Pilot in the room

Iftach Spector is a living legend in the IAF with 334 combat missions and 15 kills to his credit.

Iftach Spector - one of the best Mirage fighter pi (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Iftach Spector - one of the best Mirage fighter pi
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Loud and ClearThe Memoir of an Israeli Fighter PilotBy Brig.-Gen. Iftach SpectorZenith Press432 pp.$30

There's an old joke that goes: How do you know a fighter pilot is in the room? Why, they tell you, of course. As fighter pilots go, Iftach Spector is probably one of the best, if not at least the best-known ace in the Israel Air Force. And he'd be the first to tell you. He ranks up there with other well known IAF flyboys like Ilan Ramon, the doomed astronaut, Ran Pecker, Giora Epstein and Ezer Weizman.

So it was natural to expect the 432 pages of Loud and Clear to be pretty much a tale of fighter pilot exploits and how he prevailed over them all and saved the Jewish state again and again.

How wrong I was. How cynically wrong I was. Spector is a colorful character in real life who never shied away from standing up for his principles. But he is also a great and surprisingly honest storyteller.

Spector is himself a living legend in the IAF with more than 8,500 sorties, including 334 combat missions and 15 kills to his credit (only Epstein has more). His claim to fame is his participation in the bombing of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. (He reveals that he was the only pilot who missed the target.) He has even included a chapter describing how he led the attack of the American intelligence ship USS Liberty during the Six Day War. The only other time he agreed to address the Liberty bombing in public was in an interview he gave to me in 2003 when he proudly said those American sailors were lucky he only had his strafing cannon and no bombs, otherwise he would have sunk her. Back then he was steadfast in his belief that the controversial attack was a simple wartime case of mistaken identity.

But in this book, he opens a Pandora's box by speculating that perhaps he was misled by higher-ups.

"One day a friend came in and put before me a copy of Penthousemagazine. Enormous tanned tits stared at me as I began leafing through it curiously; one didn't find such pictures in Israel. 'No, not that.' He pointed out an article. 'Read this.' I read. There was a long and interesting story that claimed Israel had attacked the Liberty on purpose... to prevent the ship from discovering Israel's plans to capture the Golan Heights... I chuckled and dismissed the whole thing as ridiculous. But then I stopped and began thinking again... I was manipulated by somebody from a distance. Was I deceived and sent to shoot up a friendly American ship?"

In many ways Spector is the epitome of the "new Jew," a son of a hero, a triple ace, a mythological fighter pilot turned painter and sculptor who led squadrons into some of the most fateful battles of the Jewish state. If pilots were the elite of Israel, he symbolizes the elite of the elite. He is the son of one of the "23 men in the boat," a group that was sent in World War II to demolish oil installations in Lebanon (at the time under Nazi-puppet Vichy French control) and were never heard of again.

He was one of the best Mirage fighter pilots ever. He set up an F-4 Phantom squadron from scratch. He returned to the air force to set up its first F-16 squadron and he taught most of the present commanders of the air force how to fly.

The best thing about his book is that even though it is more than 400 pages long, you get only the best of the stories, told with just enough self-depreciation to make it believable.

His description of an evil dogfight with a superb Syrian pilot was one of the best accounts of air-to-air battle I have ever read and had a surprising ending. In another story I found myself holding my breath as he describes shooting down one Egyptian MiG and then fleeing two others until finally running out of fuel and landing dead stick on an abandoned airstrip on the edge of the Sinai Peninsula. It is stories like these that make me wish Hollywood would turn it into a movie.

I know pilots. I'm an amateur paraglider pilot myself. (See, I told you pilots have to blurt it out.) Pilots love to retell their exploits, using their hands as jets and flailing them about in relived dogfights and bomb runs. And half of their stories are about mishaps, and tales of survival against faulty aircraft, the weather or wounds. Books like Spector's have made pilots a figure of glamour. They've been pumped with the slogans that they are the best of the best.

Spector has a great knack for vivid description that brings to life those characters in the history of the IAF. And he interweaves the stories with ponderings of fate and morality much the way Graham Greene would in his novels. His writing is loud and clear and compelling.

The flaw of this book, if there is one, is when he strays from a good story to interject his politics. He has the right to explain his reasoning for joining 26 other pilots in signing a letter at the height of the intifada to the head of the air force refusing to carry out targeted assassinations and advocating the end of the occupation.

Summoned to explain himself to then OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Dan Halutz, Spector put his wings on the table and said: "Take them; this should be the last lesson I give the air force." But the final chapter unfortunately turns into a political rant.

Like all books on military history in Israel, this one too came under the censor's knife and it tells. Finishing the book one has the feeling that Spector only scratched the surface of his remarkable career and there are many, many stories left untold. He's a great storyteller and a man of incredible history.

"If I didn't tell everything, it is because you wouldn't believe it anyway," Spector writes on the book's last page. Somehow, I don't believe that.