Next week I will fly a Yasur (Sikorsky CH-53) for the last time, 26 years after my first flight in the Israeli Air Force.
My friend Erez will fly with me. We joined the "Night Birds" squadron together in 1989, and became the longest serving pilots in the squadron, when Avner Goldman was killed in the tragic helicopter crash in Romania.
At this time of closure, I am flooded with memories, and reflect on the many missions, experiences and people I encountered along the way.
My first year in the squadron demonstrated the magnitude of our task. I flew a long and complicated firefighting mission in the Golan Heights with Yaron, and rescued a sailor with appendicitis, 450 kilometers away, with Gadi. Alex and I planned a daring mission to Iraq during the Gulf War, reaching takeoff position before it was aborted.
In "Keen senses" (Had Hushim), my first Special Operation, Benny and I extracted a Shaldag team from Lebanon. After making it out safely, we had to go back to the landing zone because an operator had lost his radio. Those were a few nerve-wracking moments.
Flying the Yasur is a complicated task. This incredible machine is powerful and versatile but also complicated and dangerous. There's not much room for error when you fly at night, 20 meters above the ground, at 200 kilometers an hour.
Strapping into the cockpit of this engineering marvel, is always a special moment. As cables are connected, and systems come online, the two major concerns are always: Fulfill the mission, and do our best to bring the crew back safely.
I never say "yes" when asked "Is flying fun?" True, it is breathtaking, and the term "joy of flying" was rightfully coined, but I lost too many friends to consider the experience "fun."
The variety of missions was unbelievable. One day we flew an incubator with a newborn, and the next we searched for a pilot who ditched off the coast. Some operations took months of planning and training, while others were planned and executed overnight.
We flew missions that took us more than 1,000 kilometers from home. I once flew a 12 hour mission to pick up a package and return to Israel. I ate Kalamata olives in Kalamata, Greece, between firefighting sorties and drank the best coffee, brewed by Oren in an olive grove in Crete.
Some of the most intense experiences of my life happened in the cockpit - the hottest and coldest weather, the best sunrises and sunsets, the most breathtaking array of flowers and the biggest mountains, Israel dotted with thousands of bonfires on Lag Ba'Omer, and the horrific view of Scud missiles raining down on Tel Aviv.
But most of all, it was the close encounters with people at times of tragedy, hardship and fear.
I will never forget the thankful and relieved look on soldiers' faces, as they came onboard behind enemy lines. I remember the satisfaction David and I felt after hoisting a wounded hiker out of a deep Canyon near the Dead Sea. The image of ground crews washing the bloody payload after missions will never leave me. I was shaken to see the crash site in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, together with the families of our fallen friends.
There were many times of stress and close calls. Like the time when we encountered a storm far away from home, lost a hydraulic pump, and sank deep in a muddy field. I will always be grateful to our virtuosic airborne mechanic who fixed the pump, and to the C-130 tanker crew that waited for us over the Mediterranean and supplied us with enough fuel to get home.
One night, Avishai Levi and I were scrambled to an accident. Two cars crashed near Maale Shomron and we tried to land a rescue team close to the site. The rotor struck a power line, but we managed to land the crippled aircraft. A year later, in February 1997, Avishai was killed in "The helicopter disaster," along with 72 men. The event had a profound impact on me, professionally and personally, and his family has become an important part of my life ever since.
Uri and I flew in the largest air assault in IDF history, during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. As we crossed the border back into Israel, we heard over the radio that one of the helicopters behind us had been hit by enemy fire and crashed. The crew was lost, but only after dozens of paratroopers were safely offloaded.
During my 23 years in the squadron, I lost 23 friends.
A few weeks ago, I was honored to speak at the ceremony on Memorial Day, on behalf of the veteran pilots. It was one of the most challenging assignments the Air Force had ever given me. I spoke about how emotions develop over the years and explained that the memory of our fallen comrades and close connection with their families, are an integral part of the squadron and influence operational performance. Everyone understands the importance of professionalism and the grave price of failure.
There is a constant balance between logic and emotions. As operators, we must fearlessly face danger, but at the same time we are emotional beings, who feel sadness for fallen friends and fear for our own lives. This is not a contradiction, but an essential combination that makes us better warriors and professionals.
It's all about the people.
Although pilots get most of the glory in the Air Force, it is in fact a team effort. I feel grateful to each and every soldier of the squadron, especially our maintenance professionals, who never cease to amaze me with their motivation, dedication and professionalism. I also have the utmost respect for the service and commitment of those who serve in peripheral services, from meteorologists to traffic controllers.
The realization is beginning to sink in. My flying days are over.
I will always be proud of serving in the Israeli Air Force, and flying alongside extraordinary people in one the most amazing aircrafts ever built.
To the families of our fallen friends, my heart goes out to you. I mourn their loss with you and will always carry their memory with me.
The writer is the founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. and a former pilot in the Israeli Air Force.