On 26 July 1948 a small group of Jewish refugees from Palestine’s decimated towns and villages, along with several hundred Arab residents, were airlifted by the British Royal Air Force aircraft carrier HMS “Eagle” from a refugee camp at the port city of Haifa to the newly declared State of Israel. The flight was dubbed Operation Magic Carpet, and it took only three hours.
In the last section, I told you of a little known group called the “Palmach”, a group of Jewish volunteers that fought alongside the British Army during WWII. Their story is one of a war hero who turned the tide in the war, but not the fame he deserved.
In a neighborhood full of other arms of the Israeli military, the 13th Dahonim has operated invisibly for over 60 years. Since its founding in 1952, the 13th Dahonim has operated undetected and without major incident, until now.The founder of the Air Force C-130 squadron reveals the secret history of this innovative transport service.
Flying with an old C-130 aircraft of the Israeli Air Force is no fun. The smell of exhaust fumes permeates the cargo area, which is already stuffy and claustrophobic due to the lack of windows and the knee-high seating arrangement with long rows of canvas-covered jump seats. Our bumpy flight made me fear losing my breakfast, which I now regret. It would be all the more embarrassing because I am sitting here with retired Israeli Air Force Brigadier General Joshua Shiki Shani, an Israeli Air Force icon who is considered the founder of the C-130 squadrons. Shani brought the first Israeli C-130 aircraft to the country in 1971 and flew it for the next 25 years, including as chief pilot on the famous hostage rescue operation in Entebbe. Finding him in a Hercules cockpit is a rarity, as Shani has spent about half of his 13,000 flying hours in C-130 cockpits.
Israeli officials, including Joshua Shani (second from left), gather around the first Lockheed C-130 aircraft delivered to the Israeli Air Force. (Courtesy of Joshua Shani)
Air Force transport squadrons have made a name for themselves over the years by conducting a number of unconventional missions. In fact, they arrived before the famous Israeli combat squadrons: During the struggle for the nation’s independence, the transport aircraft of the Air Transport Command (the forerunner of the IAF) provided much-needed weapons, including packaged Czech-made Messerschmitts, the Avia S-199, Israel’s first combat aircraft.
Although the IAF is now largely a combat force, Shani’s account of the exploits of the transport squadron reveals a little-known history of front-line service – albeit mostly in secret – on countless missions, many of which have never been published. Use your imagination, airline representatives usually reply with a cautious smile when asked about the tricks of their trade. But in the end, Shani is able to discover some of the secrets of the other Israeli air forces.
Anticipating a pre-emptive strike against Arab forces preparing for war with Israel in June 1967, Lieutenant Shaney, then in his second year of flight school, participated in a mock fortification of the southern Israeli port city of Eilat. Israel’s military plans were to enter the Sinai Peninsula through Gaza, but an Egyptian division resisted. To make the Egyptians believe that the Israeli response would come from much further south, Shani told me how a dozen Northern Noratlas of the Israeli Air Force repeatedly flew toward Eilat and then landed on the ground as a long line of trucks approached, to simulate the process of unloading equipment and supplies. The carriers then took off in a northerly direction, turned off the landing lights, turned around and returned to Eilat with the lights on, landed and repeated the procedure of unloading supplies. The Egyptians apparently fell for it: given all the activity in Eilat, Egyptian military intelligence concluded that the Israeli attack would be launched from that area, and Egyptian forces were regrouped accordingly.
of the Israeli transport squadron dropping cargo. The C-130 turboprop has significantly increased Israel’s air transport capacity. (Israeli Air Force)
After the ignominious defeat and loss of the entire Sinai Peninsula in the Six Day War, Egypt was not willing to allow Israel even a moment’s rest along the new common border. This was the beginning of three years of frequent bombing, commando raids and hand-to-hand combat known as the War of Attrition. When the United States pressured Israel not to use US-supplied Douglas A-4 Skyhawks for retaliatory strikes, Israel took an approach reminiscent of the US Daisy Cutter missions in Vietnam and the Dambusters with cluster bombs during World War II. In this case, the transports of the Airlift Squadron were called upon to act as non-traditional bombers.
