Legendary Israel Air Force pilot Ran (Ronen) Pekker died on Saturday at the age of 80 and was laid to rest on Sunday in his native village of Kfar Vitkin.
Ran’s record is astounding. He led a premier Mirage squadron in the 1967 Six Day War, playing a key role in the victory that changed the face of the Middle East to this day.
He later commanded an F-4 Phantom squadron during the 1969- 1970 War of Attrition, and went on to command the Tel Nof Air Base during the fateful days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
He flew close to 400 combat missions, traversing the region in peacetime and war, and was one of the IAF’s first aces, shooting down seven enemy fighters. He even took part in one of the great cloak-anddagger stories in aviation history, escorting an Iraqi MiG-21 pilot who defected just in time for Israel to learn the secrets of the Soviet-built front-line fighter before the Six Day War, secrets that were passed on to the Americans facing the same adversary in Vietnam.
Ran – a true patriot – also served Israel as its consul general in Los Angeles and dedicated the last portion of his life to Zahala, a project for coaching wayward youths back to a productive life and fostering good citizenship. Since 1992, Zahala has transformed thousands into vital contributors to the country.
By themselves, Ran’s achievements are the stuff of superheroes.
But they don’t even begin to tell his story. He was the personification of what best-selling author Steven Pressfield called the “warrior ethos.” He was the quintessential fighter and commander. He became the gold standard by which all fighter pilots and commanders are now measured.
In 1965, Ran took command of the 119 “Bat” Squadron, which had upgraded to Mirages in 1963, and soon thereafter engaged a top Jordanian Hunter pilot in a no-holdsbarred dogfight lasting nearly eight minutes, shooting down his adversary at low altitude and setting the tone for dvekut bamesima.
Dvekut means “glued to,” mesima is “mission.” Ran’s every breath and action transmitted that the mission is everything.
Running up to 1967, he prepared his troops ruthlessly. In a voice that could make young pilots jump out of their chairs, he demanded that they deliver a “death burst” in training, allowing them to be credited with a victory only if they held their gun sight on their adversary’s aircraft for 16 consecutive frames.
Overnight, he raised the level of proficiency by a quantum leap.
Young pilots like Lt. Giora Romm, later a major-general, remember how that voice paid off. Romm shot down five planes in less than a week of combat.
Ran’s uncompromising drive for excellence went hand-in-hand with his “honest debrief” policy that produced results and saved lives.
Former Israel Aerospace Industries chief test pilot Menachem Shmul nearly killed himself and another Mirage pilot during the first day of the 1967 war. Ran grounded, then immediately reinstated, Shmul after learning that his overzealous flying was rooted in his personal history. He even faulted himself for not knowing his men better.
After Ran’s funeral, Shmul reflected the sentiment of virtually every other senior IAF commander since Benny Peled, saying: “There was never a commander like Ran before.
And after him, people can only aspire to his level.”
Ran made his mark because he commanded in the toughest of times.
As noted, he led a Phantom squadron, but only because the squadron had lost its beloved commander, Shmuel Hetz, in combat. The IAF threw Ran into the breach – even though he had finished two tenures of command and was due to be promoted, he took over and reinstilled the confidence and fighting spirit that enabled the squadron to recover.
In 1973, when the nation – and even the vaunted IAF – had suffered a near-knockout blow, it was Ran, now commanding Tel Nof, the IAF’s largest base, who never lost his balance and kept everyone on track.
Medal of Valor winner Lior Elazar remembers the inspiration he received prior to the fateful attack his Phantom squadron made on the Syrian military headquarters in Damascus. When faced with an impossible dilemma, Ran’s briefing stuck in Lior’s mind, and he knew what to do get the job done.
During these dark hours, Ran also insisted on flying operational missions himself – a dangerous undertaking for a base commander – because he felt he could only critique others if he himself stood in harm’s way.
Ran finally succumbed to the one enemy he could not defeat – blood cancer. On my last visit five weeks ago, I donated platelets and stopped by for five minutes (less time than it took him to shoot down the Hunter). He was delighted to see a fellow Bat Squadron member and immediately propped himself up, assumed his command voice, and gave a 30-second “order of the day” to his troops that I distributed to 119’s veterans: He would fight to the end.
As the sun set over Kfar Vitkin, Ran’s son-in-law, Avi, who later commanded the Bat Squadron as part of his own distinguished IAF career, revealed Ran’s final two questions: As Avi held his hand, his father-in-law didn’t complain or groan in agony. He simply asked: “How is the air force? How is Israel doing?”