The life story of torch-lighter Danny Shapira, Israel’s legendary test-pilot, is that of the modern state.
By DANNY GROSSMAN
IT IS the first day of the Six Day War. A SAM (surface to air missile) comes screaming toward an Israeli Mirage at low altitude. The Russianmade SA-2 is new to the region. Its Egyptian operators could not know that the Israeli fighter was flown by legendary test pilot Danny Shapira, who coolly waits until the lethal missile gets dangerously near – so close that it resembles a flying telephone pole. Seconds before impact, Shapiro wracks his Mirage into a violent high-G turn, forcing the missile to overshoot. But it’s just another “day at the office” for this pilot, whose workplace is in the sky above us.I have met Shapira on many occasions. We recently sat in the modest apartment he shares with his wife, Edna Harel, overlooking his native Haifa, after he was selected to light a torch at the national ceremony at Mount Herzl on the eve of Independence Day.Reflecting on his career, Shapira flashes his ever-present smile and says, “We were the first Israeli pilots. We love our country. We were not better; we simply had no choice.”His blue eyes twinkling, he unravels the story of one of the world’s greatest aviators. For our people, his story is that of the modern state.His great-grandfather helped establish wineries in Zichron Ya’acov during the 1870s and his mother’s family has roots in Jerusalem and Safed.Born in 1925, Shapira remembers the flight of the Graf Zeppelin, the German passenger-carrying airship which visited Palestine when he was a young boy. After seeing an airplane, he told his father he wanted to fly. At age 14, he joined the Hagana and soon after checked out on a glider, becoming an instructor at the ripe age of 18.In 1947 he joined the fledgling Sherut Avir (“the Air Service,” precursor to the Israel Air Force) and on May 13, 1948, found himself among a group of 10 Israelis on their way to Czechoslovakia for the first pilots’ course.AdvertisementIronically, they began flying the Messerschmidt Me-109, a symbol of Luftwaffe’s might. Lacking a common language, they communicated with their Czech instructors with hand motions. Israel sent Machal pilot George Lichter to train Shapira, who remained one of only four pilots who moved on to Spitfires.Lichter chose Shapira to be the first to fly the ornery aircraft, telling him, “If you survive, I’ll let the others fly.”It was just the beginning of an incredible string of firsts for Shapira. Before he even earned his wings, his natural talents paved the way for his inclusion in the famed “Velveta-2” operation – named for the skin cream they used, hoping it might protect them in case they ditched over water – which ferried Spits to Israel across Europe and the Mediterranean. Two of the 12 pilots didn’t make it. Shapira did. He continued training until his graduation in March 1949 along with Tibi Ben-Shachar, Shaya Gazit and Motti Fein, later known as Motti Hod, who commanded the IAF to stunning victory in June 1967.While most IAF pilots know that Shapira had a big hand in the fateful Six Day War, few are aware of the extent of his contribution. It began when he completed the French test-pilots course in 1959. IAF Maj.-Gen. Ezer Weizman asked Shapira to stay on and evaluate the newest airplane the French were offering, the Mirage. It was top secret and the French were unwilling to let a foreigner – even a prospective customer – near it, let alone fly.Weizman insisted, instructing Shapira to see if the plane would be suitable for Israel. France’s Dassault engineers had designed the Mirage as a high-altitude interceptor, but the IAF needed a versatile fighter that could serve many purposes, including ground-attack with bombs. The real kicker was our insistence on the inclusion of an internal cannon. “Passe,” said the engineers who had developed a rocket booster that would help the Mirage streak to altitude quickly and air-to-air missiles to shoot down enemy planes (the Americans also were of the same mindset in the late 1950s/early ‘60s).But Shapira and the IAF stuck to their guns (pun intended) and twin 30 mm. DEFA cannons were installed. Incredibly, these very same guns proved their worth. In the momentous 1967 campaign, Mirages accounted for 51 of the 60 Arab airplanes shot down in dogfights, every one by cannon fire.Besides those aircraft destroyed in tight-turning engagements, Mirages were responsible for a lion’s share of the 450 enemy planes and hundreds of tanks that were obliterated at close range when IAF pilots strafed aircraft trapped on the ground, as well as armored columns in the Mitla Pass and elsewhere.Besides ensuring that our Mirages had “the right stuff,” Shapira personally tended to the ferrying of each of the 76 sleek fighters from France to Israel in 19 separate missions. While helping to design and deliver our top fighters certainly would have been enough, Danny played an even more incredible role that gave our side a secret advantage. In 1966, the Mossad helped an Iraqi pilot defect to Israel with Russia’s front-line MiG 21 fighter. Without a manual or checklist, Shapira took the MiG through its paces and performed mock dogfights against Israeli Mirage pilots who quickly learned how best to defeat it. Soon after the 1967 war the Americans were delighted to learn how to exploit the MiG’s relative weaknesses and Shapira believes this helped contribute to improving relations with the US which were not as close back then.Shapira’s long career at the Israel Aerospace Industries was no less remarkable. He was chief test pilot who helped develop and test Israel’s first fighter – the Nesher, a knock-off of the Mirage, and the Kfir. Like every other pilot who has ever flown a Mirage, Shapira fell in love with its sleek profile and elegant human engineering. As the late IAF Brig.