One of Israel's first Air Force pilots, Danny Shapira, passes away at 97

The fifth-generation Sabra born in Jerusalem in 1925 will be laid to rest in Ramat Hasharon on Sunday.

Celebratory Israeli Air Force flyover, July 1967 (Photo: Dan Hadani / Colorization: MyHeritage). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel (photo credit: DAN HADANI/MYHERITAGE)
Celebratory Israeli Air Force flyover, July 1967 (Photo: Dan Hadani / Colorization: MyHeritage). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
(photo credit: DAN HADANI/MYHERITAGE)

Danny Shapira, one of the first Israel Air Force pilots, passed away on Friday at the age of 97.

A fifth-generation Sabra, Shapira was born in Jerusalem in 1925 and will be buried at the Morasha Cemetery in Ramat Hasharon on Sunday.

“The IAF bows its head and shares its sincerest condolences with the Shapira family,” said IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar. “Danny was one of the founding fathers of the IAF, a brave and professional combatant who educated generations of combatants. In his groundbreaking path as a test pilot, he was one of the people who paved the path to the success of the IAF. We will continue to commemorate his glorious legacy and accompany his family. May his memory be blessed.”

Shapira told The Jerusalem Post in a 2018 interview that he “started when we didn’t have our own country, our own army or air force. We didn’t fight with weapons, but we fought with our hearts; we had to win.” He said that “the wish for freedom, sacrifice, dedication, and the dream to have our own country under our own flag is what won the War of Independence.”

Shapira joined the Hagana’s Sherut Avir (Air Service), the precursor to the Israel Air Force, and began flying before becoming a gliding instructor at the age of 18.

Trailblazers for an Israeli future

When the decision was made to establish the State of Israel, Shapira, along with another 100 people who held flying licenses, were called up to start taking reconnaissance pictures and bringing supplies such as arms to the Jewish yishuvim (communities) around Jerusalem under the guise of private flights.

Shapira was in Europe when the War of Independence broke out, and returned to the embattled State of Israel in the famed Velvetta operation, ferrying Spitfires from Czechoslovakia to Israel via Yugoslavia along with 13 other pilots, two of whom did not make it.

The day after landing back in Israel, the planes joined Operation Horev, playing a pivotal role in the large-scale offensive toward the end of the War of Independence against the Egyptian Army in the western Negev.

On March 14, 1949, a “historic day,” Shapira and the three other young Israelis received their wings, becoming the first four pilots of the State of Israel.

“Danny was one of the founding fathers of the IAF, a brave and professional combatant who educated generations of combatants. In his groundbreaking path as a test pilot, he was one of the people who paved the path to the success of the IAF.We will continue to commemorate his glorious legacy and accompany his family. May his memory be blessed"

IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar

“It was the beginning of the Israel Air Force,” he said in 2018. “We were cadets, and the air force gave us priority and promoted us to the positions we later held.”

From that moment onward, Shapira didn’t stop flying until the age of 72, accumulating over 12,000 flight hours, setting and breaking dozens of records.

“Every new plane that Israel received, I flew on it,” he told the Post, explaining that for him, it was “important to be one of the first” to fly for the Jewish state.

He credited the strong bond between the US Air Force, which sold Israel F-16s and F-15s, to another historic moment in his career: the defection of the Iraqi MiG-21 pilot in 1966 in an operation led by the Mossad. After the plane landed in Israel, Shapira became the first pilot to fly the Russian-made jet, learning the plane’s tactical weak spots without a flight manual or checklist.

After flying against elite Israeli pilots to show them the tactics that eventually led them to shoot down many enemy planes, Shapira was sent to the US on a secret mission to teach American pilots who were up against the same planes in Vietnam.

An Israeli Air Force F-35 during Operation Breaking Dawn, August 2022 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)An Israeli Air Force F-35 during Operation Breaking Dawn, August 2022 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

“Since I gave the briefing to the Americans in Vietnam, relations between us have only gotten closer,” he said, telling the Post that when the F-35I, the most advanced American jet to date, landed in Israel, the American pilots lined up to shake his hand.

“The American general told me that the friendship between our two countries is now forever,” Shapira said. “I sure hope that’s true.”