation, with the IAF Magazine. “60 years later they came and when they arrived, there was a feeling of the ultimate force arriving, in all of its glory and beauty, but 60 years too late. My hairs stiffened, I truly couldn’t move. To think about all of those that looked up into the sky and that nobody came to rescue them”.