I’ve now taken part in six Israel Air Force Center (IAFC) missions to the Israel Air and Space Force (IASF), and each one has been a unique and thrilling experience for me. After five earlier trips to the air force Center and IASF bases, I started to think that just maybe I’d seen all that the Center and the air force had to offer a visitor—but, thankfully, I was wrong! Not only did I meet new air force personnel and spend time with new squadrons on this year’s tours of IASF bases, but I also saw parts of Israel that I hadn’t seen before—and I’ve traveled up and down the length of the Jewish state on many occasions over the past twenty years!
The staff of the Israel Air Force Center Foundation (IAFCF), the charitable arm of the IAFC, once again did a superb job of organizing and hosting the mission, which began with a very pleasant Sunday evening dinner in theDanHotelon the Tel Aviv beachfront. The mission participants—an engaging mix of families, couples, and singles, a few of whom I’d met on earlier visits to the IAFC—enjoyed an elegant meal and got to know one another as the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea. After dinner, Major G, whom I’d met on an earlier mission, now deputy commander of 200 “The First UAV” Squadron gave an absorbing presentation about the work of his unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) unit. Most of this work involves ISR (or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), and is very hush-hush. The squadron, which flies the Heron TP drone, a vehicle that has the wingspan of a Boeing 707 aircraft and can stay aloft for long periods of time, also occasionally plays a part in humanitarian operations, such as fighting brush fires. G, like all of the UAV “operators” in the squadron, is trained not only to fly the drone, but also to analyze the intelligence data gathered by it. His talk capped off an exciting first evening of the mission.
Monday, June 25
As in years past, the first full day of the mission was given over entirely to the air force and the Center. In the morning, the group visited Tel Nof Air Force Base, a large facility located southeast of Tel Aviv. Our first stop at the base took us to the headquarters of 118 “Nocturnal Birds of Prey” Squadron, which operates the CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter. Captain I, a pilot in the squadron, briefed the group about the unit’s operations, which revolve primarily around transporting the army’s Special Forces into or out of hostile territory far from the Jewish state’s borders, especially under the cover of darkness. We were then taken to the squadron’s flight line, where we had the opportunity to board one of its helicopters and look around the cabin. As an added treat, the group was able to watch two F-15 Eagles take off while inspecting the CH-53. For those who have never seen a jet fighter take off at close range, the sensation of raw power is absolutely unforgettable!
Our next destination at Tel Nof was 133 “Knights of the Twin Tail” Squadron, whose F-15s we had seen take off a few minutes earlier. Lieutenant O, one of the unit’s junior pilots, delivered a presentation about the squadron’s operations, which mainly involve air defense. Indeed, over its history, this squadron has shot down over 50 enemy aircraft in air combat without suffering a single loss of its own! After departing the squadron’s comfortable headquarters building, we were taken to a hardened air shelter (HAS) at the edge of one of Tel Nof’s massive runways to view a fully armed F-15 on alert status.
From Tel Nof, the group made its way to the IAFC’s attractive and spacious headquarters building in the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. The Center houses several IASF units, particularly the Casualty and Loss Department, which takes care of the widows and orphans of the fallen, as well as auditoriums, a memorial hall, an aviation library, aerospace research facilities, and a non-classified air force archive.
The Center itself is organized around three major “divisions.” First, the Fisher Institute of Air and Space Strategic Studies, a non-governmental think tank, undertakes research across a broad range of topics of vital importance to the IASF, including asymmetric warfare, airborne medicine, and space reconnaissance. Major General (Res.) Asaf Agmon, the day-to-day director of the Fisher Institute, and two of his colleagues, Brigadier General (Res.) Ephraim Segoli and Dr. Tal Inbar, described the institute’s main areas of research to the mission participants. Second, the Center is home to the aptly namedNationalCenterfor Leadership and Character Development, which imparts ethical values and provides leadership training to young air cadets, men and women alike, who will soon enter the air force in various capacities. The group got to sit in on an interactive classroom session with a few of these cadets. And, third, the Center arranges regular leisure activities to benefit the widows and orphans of the fallen in conjunction with the Casualty and Loss Department. For providing these (and other) services to the IASF community, the Center has rightly earned the title of the “force behind the force.”
