It’s small but full of stories of chutzpah, inventiveness and survival. The
Israel Air Force Museum at Hatzerim reflects not only the country’s history but
also many of its national characteristics.
I paid a visit during the
Passover holiday earlier this month and came away with a message that still
echoes as we approach the back-to-back Remembrance Day and Independence Day
later this week.
Many other countries have air force and defense museums,
but there is something quintessentially Israeli about the planes and exhibits on
display at the open-air site, close to Beersheba.
The museum has nothing
to be ashamed of when it comes to the standard of the exhibits on display – my
son set his sights on a two-seater MiG-21 on loan for the vacation period – but
for me, the aircraft weren’t the attraction, but what they
There is, of course, something sadly but fundamentally
Israeli, too, in making a journey to an air force museum in an area in which
missile attacks still occur. (I later took note of the museum’s anti-aircraft
We participated in a tour given by a young soldier, Ofir, who was, we
discovered, making what could be considered her maiden flight as a guide at the
site. She enthusiastically managed to sweep us up – despite competing
with the heat, and the distracting sounds of a clown performing for the younger
kids and the flypasts above us.
The country’s history is on display
throughout the museum grounds where some 150 aircraft are on show. The
IAF’s first true combat plane was a “suicidal” Messerschmitt. It was brought to
Israel from Czechoslovakia in 1948 – when most other countries refused to sell
the nascent Jewish state arms, despite the fact that it immediately came under
threat of invasion by Arab countries. No longer used by the Czechs, the
Messerschmitt was installed with an engine that was too heavy for the plane so
an extra propeller was added – which then got in the way of the guns when it
Next to the Messerschmitt are two Spitfires. The first Spitfires
were patched together out of the scraps that the British left behind at the end
of the Mandate. A necessary engine was supplied courtesy of an Egyptian plane
shot down in the War of Independence.
The engine cover was more
ingenious. An engineer worrying about the missing part came across an
advertising billboard of a suitable metal and this was quickly refashioned and
conscripted into military service. As I heard the story, I recalled the words of
David Ben- Gurion: “Be’ein rovim, afilu matateh yoreh,” when there are no guns,
even a broom can shoot.
Later, properly constructed Spitfires were
purchased in Operation Velveta, which apparently was named after the
then-prevalent brand of hand cream when someone was inspired by the
advertisement just as they needed a code name. Such stories give a whole
different connotation to the phrase “the power of advertising.”
museum is the baby of former IAF pilot and ex-police chief Ya’acov Terner, who
was also a mayor of Beersheba. He began the collection when he became commander
of the nearby Hatzerim air base in 1977 and the museum was opened to the public
in 1991 when it moved from the base to its current location.
Terner’s old planes is also on display – along with a story,
naturally. When he came to land his Ouragan after a mission in the North,
he discovered a problem with the wheels, so he circled over the Sea of Galilee
until he had almost run out of fuel and reduced the risk of the engine bursting
into flames as it skidded on the ground.
The museum map lists the layout
not by dates you might expect, but by periods that reflect Israel’s diplomatic
history as much as its security situation. Here is the French Era (until Charles
de Gaulle placed an arms embargo in the Six Day War); there, the American
Another only-in-Israel historical tidbit: The official welcoming
ceremony for the three F-15s that landed in Israel in December 1976 continued
after the beginning of the Sabbath and as a result the first thing they brought
down was the government, toppled by the religious parties.
In an honored
spot of its own is the Lavi: the small, smart, state-of-the art, Israeli-made
fighter jet that might have granted the country a measure of independence in the
face of future boycotts. Possibly too much independence. The US put
pressure on the Israeli government to ground it forever when it became apparent
that the success of the “blue-and-white” fighter could adversely affect the
American aviation industry.
Sitting among the enemy aircraft on display
is a MiG-21, known as the James Bond plane and boasting the numerals “007.” It
was flown by Iraqi pilot Munir Redfa when he was persuaded to defect to Israel
in 1966, at a time when the Soviet plane was the predominant fighter used by
Arab air forces. Here, test pilots studied the plane and discovered a blind
spot, giving IAF pilots an advantage during the Six Day War the following
Other stars of the show include “the bar-mitzva twins”: two Mirages
that each shot down a noteworthy 13 enemy planes. They are not identical twins,
however. One sports the colors and flag of Argentina, which had bought the plane
from Israel. When Terner was establishing the museum, he made it his mission to
include the ace fighter. As a result of his determination, the plane was
repurchased for the symbolic price of $1 and a promise that it would not be used
in combat and would continue to display its Argentinean markings.
the stories are legendary – literally the stuff that movies are made
of. In fact, visitors can watch a short film on the history of the IAF in
the body of the Boeing 707 used in the Entebbe rescue in 1976.
also a plane that participated in Operation Solomon, the incredible airlift that
brought more than 14,000 Jews to Israel from Ethiopia within 33 hours in May
The F-16 flown by Ilan Ramon in Operation Opera on the Iraqi
nuclear reactor in 1981 is also on display. The markings of a reactor have been
painted on the side, where hits are recorded.
Ramon, of course, went on
to become the country’s first astronaut. He took Israel from the peak of pride
to the depths of sorrow when he was killed when the Columbia exploded on
February 1, 2003, a few days after he had become the first person to make the
Friday night kiddush blessing over the wine in space. Tragically, his pilot son
Asaf was killed in an IAF training accident in 2009.
Other fallen aircrew
are commemorated at the site, too, including legendary Zorik Lev, whose plane
crashed at Port Said in the Yom Kippur War. I would like to have seen and heard
more about the English-speaking Mahal volunteers who were critical in helping
establish the air force in its earliest days.
The stories tell of
incredible feats, some performed thousands of miles away. It’s possible that
some of the best stories are still off the public’s radar – still classified, or
yet to come.
I long for the day we can make the trip to the museum in
peace – perhaps viewing the Iron Dome anti-missile system as an unnecessary
cast-off, hopefully knowing the fate of missing navigator Ron Arad. It would be
wonderful to celebrate a future Passover or Independence Day as a truly free
people in a land free of threats.
The writer is editor of The
International Jerusalem Post. firstname.lastname@example.org