-Gen. Asher Snir once said, “You strap into a Phantom… you strap on a Mirage.”Shapira loved the Kfir which combined the Mirage’s graceful French body with American strength (General Electric J-79 engine) along with Israeli “Yiddishe Kop” (local avionics and computer systems).Some of Danny’s wildest adventures took place in far-flung reaches of the world, flying light transports and executive jets that the IAI was selling.In Ecuador he landed an Arava STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) aircraft on a ridiculously short 285 meter strip 5,000 feet above sea level in 30 degree Celsius heat. The client was convinced if Shapira could do it they would buy the airplane.In Bangkok he made a take-off from a pier that no local pilot would dare attempt, after learning that it was impossible to transport the plane by truck as planned due to ground obstacles.He has shared a cockpit with famous and infamous alike, such as Jordan’s King Hussein and Uganda’s president Idi Amin.In all he has flown more than 12,000 hours in over 100 types of aircraft. Veteran IAF pilot Brig.- Gen. Ran Ronen (res.) calls him the most natural pilot who has ever touched a stick and throttle. He has been called Israel’s Chuck Yeager, and not only for breaking records in flight. Like the iconic US aviator, Shapira has helped shape the very course of aviation and remains a role model for aspiring pilots who learn from his legacy of grace under pressure.How did he feel, I ask, when he was called to light a torch at the Independence Day ceremony? “I was truly delighted,” he tells me. “It is a great honor to be recognized by the air force, the IDF and by your country as it celebrates 65 years of independence. I was chosen in consideration of what I have done to make our nation secure and am humbled by my selection.”Shapira takes great pride in his daughter, Irit, an experienced El Al flight purser, and two pilot sons. It is easy to understand how all three were raised in high-flying tradition. Shapira flew along with his sons, who were my peers, during the 1982 Lebanon campaign. The elder Shapira flew Aravas as a reservist, Ronen flew F-15s at Tel Nof base (shooting down 2 Migs) and Oded flew Kfirs their father helped test. Ronen still flies as an experimentl test pilot at IAI and Oded flies as a captain for El AL, although he has moved to F-16s as a reservist.Shapira loves to relate how his main concern during that first 1967 mission, as he fought for his life against SAMs, was that he might get shot down and miss Ronen’s bar mitzva, which was slated for the following Saturday.“On the way to attack Cairo West Airfield, I was absorbed in flying formation while the ground whizzed past my Mirage at 900 kilometers per hour, less than 100 feet below me,” he says.Shapira pauses and reveals uncharacteristic emotion.After all his work tailoring the Mirage to Israel’s needs, personally shepherding each plane here, testing the MiG and helping IAF pilots understand how to defeat it, still nothing could allay his personal fears.“After all that, the very real possibility that I might not return almost brought a tear to my eye,” he says. “Fortunately, we soon crossed into the target area and every fiber of my being refocused on the mission.”The results were predictable. Shapira hit his target, evaded the SAMs and survived to fight another day. His squadron even gave him the last of the six days off so he could stand by Ronen as he ascended to the Torah. Fittingly, as the family lifted their eyes to the Heavens in thanks that Shabbat morning, Shapira says they saw formations of IAF fighters making their way to the last battles on the Golan Heights.“It was symbolic,” he recalls. “But what really moved me was when I apologized that there would be no party following the ceremony, due to the war. The kids told me that I came back safely and that was all they needed to celebrate.”Shapira’s top 10 proudest moments1. December 1948: Pressed into the line-up before even earning his wings, Shapira helps bring desperately needed Spitfires to Israel on Velveta-2 Operation. The next day the planes saw action in liberating the Negev in Operation Horev.2. March 1949: Graduation from the first IAF pilot training course (together with three others)3. 1956: Reconnaissance over H-3. In a twin engine Meteor, Shapiro, with navigator Rafi Sivron, finds the distant Iraqi field, yet encounters a 200 mph jet-stream headwind and barely makes it back, shutting down one engine to save fuel.4. 1959: Shapira completes France’s Test Pilot Course. He stays on to help the IAF in its decision regarding the Mirage and ends up redefining the aircraft configuration to include cannons, which are critical in Israel’s miraculous “three hours in June” 1967. He led ferry missions to Israel for all 76 Mirage fighters.5. June 26, 1959: As a test-pilot in France, Danny becomes the first Israeli aviator to reach Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) in a Mirage prototype configured with a rocket motor. He reaches 70,000 feet wearing a full pressure astronaut’s suit. In 1995 Shapira is inducted as an honorary fellow in the Society for Experimental Test Pilots.6. 1966: Shapira becomes first Western pilot to fly a Russian MiG-21 that arrived via a Mossad operation.7. 1967: Shapira is the first Israeli pilot to be engaged by and outmaneuver a Russian-made SA-2 surface-to-air missile, on the first day of Six Day War.8. 1973: Shapira coolly finds the airfield after losing navigational instruments at night while taking IAI Westwind Executive jet to Brazil, flying “blind” over jungle, and reorienting himself just prior to landing. Shapira lands on fumes.9. 1970s-1980s : “Impossible” take-offs and landings in the Arava transport on Ecuadorian mountaintop and Thai waterfront pier, among others.10. 1982-88: Shapira performs test flights of Nesher and Kfir with IAI test pilot son Ronen. After retiring from IAI, Shapira is invited in 1996 to join Ronen in a twin seat MiG- 21 refurbished by IAI for European client, in a sortie commemorating Shapira’s historic MiG-21 flights.The writer is a lieutenant-colonel (res.) in the IAF.He flew fighters for the Israeli and US air forces, earning the IAF Commander’s Medal for a longrange reconnaissance mission in 1982.
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