The Israelis used huge homemade bombs, three meters high and weighing five tons, to attack the bridges over the Nile. We entered Egyptian airspace near the border with Sudan, Shani recalls, flying very low along the Nile to avoid being spotted by radar. At the calculated release point, each massive bomb was thrown from the Noratlas’ stern (with the stern doors removed), thrown into the water with a loud splash, and driven downstream until a special detonator activated the device under the target deck. By then, of course, the Israeli bombers were long gone, returned to their bases. Shani admits that the relief effort has not been very successful: Some bridges were damaged, but none were destroyed. Unaware that weapons were being used against them, the Egyptians placed tied balloons above the bridges, in the same manner as was used to protect warships during World War II. This low-tech defense worked. After one of the Noratlas hit a balloon cable, lost its engine and barely made it back to base, the improvised bombing missions were cancelled.
The mission that really made the transport squadrons popular was the legendary rescue operation in Entebbe in 1976. Much has been written about the rescue by Israeli special forces of 102 Jewish and Israeli hostages held by terrorists in Uganda. In fact, it was both an air operation and a commando action.
Shani spoke about the challenges of flying a formation of four C-130 aircraft some 2,500 miles from Israel to Uganda. We must go unnoticed, he said. The most important element was surprise. It only takes one truck to block the runway and that’s it. The operation would have ended there. Secrecy was therefore crucial. Mission planners were also concerned that Entebbe’s runway lights would fail. The soldiers aboard the Shani plane that landed first therefore installed temporary lighting, which proved crucial as the lights went out when the third C-130 approached.
After Entebbe, Shani recalls, the IAF recognized the C-130 as a full fighter. Their success in Entebbe also helped the transport squadrons move forward after the 1975 accident in which a C-130 crashed into a mountain in the northern Sinai desert during a night exercise, killing all 20 people on board.
The rescue mission in Entebbe in 1976 made the Israeli C-130 squadrons famous. After landing at Ben Gurion Airport, the former hostages splashed out of the Hercules vehicle. (Israeli Air Force)
When Shani went to the United States in late 1976 to receive the new C-130H models ordered by the IAF, he had the audacity to ask the president of Lockheed-Georgia, the manufacturer of the C-130, for a free aircraft, reminding him of the excellent work the IAF had done in promoting Lockheed in the Entebbe operation. He wasn’t sure if I meant it, Shani recalls. The next day he called me and said: I thought about what you said and gave the Israeli officer a model of Hercules.
Just three years later, Shani planned another rescue mission. After the overthrow of Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the Islamic Revolution of February 1979, relations between Israel and Iran changed dramatically for the worse, and the former allies became bitter enemies. When a contingent of 34 Israeli diplomats, foreign intelligence officers, IDF soldiers and businessmen were trapped in Iran, Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman ordered an air rescue operation to be planned.
We came up with two options, Shani said: Land at the stadium or along the highway east of Tehran. I rejected the stadium plan – too steep a descent and not enough room to land. We almost certainly would have crashed. But a highway outside Tehran through a flat desert was feasible. The plan was simple: land next to the road, meet the truck with the Israelis and fly home. Eventually, the Israelis decided to submit to the United States, which was at the time organizing the evacuation of Iran. (This was nine months before the American embassy was taken). Although the offices of El Al Israel Airlines were burned to the ground and the Israeli embassy was looted and torched by revolutionaries, the Israeli delegation was given safe conduct by the secular elements of the new government and flew out on the 18th. February on a Pan Am plane to Frankfurt, Germany.
Shani flew a flying communications relay station in a retaliatory attack against terrorists in Lebanon in 1968 and provided aerial surveillance for an Israeli Navy special operation the following year. The IAF’s role in humanitarian operations has been even more important: Flights with medical equipment and supplies to Turkey, Greece, Armenia, Haiti and other countries after devastating earthquakes; aid to refugees from the genocidal civil war in Rwanda and the conflict in Kosovo; aid to Americans in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. And perhaps the IAF’s most famous airlift was the smuggling of thousands of Ethiopian Jews into Israel: Operation Moses rescued about 8,000 people from Sudan during the 1984/85 famine, and Operation Solomon rescued another 14,325 people from politically destabilized Ethiopia in May 1991.
