iaf c-i130j plane.
(photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
Small stickers of two flags adorned the large IAF Hercules C-130 tactical transport plane that was parked on a runway in the sprawling Nevatim air base in the Negev.
"The first flag is of Uganda. This plane took part in the 1976 Entebbe rescue mission," explained Micha, a Hercules squadron commander, with the nonchalance of an experienced pilot.
"The other flag is Sudanese. The plane took part in the airlift of Ethiopian Jews from the Sudanese desert."
And yes, Micha said, in response to my question, the plane that rescued Israeli hostages from Uganda 33 years ago and helped Israel revolutionize its long distance counterterror capabilities, is still very much in service.
Indeed, the rows of camouflage-colored mammoth Hercules planes at Nevatim - the Middle East's largest military transport air base - have been in service for more than three decades, and have many stories to tell.
It is these planes which are tasked with transporting troops and armored vehicles, parachuting soldiers and equipment, carrying out electronic warfare missions and refueling other planes and helicopters.
And while the planes "are still powerful and have years of service left in them," Micha said, the time has also come to purchase "new planes that will take us deep into the 21st century." This is one of the reasons why several new generation dark grey American Hercules C-130J aircraft were on the runways of Nevatim this week.
ISRAEL IS in advanced talks with the US over purchasing the new planes, which look similar to their predecessors on the outside, but have more powerful engines, can fly heavier and larger cargoes and take them longer distances.
The old C-130 can carry 92 soldiers, the new model has room for around 130, Micha said.
For the past several days, an American C-130J squadron from Germany has been holding joint flights with Israeli pilots, allowing the IAF to examine the C-130J up close.
"We are in final stages of talks. The new planes are stronger, larger and carry more equipment," Micha said. "The deployment by the Americans allows us to understand the plane we want to buy intimately, and to fly it intensively."
The American pilots at Nevatim, who have flown on board the Israeli planes too over the past week, say they have benefited a great deal from the mutual learning program.
"In Germany, we have no dirt landing strips, so we can't practice for places like Iraq or Afghanistan," said Mike Morales, a young Hercules pilot.
In Germany, the Americans are also forbidden from flying at around 300 feet, which can help the plane practice evading enemy radar. "Here we can do all of that, as well as fly with night vision goggles," Morales added.
"It took us five and a half hours to fly here from Germany. The new plane looks the same on the outside, but it's a totally different experience for the pilot," he said.
Igor, an IAF Hercules pilot, said the experience of flying with his American counterparts had been positive.
"They are great guys. Very approachable and flexible," he said.
"I have had an honor and a privilege to fly with the Israeli pilots," Morales said. "I've experienced nothing but good things. They are patriotic pilots who love their country and army.
"I have wanted to visit Israel for a long time. I have a passion for the country and I have a desire to learn about it."
As the two pilots stood next to one another, briefing journalists, a man in a black leather jacket strode onto the runway, surrounded by deputies. Making his way toward one of the planes, the pilot turned out to be none another than OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan.
The roar of Hercules preparing for takeoff drowned out the conversations. It was time for another training flight. One after the other, the mammoth aircraft leaped into the sky in the cold desert evening.