The Israeli Air Force ace who almost didn’t make it

He was the soldier who at first failed to qualify to be a pilot in the IAF, but who ended his 30-year career in the IAF as one of the top aces.

Amir Nachumi: ‘Becoming a pilot was an aspiration for many of us back then. The whole atmosphere in those days was to serve the country.’ (photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
Amir Nachumi: ‘Becoming a pilot was an aspiration for many of us back then. The whole atmosphere in those days was to serve the country.’
(photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
The story of retired Israel Air Force ace Brig.- Gen. Amir Nachumi is one that is usually only heard about in movies and story books.
“I grew with the air force. When I landed in the IAF, it was when it was remolding itself and it’s been evolving ever since,” Nachumi told The Jerusalem Post in a special interview held recently at his home outside of Tel Aviv.
He was the soldier who at first failed to qualify to be a pilot in the IAF, but who ended his 30-year career in the IAF as one of the top aces. He was the first Westerner to down an enemy MiG in an F-16 and took part in the historic bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.
Born in Jerusalem in 1945, Nachumi was drafted into the IDF in 1962 at the age of 17, volunteering to serve in the air force. After failing to complete IAF Flight Course 44, Nachumi joined the Armored Corps where he served as a scout and reached the rank of staff-sergeant.
“Becoming a pilot was an aspiration for many of us back then. The whole atmosphere in those days was to serve the country,” he said.
Discharged two years later, Nachumi studied chemistry and physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where in his final year, the Six-Day War broke out.
Following the losses suffered in the war and the subsequent expansion of the IAF, Nachumi made the decision to once again try out for the IAF flight school.
“Somehow my letter landed on the table of [then air force commander] David Ivry,” Nachumi said of his request to re-enlist in the air force. “Everything I did since then I owe to him.”
Nachumi completed Flight Course 57 in November 1968 and spent the next 30 years flying hundreds of combat missions in several wars and special operations.
In early October 1973, Nachumi was among two F-4 Phantom crews at Ofir air force base near Sharm el-Sheik. The atmosphere was tense, but “the war came as a surprise, the whole command was under duress,” he said.
Neither Nachumi nor the other pilots were qualified as team leaders but on the morning of October 6, Nachumi was promoted to team leader over the telephone by Brig.-Gen (res.) Iftah Spector.
“I began giving order for the first time,” Nachumi said.
That afternoon, Nachumi and his navigator Yossi Yavin were sitting in their F-4 Phantoms when war broke out. Radar had detected Egyptian Air Force jets heading towards Nachumi’s base and while he had not received any orders to take off, Nachumi made the decision to scramble the jets.
“This decision was crucial because 30 seconds later they bombed the runway” of the 28 MiG-17s and their MiG-21 escorts, he said.
Once in the air, Nachumi downed four Egyptian MiGs and the other F-4 crew – Daniel Shaki and David Regev – shot down another three enemy aircraft.
The Egyptian attack was thwarted and afterwards “they never came back,” Nachumi recalled.
For his conduct in the battle, Nachumi – along with the other three airmen – received Israel’s Medal of Distinguished Service and by the war’s end he became the IAF’s top ace in an F-4, with seven confirmed kills in his F-4 Phantom.
FOR NACHUMI, one of the main strengths of Israel’s Air Force is the creativity and motivation of its pilots.
“At the beginning, we were not an air force, we were on our own. Our tactics, our doctrine, everything was created in-house,” Nachumi said. “But that was our luck. Because when we did it on our own we evolved better than had we been under the influence of another country.”
But after the Yom Kippur War, American influence grew on the young air force due in large part to the purchase of F-16s, which Nachumi flew as 110 Squadron leader based at the newly opened Ramat David airbase in southern Israel.
“History is funny, you know? Iran was supposed to get these planes,” he quipped as he recounted his time on the jets, which would become the backbone of the IAF.
Israel’s F-16A/Bs were originally destined for the Imperial Iranian Air Force, but with the fall of the Shah following the Iranian revolution and the subsequent rise of the Islamist fundamentalist regime – and the signing of the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt – Jerusalem finalized a deal to acquire the advanced jet from the United States under the Peace Marble I Foreign Military Sales program.
