IAF Air Traffic Control Division: The eyes of the sky

‘For pilots, their missions are the most important thing, and we help them complete their missions’

On shift at the Hatzor Air Force Base. (photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
On shift at the Hatzor Air Force Base.
(photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
The soldiers of the predominantly female Air Traffic Control Division are the eyes of the entire Israel Air Force, managing and synchronizing the country’s complex airspace.
“For pilots, their missions are the most important thing, and we help them complete their missions,” Sec.-Lt. Rotem Levy told The Jerusalem Post during a recent visit to Hatzor Air Force Base in central Israel.
It is one of the IAF’s most active bases, with two “Barak” (F-16C/D) fighter jet squadrons (the 101st and 105th squadrons), the 100th Squadron (“Tzofit”) as well as units from the Air Defense Division.
“On a normal day, we can have between 40 and 50 jets in the air simultaneously, at least three times a day,” Sec.-Lt. Yuval Yanovsky told the Post.
There are also daily drills, including during the time that the Post visited the tower where troops drilled on how to deal with shrapnel from an Iron Dome interception landing across the runway.
“Everyone knows that the runways are the most important part of the base, and so we have to act quickly to clear them, to allow jets to continue with their missions,” she said. “I know that I have an important role during war; I have to make sure the tower functions.”
Established in 1942 by the British Royal Air Force, the Hatzor base has three active runways and the country’s oldest air traffic control tower, manned by 21 soldiers and five officers.
But even at close to 80 years old, the multi-mission air base – which takes part in defense, offense, interception and intelligence collection – functions 24/7, manned by at least two soldiers at all times. With a folding bed in the control room, soldiers are watching the skies even in the dead of night.
The soldiers must also deal with regular flights and must provide reliable aerial pictures to aircrews, while also preparing for emergencies, and monitoring and updating the crews about threats and dangers in the air.
“The air force uses everything it has, in order to complete its mission, and these soldiers are a central part of this; they can see the complete picture,” the commander of the IDF’s Northern Air Traffic Control Division, Lt.-Col. A. told the Post. “They are a critical part in fighting the challenges posed by Israel’s enemies.”
“We work with our most advanced systems, which are the most advanced in the world, in order to complete our missions,” he said. “The air force and Air Traffic Control Division are able, at all times, to deal with all the challenges posed by our enemies. We work to provide a relevant aerial picture in order to be as prepared as possible at all times.”
And they have to be prepared for what’s happening on the ground as well.
“I have the lives of others in my hands – and sometimes it’s crazy to think of the responsibility we have at our age,” Sgt. Gil Katzir told the Post, as we sat outside the air traffic control tower.
Katzir has spent the last year at a half as a soldier in the tower, a role where working under pressure is the norm.
Two weeks earlier, Katzir was in the tower when a civilian got lost in the base and drove onto an active runway from which a fighter jet was on track to take off. Mere seconds after identifying the car, Katzir had to stop the pilot from taking off, because “it would have been almost impossible” to stop him from hitting the car had he begun his takeoff.
“If I had not been able to stop him, then four people could have died; it was a very serious incident,” Katzir recounted. “The feeling I had will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
SINCE THE base is also the “closest air base to the Gaza Strip, we were part of every round of violence over the past year,” Yanovsky told the Post, adding that even when incoming rocket-warning sirens go off, soldiers remain in the tower, as planes can be scrambled within minutes. “There’s always the conflict of going to the shelter or continuing with our jobs.”
“A lot of soldiers also have families in the area, so they worry,” Yanovsky said, explaining that from the tower, soldiers can see the projectiles fired from the Hamas-run coastal enclave toward Israeli communities, as well as the Iron Dome interceptor rockets being launched.
Levy told the Post that the round of violence in May was “challenging” for her and her soldiers.
“I’ve dealt with rockets in civilian life, but as a soldier in the IDF it’s different,” she said. “It’s more complicated, and I have so much responsibility over things that are much bigger than just me as an individual.”
And with an Iron Dome battery located so close to the base, there’s always a risk to the jets.
Yanovsky recounted one such episode where last May – when Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired close to 700 rockets toward southern Israel in a 48-hour period – an F-16 was coming in for landing when the Color Red rocket-warning siren went off and an Iron Dome interceptor was fired.
“We had to alert the pilot to abort his landing,” she said.
WHILE THE IAF has been busy on the southern front, Hezbollah, in the North, is a mounting concern; many believe that if a war were to break out, Israel would find itself fighting on both fronts simultaneously.
In April, Hezbollah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah said that while Israel boasts about its missile defense system, it cannot defend the country’s citizens against the threat posed by Hezbollah’s missile and rocket arsenal.
It is believed that Hezbollah has over 130,000 rockets and missiles with all sorts of ranges and payloads, in addition to several dozen precision missiles.
In a July interview with Hezbollah-affiliated al-Manar TV, Nasrallah warned that “the 70-kilometer Israeli coast, starting from Netanya and ending at Ashdod, is under the resistance fire.”
Pulling out a map of Israel, Nasrallah pointed to strategic targets, which he said Hezbollah could hit, including Ben-Gurion Airport, arms depots, petrochemical and water desalination plants, Tel Aviv and Ashdod Port.
Being the target of missile barrages could seriously disrupt IAF operations.
Due to the threat on the northern border, it was recently reported that Israel’s military will provide antimissile protection to 20 strategic sites across the country, as well as build additional hardened aircraft hangers.
According to a report in Jane’s Defense Weekly, the IAF is looking to build an unspecified number of strengthened aircraft hangars at a cost of $10 million in an area of about 4,000 sq.m.
While Lt.-Col. A. admitted that the challenges posed by terrorist groups in the South versus those in the North are “different,” the soldiers will be able to “stand up” to whatever is thrown at them, due to the advanced offensive and defensive systems as well as their constant training.
“We train our soldiers to be ready for the threats that we will meet in the future,” A said. “Even though our enemies get better with time, so do we. We are always learning and thinking of what will come next. At any given moment, we are ready.”