By simply looking to the sky, one could notice the foreign firefighting aircraft that operated rigorously in the effort to extinguish the fires that raged throughout Israel. But what you didn’t see were the actions performed by the IAF that prepared the aircraft for takeoff and directed them to their targets safely

Illy Pe’ery & Tal GIladi

An intensive week has come to an end: This morning, an official ceremony that concluded the firefighting efforts throughout Israel was held in Hatzor AFB. The ceremony was held in order to express our thanks and say goodbye to the foreign forces that traveled to Israel in order to assist the firefighting effort.

“We fought together, firefighters on the ground and pilots in the air, against 39 fires that threatened large parts of Israel, but the most important number is zero – zero lives were lost”, said Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Public Security. “You did not hesitate to endanger yourselves in order to save the lives of others. A Jewish tradition teaches that saving one person is like saving the entire world, and you saved many people and worlds”.

“You represent the very best, brave firemen from around the world who risked their lives in order to save others”, added David Keyes, the Prime Minister’s Spokesperson to Foreign Media. “We will always remember your professionalism and will never forget your friendship”, added Commissioner Roni Alsheikh, Chief of Israeli Police.

“You showed us true and honest friendship. Each one of you left a family, home and country behind on short notice, got on a plane and came here to save lives, what I can promise you that you did”, said Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin, President of Israel, to the foreign forces in his visit of Hatzor AFB. “You, our IAF personnel, we thank for your resilience and resolution, for how you welcomed your colleagues and for your ability to cooperate for the sake of Israel and its citizens”.

Fighting Fire Together

Rivlin: “You showed us true and honest friendship” | Photography: Mark Neiman GPO

An Exceptional Event
Almost a week has passed since the intensive activity in Hatzor AFB, which hosted the foreign firefighting forces, began. The operational command came as a complete surprise to the AFB personnel, a detail that didn’t stop them from performing their mission with outstanding devotion and professionalism. “I understood that this wasn’t a standard event from the beginning”, said Lt. Col. Ben David, Commander of Hatzor AFB’s Administrative Squadron.

In practice, an additional squadron of foreign firefighting aircraft was established in Hatzor AFB in the past few days. The arrival of dozens of foreign aircraft and aircrews posed quite a logistic challenge for the base. “In the first days, we made sure we were adequately staffed and that all of the means at our disposal were ready”.

The AFB’s flight squadron was responsible for the operational infrastructure, the integration of the foreign crews and the flight preparations. “The squadron was responsible for synchronizing all of the different units on base and made sure that everything ran smoothly. The integration of the force was quite a challenge but all of the base personnel participated and worked around the clock in order to succeed”, explained Lt. Col. Shalom, Commander of Hatzor AFB’s Flight Squadron.

Fighting Fire Together

Photography: Celia Garion

Friendship and Devotion
Each foreign aid crew was assigned to an Israeli aircrew member who was responsible for mediating between the foreign crews and the base personnel, while fulfilling their needs. “Our role was to assist the foreign crews and help them perform their mission properly”, shared Lt. Or, A pilot from the “Scorpion” Squadron that escorted the Cypriot mission. “It was amazing to see the foreign crew’s responsiveness and devotion. This morning the commander of the Cypriot mission said to me: ‘I am an Israeli soldier and everything you tell me to do – I will do’”.

In addition to the ground escort, each foreign country was joined by a technical serviceman. Upon receiving the operational command, Hatzor AFB’s Maintenance Squadron began studying the foreign aircraft and prepared the base accordingly.

“I am very proud of the maintenance division that did amazing things. With minimal means and no former experience, they faced their mission perfectly”, shared Lt. Col. Amir, Commander of Hatzor AFB’s Maintenance Squadron.

Fighting Fire Together

Photography: Celia Garion

Got Your Back
Once the aircraft took off, they left the authority of Hatzor AFB and became the responsibility of the Northern ATC Unit that managed the airspace, was responsible for synchronizing the different aircraft in the sky and directing the aerial forces to their mission as quickly and safely as possible.

“The event began on Wednesday and we had only Israeli firefighting aircraft in the sky. At first, we chose the areas that required urgent attention, but later we understood that this was a large scale event, so we opened more ATC stations and manned them accordingly”, shared Lt. Col. Roei, the ATC Unit Commander.

“We implemented lessons we learned from the Carmel fire such as the need for an Israeli pilots in the foreign firefighting aircraft in order to communicate in Hebrew and help us avoid misunderstandings”, he described. “We also have a better understanding regarding the amount of controllers and stations we need in a situation like this. Nonetheless, this was a different kind of event as the fires rages all over the country while in 2010 they were concentrated in a single area”.

Fighting Fire Together

Photography: Celia Garion