The year was 1969. Ran Goren, an IAF pilot who flew the Skyhawk, was given a rare mission for those times. In a briefing held by the commander of his squadron, Ezra Dotan, Goren was instructed to lead an aerial assault on the heart of Cairo, with the target being a military encampment there.
“This was a pretty rare attack,” Maj.-Gen. (res.) Goren recalled. “Usually those kinds of missions were carried out by Phantoms, and there were times when they would throw some crumbs at Skyhawk pilots.”
“The squadron in which I served as deputy commander received a one-off mission to attack an encampment in Cairo,” he said. “We were given two planes, and the commander of the squadron assigned himself and me to the task. And he surprised me when he said that I would be the one leading the attack.”
“We flew without escort deep into Egyptian territory at low altitude at great risk to our lives,” he said. “We dropped the bombs, and returned safely.”
This week, the Israel Air Force officially retired its fleet of Skyhawks – or, as it was known by its Hebraized version, the Ayit
(“eagle”). It marks the end of an era that spanned 48 years – nearly half-a-century in which the fighter jet served Israel’s air force in both an operational and instructional capacity.
Three former air force pilots – current IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel; Planning Branch director Maj.-Gen. Amikam Nurkin; and the Personnel Directorate commander Hagai Toplansky – strapped themselves into the cockpit of three Skyhawks for one last honorary flyover in the skies above Israel and its air force bases.
“The eagle has landed for the last time,” Eshel announced on the military’s official broadcast communications after his plane touched down at Hatzerim air force base near Beersheba.
That remark was the final exclamation point for an airplane that was directly responsible for some of the Israeli air force’s most spectacular success stories. It’s a fighter jet whose place in Israel’s military history is secure – from taking part in key battles to push back Syrian and Egyptian fighter planes to other missions in which the pilots knew that they were operating a piece of war machinery that offered numerous advantages as well as disadvantages.
“The Skyhawk is a workhorse,” Goren said. “It’s an airplane that can carry a great deal of ammunition relative to its weight. It can fly great distances and it is very fuel-efficient. But it does have a disadvantage in that it doesn’t have any afterburners, and this hinders it when it comes to dogfights and avoiding surface-to-air missiles. This is why a number of them were shot down during the Yom Kippur War.”
“Also, its speed is not that great, but its ability to carry a large payload across vast distances together with the ease in which it was maintained made it a very efficient tool of war.”
The Skyhawk marked the start of the Israel Defense Forces’ use of American military hardware, which became a necessity following the French arms embargo imposed on Israel by then-president Charles de Gaulle in 1967, shortly before the Six-Day War.
“For years, we dreamt of getting our hands on American planes, which were the best planes out there of all air forces,” said Lt.-Col. (res.) Yossi Sarig, the commander of the 102nd squadron, Israel’s first squadron of Skyhawks.
“When we first flew the planes, we immediately understood its great potential and capabilities,” he said. “One Skyhawk was capable of doing the work of five French planes. It carried a great deal of ammunition. It flew long distances."
“This was the first time that the air force was capable of flying anywhere in the world since it had an ability to refuel in the air,” he said. “It’s a small plane, but it was lightning quick and it had great momentum.”
“We discovered capabilities that we never dreamed of. To get the first batch of planes was like a kid walking into a toy store and not knowing what to pick due to sheer excitement.”
The Skyhawk’s biggest contribution came during the War of Attrition, just two years after it was first integrated into the air force.
“At the time, there were four squadrons that were flying sorties at an unbelievable rate, round the clock,” said Goren. “I flew primarily to the Suez Canal, day and night, irrespective of weather conditions. We carried out dangerous missions under the moonlight and we attacked artillery batteries, infantry encampments, and surface-to-air missile silos that were moved to the front.”
“The Skyhawk did the heavy lifting in that war, certainly from a quantity standpoint,” he said. “When the Yom Kippur War came around, the Phantom was now in widespread use, but the Skyhawk was still active. It was deployed to help out the ground operations, and it played a major role in stopping the advancing forces on both the Syrian and Egyptian fronts in the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula, respectively.”