George Lichter: A pioneer in the pantheon of the IAF

Already a US veteran of WWII, when six Arab armies attacked Israel on May 15, 1948, Lichter threw in his lot with his fellow Jews and the nascent IAF.

George Lichter 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
George Lichter 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
World Machal pays its last salute to Machalnik George Lichter, an outstanding fighter pilot, a superb flying instructor, and an accomplished test pilot.
Lichter passed away in Boulder, Colorado, after a short illness on August 2, and he most certainly earned a well-deserved place in the pantheon of the Israel Air Force.
Born in Brooklyn in 1921, Lichter signed up for the US Army Air Force pilot training course on the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
He finished his training with distinction, and as a pilot in the 361 Fighter Group he flew P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts in 88 combat missions over Germany and occupied Europe.
Lichter returned home at the end of 1944 as a decorated war hero.
When six Arab armies attacked Israel on May 15, 1948, Lichter threw in his lot with his fellow Jews. He volunteered to fly in the nascent IAF. In the first stage in the process, he landed up in Czechoslovakia with a group of other volunteer ex-World War II pilots, mainly from the US, South Africa, Britain and Canada.
Israel had just acquired its very first combat aircraft – 25 Czech-built Avia S-199s (known as the “Czech Messerschmitts”).
These aircraft were modeled on the famous German ME-109 fighter aircraft, but had been cobbled together with ill-fitting German aerial engines, air frames, landing gears etc., which resulted in a devilishly dangerous aircraft to fly.
Even the Czech instructors who had undertaken to train the IAF pilots had the utmost difficulty in flying these planes, but the one pilot who mastered the art of flying this dangerous and awkward aircraft was George Lichter.
He had become so proficient in flying the Messerschmitts that he took over the pilot training program.
It should also be mentioned that the Machal pilots were living under the most austere conditions concerning food and accommodation.
In August 1948, Israel acquired 50 Spitfires from Czechoslovakia.
In defiance of the United Nations’ arms embargo on the export of military equipment to Israel, an air bridge had been established between Czechoslovakia and Tel Nof Air Base, which was Israel’s only line of communication with the outside world. However, due to pressure from the US and Britain, Czechoslovakia was forced to terminate this air bridge at the very time that the Spitfires were sold to Israel.
As a result of this devastating blow the Spitfires could not be transported but had to be flown to Israel, a distance of 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers), which meant that the flying endurance of a fully laden Spitfire had to be increased from about 1.5 hours to six hours.
Due to the ingenuity and improvisation of Sam Pomerance, an outstanding Machal pilot and aviation engineer, the fuel capacity of the Spitfires was increased from 85 to 379 gallons, but at the cost of stripping the Spitfires of their armor plating, guns, cannons, radios, oxygen cylinders, cameras and navigation equipment, and then attaching fuel tanks under the belly and under the wings of the aircraft, and even inside the cockpit.
Once again, Lichter’s skill and talent came to the fore.
Lichter and his fellow South African Machalnik Jack Cohen successfully test-flew all 50 Spitfires in their new configuration.
A formation of 12 Spitfires took off from Czechoslovakia to Israel in mid-December under very adverse weather conditions. In this formation, Lichter led a section with two semi-trained Israeli pilots – Motti Hod and Danny Shapiro. Notwithstanding that these two trainee pilots had fewer than seven hours of flying experience on Spitfires, Lichter decided to take the risk of including them in this sixhour epic flight.
Shapiro reports that when he lost his place in his formation in very dense cloud and became totally disorientated, he was just about to bail out.
When Lichter realized that Shapiro was missing, he was determined to find him, which he did at the 59th minute. Shapiro asserts with deep emotion that he owes his life to Lichter.
On arriving in the country, Lichter joined 101 Squadron, Israel’s first combat squadron which had become a formidable fighting force manned by experienced WWII pilots.
The fighting phase of the War of Independence ended on January 7, 1949, on a highly dramatic and spectacular note when the Israel Air Force shot down five Royal Air Force fighters which had intruded into the battle area – four Spitfires and one Tempest, and damaged three other Tempests.
After the war ended most of the Machal pilots, including Lichter, returned to their home countries, but after a short while Israel’s magnetism drew Lichter back to the IAF. He was appointed chief test pilot at the Tel Nof Air Base, and his next assignment was as chief instructor at the IAF’s Advanced Flying School.
It must have given him deep satisfaction and gratification when the first four Israeli pilots were awarded their wings on March 14, 1949 – Motti Hod, Danny Shapiro, Tibby Ben-Shachar and Shaya Gazit.
Hod subsequently became commander of the IAF, leading it in the Six Day War in which it achieved spectacular victories over the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian air forces. Shapiro went on to become a legendary test pilot. Ben-Shachar became the chief pilot of Arkia Airlines, and Gazit had a splendid record of service in the IAF.
Lichter is survived by three children, John, Michael and Peggy.
The writer is chairman of World Machal.