In the cockpit

An F-16 fighter pilot describes the drama of the war as it unfolds at 20,000 feet.

iaf pilots cockpit 298 (photo credit: AP)
iaf pilots cockpit 298
(photo credit: AP)
Previous 200 talkbacks Major 'Y', an F-16 pilot in the Israeli Air Force, writes about his unusual experiences of the past several days. Wednesday 1000 Returning back to my base from a routine practice mission. Taxiing back to the parking area, I hear "Zanek" (Jump) on the radio. What? I asked myself. Everything was calm when I took off, just one hour ago. By the time I get out of the plane, I hear the roar of the heavy takeoffs. And then another roar, and another. There is something different in the sound of a combat takeoff with a full load of bombs: the takeoff is long, the planes are heavy, the afterburner is used longer - not the light and quick training takeoffs. Something is definitely happening, I say to myself. I hurry back to the squadron, where the loudspeakers are announcing: "all aircrew into briefing room." The squadron commander gives a short update - two soldiers had been kidnapped, rockets are fired at the north. No more training for today... Everyone must prepare, review procedures and combat tactics. 1100 Major E, my formation leader walks into the briefing room, still in his jeans. He's been called to come ASAP. What's happening? He asks me. I update him, and we brief for our mission quickly. He is concerned about making mistakes, and bombing the wrong targets. He is experienced, and has been around long enough to see mistakes happen and innocent civilians killed. A friend of his, a helicopter pilot once mistook a letter in a target's name, and ended up shooting at the wrong target, killing a whole family. Major E does not want the same thing to happen to us. He emphasizes that there is no rush, that we must check and recheck every coordinate we receive, make sure we understand EXACTLY what we are supposed to target. 1430 The siren blows. We run to the planes, start the engines, power up the systems. Ground crew running around the plane, the tower gives us permission to take off. We are told to head north, to Lebanon. "Get ready to receive targets," announces the flight controller as we approach. Major E and I read back the information, verifying with the flight controller that we have no mistakes. We head to the coast of Lebanon. It looks so small from above - Israel on the south, Syria in the east. I shake myself - no time to enjoy the view… hurry through the switches, procedures, arm the bombs, check the systems, head to the target, follow the range 10-9-8 Pickle! The plane violently rocks from side to side as two bombs fall off each wing, few seconds apart. I look down at the ground - we are flying so high, it's hard to judge where my bombs are going to hit, but the explosions catch my eye. We head back - "mission complete. 4 direct hits," reports Major E to the controller. The rush and adrenalin gone, thoughts enter my head. I sure wish I hit the "bad guys" and that there were no civilians hanging around the place. Hizballah cynically often uses civilians as a shelter from Israel's bombings. 1630 We land in the base, and are relieved to learn that we went for a Hizbullah post. Probably unmanned. It's strange how the focus in these missions is not to succeed, hit the target precisely, but rather - not to make any mistakes. The message is clear all the way from the Squadron commander to the last pilot. One mistake can jeopardize the whole war, like in Kfar-Kana, in one of the last operations in Lebanon, where artillery bombarded a refugee camp, killing over 100 people, which resulted in international pressure that halted the operation. Hitting the target is expected, no misses are acceptable. There aren't any congratulations for a well-performed mission. Only a hammer on the head if something goes wrong. Personally, I think it's a healthy attitude; it causes the whole system to be less rash and hot on the trigger. Friday, 5:30 a.m. I enter the briefing room after a short night's sleep. I've been called to come last night from home and spend the night in the base. My wife sure wasn't pleased with that, she's worried. A couple of hours later Major T and I are above Beirut. The damage to the city is evident. The holes in the runway are easily seen. Huge gas tanks are still burning; a dark cloud of smoke is hanging over the whole city. I'm sorry for the poor citizens of Lebanon. As their Prime Minister Seniora said, they are the last to know, but the first to pay. We head east, to the Bakaa valley, close to the Syrian border. Although we are careful not to get too close to the border and not expecting Syrian action, I keep a careful eye on the warning systems, that will tell me if a missile is launched. This time we have two targets; we later hear reports that the first target had been completely destroyed, while the second hit but not destroyed. Another formation is given the later target. 1800 I join up with a few friends on Tel Aviv beach. We're having some beers, enjoying the breeze and watching the sunset. After a while I say something about how bizarre the situation is - we're here having fun, while whole towns in the north are being bombarded. Wait a minute - they ask me, haven't you been called up? Sure, I reply. Just this morning I dropped two tons of explosives on Lebanon.