Nachumi spent three months in the United States, learning the new jets and flying some 20 sorties.
“The impression I got was that we were different. We had evolved differently, our air-combat skills were much better than the Americans,” he said of his time in the US alongside American pilots. “The IAF was an organization which learned better than the USAF. Our pilots asked questions, it was more informal.”
The first four F-16A/Bs landed in Israel in July of 1980 and achieved initial operating capability a few weeks later. The fleet ushered in a whole new era for the Israel Air Force – one that continues to this day – including the ability to carry out preemptive strikes at enemies far from Israel’s borders.
Shortly after the jets became operational, Nachumi along with several other IAF pilots began training for an operation that would change the course of history in the Middle East.
“I didn’t feel the full gravity of the mission, but we knew that we had to do it perfectly. We had to execute it 100%,” Nachumi recalled.
It was only at the last briefing that he was told the target of the mission: Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor some 1,000 miles away in Iraq.
“It was then that I felt a huge weight on my shoulders. We felt we had to do it at all costs, no matter what happened to us,” he said.
On June 7, 1981, Nachumi led four F-16 fighters of a team of eight into enemy territory and executed the attack known as Operation Opera, flying over 2,000 miles (there and back) and destroying Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
For Nachumi, while it was a challenging mission, “there is no fear of death, only the fear to miss. You can’t go back, so you cannot miss the target. It’s only on the way back home [that] you feel the exhilaration, you’ve succeeded and everyone made it back home safe.”
OVER 30 YEARS after the strike on Iraq, and after an Israeli strike on Syria’s nuclear reactor in the province of Deir ez-Zor in 2007, tensions are now at all-time high between Israel and Iran.
According to Nachumi, the two previous operations show that the Jewish state is fully capable of striking Tehran.
“If the decision is taken by the political echelon, the air force pilots and planes are capable of doing it,” Nachumi said, amid saber rattling by the two arch-enemies.
“The attack against the Syrian reactor is just one proof of that.”
The distance between Israel and Iran “makes it more complicated” than the two other strikes, he said, acknowledging the obstacles that may arise regarding a strike on the Islamic Republic.
Nonetheless, “even though Syria is closer to us distance wise, the complications are no less than what we are expecting if we go to Iran,” he said. “But I am sure that the air force of today – which is, by far, more developed and advanced with technology that we did not have in 1981 – is capable of doing it.”
A few weeks after Operation Opera in July 1981, a flight of Syrian MiG-21s attempted to intercept Israeli A-4 Skyhawks over Lebanon, but were instead intercepted by Nachumi and his squadron of F-16A/B escorts.
“Everything is timing,” he said. “Lucky for me, the Syrians tried to interfere. I picked them up on my radar and maneuvered and shot down a MiG.”
With that kill, Nachumi became the first pilot in the world to shoot down an enemy aircraft in the F-16A/B.
Over the course of the First Lebanon War, Nachumi, who was still commanding the 110 Squadron, shot down six more enemy aircraft, bringing his total number of kills to 14.
In 1987, Nachumi was appointed to commander of Ramat David Airbase and two years later was promoted to brigadier-general and assigned command of the IAF’s Air Group, where he played a major role in Operation Solomon, personally overseeing logistical elements of the famous 1991 airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He retired from the IDF in 1996.
All the certificates he received from downing the 14 enemy aircraft hang on his wall in his office, along with dozens of other awards and certificates he received from the air force over the course of 30 years of service.
While Nachumi took his last flight in 2005, he told the Post that he was concerned about the direction that the air force has taken in recent years.
“I am afraid that the air force is going down the same path that the Americans were on when we met them,” he said, referring to when he was in the US learning the F16.
“We are Americanizing ourselves, and if this really is the case, the air force should watch it,” he warned, explaining that the Americans are too rigid and techbased, which can lead to “forgetting the man in the cockpit.”
“Let the pilots be as we were – creative, non-conforming,” he said, adding that while the requirements for pilots in the IAF have changed over the years, the basic characteristics needed to be a pilot have remained the same: aggressive, competitive, and not afraid to say what is on his mind.
But, he stressed, a pilot can have all the proper characteristics, but “without motivation you cannot succeed.”