After several of our members had been honored for their contributions to the Center, and once we had been shown around the building, we enjoyed a hearty lunch in the company of several IASF pilots. I had the pleasure of an extensive conversation with Captain O, a senior C-130 Hercules pilot in 103 “The Elephants” Squadron. Currently on sabbatical to study for an MBA atTelAvivUniversity, O is scheduled to return to his squadron as a deputy commander in the not-too-distant future. Following lunch, the group had the opportunity to speak with O and two other pilots in an interesting question-and-answer session. Captain A, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot with 105 “The Scorpion” Squadron and Captain S, an AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunship pilot with 160 “The Northern Cobra” Squadron, proved to be every bit as intelligent and articulate as O in responding to the group’s many queries. Incidentally, Captain S, one of the IASF’s growing number of female pilots, is presently an instructor at the air force’s flight academy.
After a few hours of rest and relaxation at theDanHotel, we returned to the Center for a festive dinner, at which I had a chance to speak at some length with Major General (Ret.) Herzl Bodinger, a former commander of the IASF. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the evening was a rousing song and dance performance put on by an entertainment troupe of Israeli scouts—a captivating way to end a very instructive day.
Tuesday, June 26, and Wednesday, June 27
The next two days of the mission saw the group engaged in more traditional tourist pursuits. On Tuesday, we spent the day inJerusalem. Our first stop took us to Yad Vashem, the somber memorial to the Shoah, where we received a guided tour of the museum, followed by an emotional talk by one of the senior staff members, whose son was gravely wounded in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, but who fortunately lived to raise a family of his own. A more stark reminder of the tremendous importance of the IASF to the survival of the State of Israel—and, by extension, the whole Jewish people—than Yad Vashem simply does not exist.
Once we had finished with our refreshing lunch at Yad Vashem, we headed for an observation point that provides a spectacular view of theOldCity. Here, we took photographs and made a toast. Shortly thereafter, we entered the Jewish Quarter. Those of us so inclined had some free time to shop for trinkets and to pray at the Western Wall. Then, it was off to an interesting tour of the Western Wall tunnels to see the foundation stones of the huge Herodian-era temple.
A long and interesting day came to a sumptuous conclusion at aWest Jerusalemrestaurant with the deputy mayor of the city in attendance. After dinner, she spoke to the group aboutJerusalem’s prospects and problems. I got the distinct impression from this very articulate woman that she has a solid plan not only for makingJerusalema “greener” city, but also for improving the quality of life for all of its residents, Jews and Arabs alike.
On Wednesday, we ventured to the mountaintop fortress of Masada, the site of a famous siege by the Roman army that culminated in tragedy for the Jewish defenders, marking the end of the first great Jewish rebellion againstRome. From atop the fortress, which is situated on a massive cliff high above the surroundingJudeanDesert, one is rewarded with unparalleled views of theDead Sea. One can actually ascend on foot to the fortress via the correctly named “Snake Path”; however, for those of us who aren’t exactly in great shape, the leisurely cable car ride to the top furnishes a more promising alternative. We arrived atMasadain the morning hours, so we were able to inspect the ruins in relative comfort before the really sweltering heat of midday descended upon the mountaintop.
Next, we headed for aDead Searesort for a few hours of swimming and relaxation. At one point, the temperature reached a balmy 115° Fahrenheit; fortunately, those of us not in the water were able to take shelter in the resort’s air-conditioned restaurant and lounge. Following theDead Seainterlude, we made our way back to Tel Aviv for a free night on the town.
Thursday, June 28
The last Thursday of June is designated as Air Force Day, one of two days during the year when new pilots graduate from the IASF flight academy. The ceremony doesn’t occur until the late afternoon in order to avoid the brutal heat of theNegevsun, so the group set out in the morning for Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, which is named after the heroic leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt. Located in close proximity to the Gaza Strip, the kibbutz is the site of a famous 1947–49 War of Independence battle, in which a handful of defenders held up the Egyptian army for several crucial days while inflicting heavy losses on the attackers. The kibbutz also has a small but informative museum dedicated to the Shoah and the War of Independence. Our visit to Yad Mordechai was followed by a tasty, Indian-style lunch at Moshav Nevatim, which is populated by Jews from theCochinregion ofIndia.
Situated a few miles to the west of the city ofBeer Sheva, Hatzerim Air Force Base hosts the pilot graduation ceremony, as it is the home of the air force’s flight academy. We arrived at the base in mid-afternoon. Prior to the ceremony, the group reviewed a static display of past and present IASF aircraft, including the F-15I and F-16I (the most advanced models of these fighter-bombers), the F-4 Phantom, the Mirage IIIC, the Kfir C-2, the AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship, the AH-1, and a number of other transport, intelligence, and training aircrafts and helicopters. A Hermes 450 UAV also sat on the tarmac, along with Arrow anti-ballistic missile interceptors and Patriot anti-aircraft missiles.
