Lt. G., aged 21, received his pilot’s wings on Thursday at Hatzerim Air Force Base near Beersheba, becoming one of Israel’s newest fighter jet pilots.

The ceremony, attended by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz and IAF Chief Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, marks the end three grueling years at the flight academy.

“We’re still not operational,” G. tells The Jerusalem Post hours before the ceremony. “We still have preparations ahead of us. What I can say is that we’re slowly starting to understand that it’s on us now. We were cadets in the past, but now we’re getting more responsibility.”

G. is entering the air force at a tumultuous time in the Middle East, when the old order is crumbling and a new era is dawning, marked by instability, the rise of Islamist forces and a growing Iranian nuclear threat.

“It spurs us on to know that we will be guarding the country,” he says.

G. grew up in the Carmel region of northern Israel and became infatuated with the piano from a young age. It became his main pastime, and after long spells of practicing, he began to give jazz concerts. Asked if his years as a jazz pianist could contribute in any way to his new life as a fighter pilot, G. answers in the affirmative.

“I can find a connection,” he says. “When I play jazz on the piano, I have to improvise and look for all sorts of ideas. During a flight, there are also many unplanned things that I have to respond to. Also, playing requires expertise, and that is achieved through practice and investment. I’d practice two hours a day before concerts. And also in flights, we have to train all our lives for an operational flight.”

G. made up his mind to join the air force when he learned about various IDF units at the beginning of high school.

“I’m one of the people who wanted this from beginning. There are others who found themselves here. I aimed for it,” he says.

He was motivated by patriotism and the conviction that this is the field through which he can contribute most to his country, he says. Additionally, “the professional challenge is very good.”

“These are crazy things you won’t see anywhere else in the world,” he adds. “Kids doing this stuff, giving a 19-year-old a plane to fly alone. That’s a very big responsibility.”

The flight academy course is split up into six stages. At first, the cadets go through groundbased training, academic studies and an officer’s course. In the second year, they begin flying and learning the fundamentals of piloting an aircraft.

The third year is dedicated purely to academic studies for a BA at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. Finally, advanced flight training commences.

Throughout the course, the pressure is intense on all cadets, G. says.

He compares the threat of being ejected from the course to “a knife to the throat. It [the pressure] wasn’t felt every day, but there are many exit points along the way. There are committees that you very much hope not to appear before. But the more you advance in the course, the better your understanding is of your position.”

G. says he is sad to see friends he had formed close bonds with leave the course.

“I’ve had many friends I had to part from. At the beginning, it’s very frustrating... slowly, you learn to cope with it.” Those who do not complete the course are rarely surprised by the outcome, he says.

On Tuesday, the IAF held a ceremony at Hatzerim Air Force Base to honor the new graduates, which was attended by their families and friends. They were addressed by Hatzerim’s commander, Brig.-Gen. Tal.

“Our existence here as a Jewish and democratic state cannot be taken for granted,” Tal said.

“We are living in unstable times in the Middle East, with a constant increase in the amount and range of threats to our small state. The air force is the strategic arm of the State of Israel and is required to provide a response to these threats, near and far,” he added.

“The strength of the force is its people, especially its fighters. Be proud and determined in your endeavors, set high standards in every aspect, and remember: For you, not even the sky is the limit.”

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