The “Leaders of the Night” Squadron’s helicopters have been taking off from Tel-Nof AFB and completing operational adventures along Israel’s borders and in faraway territories for 50 years. Through three of the squadron’s turning points in the last decade, we have a rare opportunity to study the powerful connection between staying modern and relevant while preserving legacy
Vered Talala | Translation: Ohad Zeltzer Zubida
Five decades of abundant operational activity along the borders and in enemy territories: The “Leaders of the Night” Squadron which operates the “Yas’ur” (CH-53) Transport helicopter, commemorates 50 years of activity this week. The squadron was the first to integrate the “Yas’ur” helicopter in 1969, takes a large part in the IAF’s activity in routine and in emergency alongside its sister squadron, “The Nocturnal Birds” and has also participated in many missions beyond enemy lines.
A moment before the “Leaders of the Night” Squadron begins its sixth decade, we stopped to take a look at its story through three turning points of the past decade, look forward and ask: What will be the new helicopter to replace the “Yas’ur” in a few years?
The Secret of Youth
The “Yas’ur” will soon celebrate 5 decades since its arrival to the IAF and as the years pass, the question grows more dominant: Can a young pilot fly an almost 50 year old helicopter? Lt. Col. Gadi, Head of the Helicopter Department in IAF HQ, says that this is an unimportant matter. “From my experience as a young pilot, the cognitive challenge of flying a veteran helicopter is very interesting, especially in a helicopter like the ‘Yas’ur’. All the more so when you take into consideration that the cockpit features new and updates systems. If you were to arrange a meeting between an Israeli ‘Yas’ur’ pilot and an American helicopter pilot at the same age, the differences between them would not be dramatic and would focus on the user experience and the cockpit. In my opinion, a young pilot finds added value in flying an experienced and veteran platform”.
A Life Saving Defense System
On one of the nights of the 2006 “Second Lebanon War” against the Hezbollah terror organization, “Yas’ur” Helicopters took part in a massive transportation operation of infantry troops in southern Lebanon. After the forces disembarked one of the helicopters, an enemy missile was shot at one of the squadron’s helicopters, the helicopter was hit and its crew was killed.
“After the crash, we understood that we had to install a defense system on the ‘Yas’ur’ helicopters in order to protect the helicopters from missiles”, shared Lt. Col. Gadi, “Leaders of the Night” Squadron Commander. “The process of installing the system on the helicopters is very complex. The helicopter has many electronic systems which affect each other, so everything has to fit perfectly. The process takes time and two years after the war ended, we had helicopters with defense systems”.
The system provides defense from Anti-Aircraft and Anti-Tank missiles, offers a warning when missiles are shot at the helicopter and responds automatically. “These missiles hit very fast, seconds from the moment of launch. This response time is very difficult for a pilot to deal with, so the system is automatic, it releases flares in the right direction and makes sure that the missile doesn’t hit the helicopter”, explained Lt. Col. Gadi.
At this very moment, a new and improved defense system is being installed on the squadron’s “Yas’ur” helicopters. The new system is a large step forward in the field of helicopter defense from ground threats. “The block three ‘Dragon’ system is an active radar system that can provide the helicopters with 360 defenses and is very good at identifying various missiles”, elaborated Capt. Sagiv Benishu, the leader of the project in the IAF’s Material Directorate. “Among the main improvements in the new system, will be the ability to respond to a multitude of faster and more advanced threats and provide a better warning”.
Hovering and Rescuing
A SAR sortie in the Jerusalem Mountains deploys a “Yas’ur” helicopter with a team of SAR Unit 669 to the area, in order to evacuate a wounded soldier to the nearest hospital. On a clear and fair day, a flight like this would have been considered simple, but the wintry weather makes the mission very difficult for the pilots. They quickly understand that they need to activate the automatic hover system in order to maintain height and stability while the SAR force rescues the injured combatant. “Without the system, the pilot would have hovered half an hour, one of the most difficult missions for a ‘Yas’ur’ pilot”, the Head of the Helicopter Department shared.
As a result of the enhancement project, an automatic hover system was installed in the “Yas’ur” helicopter which allows it to hover over a spot in poor visibility conditions and requires minimal pilot intervention. “The system brought about a dramatic change and changed the method of flying the helicopter. Before it was installed, the cognitive burden of piloting when hovering over the evacuees and landing in dust, made the work very difficult for the pilots and affected flight safety”.
“Thanks to the system, we can land in dust in places we couldn’t before. The pilots are supposed to see the ground at all times and this is very difficult in heavy dust. Crashes in dust landings are deadly in the helicopter world. In NATO, in the past decade alone, there were about 4,000 casualties and injuries as a result of these landings”.
Who will Replace the “Yas’ur”?
“There are two main options. The first is Sikorsky’s new helicopter, the CH-35K. It looks like the ‘Yas’ur’, but is equipped with new avionics, it is bigger, its rotors and engines are new and it can carry double the weight. The second is the ‘Chinook’ (CH-47) helicopter, which has a different rotor structure”.
What does the future hold for the “Leaders of the Night” Squadron?
“It will continue leading the heavy transportation division in the IAF”, said the Squadron Commander “As a combat doctrine decider, as a developer and initiator and as the squadron which executes the heart of the special missions. We are bringing up the next generation of commanders here, so we will continue leading the division in terms of readiness for war and in answering the challenges to come in routine”.