A quick breather at the VIP tent permitted the group to gather bottled water and sweets before heading out to the grandstands for the ceremony, which included military music by an army band, marching by flight school cadets, and speeches by President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israel Defense Forces Chief-of-Staff Benny Gantz, and IASF Commander Amir Eshel. With the speeches and other formalities complete, each pilot received his or her wings to the wild cheers of the crowd. Two women were among the few dozen graduates of Flying Course 164.
An amazing air show followed on the heels of the graduation ceremony. Second World War-era aircraft, such as the Harvard, appeared on scene at first, even before the ceremony had come to a finish. Today’s IASF aircrafts—the F-15, F-16, AH-64, AH-1, C-130, and many more—soon flew overhead, as did the air force’s aerobatic team in its T-6A Texan II trainers. The brilliant maneuvers of the aerobatic team were matched in impressiveness by a low-level airdrop performed by a C-130 and a casualty evacuation performed by a CH-53. Perhaps the most thrilling portion of the air show was the live fire demonstration put on by AH-64 and AH-1 helicopter gunships, as well as F-16 fighter-bombers, against targets beyond Hatzerim’s massive runways. Or perhaps it was the low-level maneuvers of the F-15I. I’m sure that each observer had his or her own favorite moment. I’m also sure that all would agree that the show, as always, was truly unforgettable.
Our trip to Hatzerim had one last destination—dinner with Major General Amir Eshel, who took up his post only a couple of months prior to this ceremony. The general was kind enough to take time out of his grueling schedule to offer a few words of encouragement to the mission participants—surely a fitting way to conclude a most memorable day!
Friday, June 29, and Saturday, June 30
The group spent Shabbat in the upper Galil. On Friday, our first stop on the way north took us to theportofCaesarea, which Herod the Great built as a form of tribute to his Roman patrons. We toured the ruins of this once magisterial city before moving on to the quaint lower Galil town ofZichron Ya’akov, where we feasted on pastas and salads at the Carmel Wineries. Then, it was off to Kibbutz Kfar Blum, with its beautiful guesthouse and many amenities, for some relaxation and a very satisfying Shabbat dinner.
On Saturday, we headed out of theHulaValleyand up to the Golan. There, the group went on an amazing cross-country jeep ride past rolling hills, orchards, pastures, minefields, and anti-tank ditches, right up to the Syrian frontier. We caught sight of military fortifications, as well as abundant wildlife, including birds of prey and gazelles, on this strip of land famous not only for its strategic value but also for its natural beauty. Then, it was back to theHulaValleyfor a delicious lunch at a leafy restaurant set next to a babbling brook. To work off some of the calories put on at lunch, we went on a 2.5-mile raft ride down theJordan Riverin the afternoon. A very full day ended later that night, when we went back to the Golan for dinner and a dance performance at one of the Druze villages in the area.
Sunday, July 1
Sunday was the last day of the mission, so it’s not surprising that it was devoted to security-related visits. In the early morning, we spent a couple of hours at a Border Police (Magav) base located just a few miles west of the formerly restive Palestinian town ofJenin. After the base commander spoke with us about the responsibilities of his unit, we viewed a display of typical police hardware and saw a demonstration of a canine unit in action. Later in the day, we were welcomed at Ramat David Air Force Base, where we were hosted by 117 “The First Jet” Squadron. Major Y, deputy commander of the unit, spoke to us about the squadron’s duties. Like Tel Nof’s 133 Squadron, 117 Squadron’s primary role is air defense. An old squadron with many battles under its belt, it has quite an impressive war record, with more than 120 downed enemy aircraft to its credit. After listening to the presentation, Y escorted us to one of the squadron’s shelter areas to view a fully armed F-16 on alert status.
The mission came to a cheerful conclusion with a convivial dinner at a well-appointed Tel Aviv restaurant. Over copious plates of food, the mission participants reminisced about the past week’s events and discussed how the Center would fit into their future plans.
I had a great time on this year’s mission, just as I had on the previous five. I got to meet some wonderful people and to visit some wonderful places, and the hotel accommodations and food were, as usual, outstanding. The IAFC mission offers a truly eye-opening and fascinating experience that simply can’t be obtained by any other means. If you’re at all interested in the IASF and Israeli national security, you should definitely sign up for the next mission. I will surely do so.
* David Rodman is the author of Arms Transfers to Israel: The Strategic Logic Behind American Military Assistance and Defense and Diplomacy in Israel’s National Security Experience: Tactics, Partnerships, and Motives.
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