My favorite Shani story is about the preparations for Operation Opera, the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. He recalled a four-hour overnight refueling flight over the Saudi desert in support of two U.S. Air Force McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantoms conducting photographic reconnaissance of the reactor in anticipation of an Israeli attack. Our job was to fly over the desert and wait for the Phantoms to refuel, flying over our heads to avoid detection. Refueling also had to be done at low altitudes – so low that the Phantoms sent up clouds of sand from the desert floor.
US Air Force C-130 aircraft refueling two McDonnell F-4E Phantom II fighters. (Israeli Air Force)
It’s the middle of the day and my plane is striking, says Shani. At one point, an Israeli command and control aircraft, overseeing its C-130s, reported that a pair of Northrop F-5E/Fs from the Royal Saudi Air Force were in the air to intercept the Israelis, but posed no threat given their range, which turned out to be true.
The next year, Shani recalls, when I was at the U.S. Air Force War College, the instructor called me and said: Come here, Joshua. I want to tell you a story… and admitted that he was an F-5 instructor at Tabuk Air Force Base [in Saudi Arabia] at the time. Shani learned that during a mission in 1981, one of the F-5s passed the bingo mark, the point after which the plane did not have enough fuel to return home. The pilot crashed and his fighter plane crashed into the desert. The second F-5 returned to base, but its pilot was unable to extend the landing gear and destroyed the aircraft. As for me, Shani joked, I have two murders to my name.
An Israeli C-130E is unloaded at Faid airfield, captured in Egypt, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (Israeli Air Force)
This supply mission was not as frightening as another ten years earlier, during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. As Israeli forces recovered from the Egyptian surprise attack and formed a bridgehead in Egypt proper, across the Suez Canal, Shani flew supplies to forward operating bases. After a C-130 plane carrying a load of 20 tons of fuel landed at Faid airport in Egypt, he was dismayed to see an Egyptian fighter plane getting ready to bomb it. I see the MiG turning in my direction to fire, he remembers, we are helpless. It’s over. The Nesher fighter of the IAF (Israel Aircraft Industries) saved the day and shot down the MiG. Ironically, Shani was a squad leader on a Boeing Stratocruiser by then, but he flew the C-130 because he was one of the few Israeli pilots qualified for that type. At the time, the IAF had a fleet of 12 C-130Es, thanks to a donation from the United States in the desperate early days of the Yom Kippur War.
Today, 40 years later, Shani is vice president of Lockheed Martin in Israel, a position he has held for two decades. The ongoing recapitalisation of the IAF’s transport fleet has enabled the purchase of the latest generation of Lockheed Martin C-130J models – an upgrade that has come full circle for Shani. The days of flying with their own pilots are over, but the special equipment with which the Israeli Air Force’s C-130Js are now equipped, including chin-mounted FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) systems, satellite communications, secure radio links, electronic warfare and defense equipment, suggests that Israeli airborne squadrons will continue their proud legacy of covert and unconventional operations into the 21st century.
Gary Rushba, who works for Lockheed Martin in Israel, is the author of Holy Wars: 3,000 Years of Battle in the Holy Land. Read more: Israel’s best defense: The First Complete History of the Israeli Air Force, Eliezer Gepard Cohen; and Without a Right to Error: Founding of the Israeli Air Force, Ehud Yonai.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of History of Aviation. To register, click here.As the war began, about 35,000 Palestinian Arabs in the Gaza Strip lived under the authority of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. In the West Bank, the Israeli Defense Forces had a tougher job. On the other hand, Israel had the advantage of a number of things. There were the fortifications in Jerusalem, but more importantly, the Arab states did not want anyone to invade or conquer Israel.. Read more about israeli air force bases underground and let us know what you think.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Israeli air force called?
The Israeli air force is called the IAF.
How many jet fighters does Israel have?
Israel has about 200 jet fighters.
Does Israel have A10 aircraft?
Israel does not have any aircraft designated as A10.
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