My Word: Of wings and prayers

The Israel Air Force Museum at Hatzerim is small but full of stories of chutzpah, inventiveness and survival.

IAF Museum 370 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
IAF Museum 370
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
It’s small but full of stories of chutzpah, inventiveness and survival. The Israel Air Force Museum at Hatzerim reflects not only the country’s history but also many of its national characteristics.
I paid a visit during the Passover holiday earlier this month and came away with a message that still echoes as we approach the back-to-back Remembrance Day and Independence Day later this week.
Many other countries have air force and defense museums, but there is something quintessentially Israeli about the planes and exhibits on display at the open-air site, close to Beersheba.
The museum has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to the standard of the exhibits on display – my son set his sights on a two-seater MiG-21 on loan for the vacation period – but for me, the aircraft weren’t the attraction, but what they represent.
There is, of course, something sadly but fundamentally Israeli, too, in making a journey to an air force museum in an area in which missile attacks still occur. (I later took note of the museum’s anti-aircraft section.)
We participated in a tour given by a young soldier, Ofir, who was, we discovered, making what could be considered her maiden flight as a guide at the site. She enthusiastically managed to sweep us up – despite competing with the heat, and the distracting sounds of a clown performing for the younger kids and the flypasts above us.
The country’s history is on display throughout the museum grounds where some 150 aircraft are on show. The IAF’s first true combat plane was a “suicidal” Messerschmitt. It was brought to Israel from Czechoslovakia in 1948 – when most other countries refused to sell the nascent Jewish state arms, despite the fact that it immediately came under threat of invasion by Arab countries. No longer used by the Czechs, the Messerschmitt was installed with an engine that was too heavy for the plane so an extra propeller was added – which then got in the way of the guns when it fired.
Next to the Messerschmitt are two Spitfires. The first Spitfires were patched together out of the scraps that the British left behind at the end of the Mandate. A necessary engine was supplied courtesy of an Egyptian plane shot down in the War of Independence.
The engine cover was more ingenious. An engineer worrying about the missing part came across an advertising billboard of a suitable metal and this was quickly refashioned and conscripted into military service. As I heard the story, I recalled the words of David Ben- Gurion: “Be’ein rovim, afilu matateh yoreh,” when there are no guns, even a broom can shoot.
Later, properly constructed Spitfires were purchased in Operation Velveta, which apparently was named after the then-prevalent brand of hand cream when someone was inspired by the advertisement just as they needed a code name. Such stories give a whole different connotation to the phrase “the power of advertising.”
The museum is the baby of former IAF pilot and ex-police chief Ya’acov Terner, who was also a mayor of Beersheba. He began the collection when he became commander of the nearby Hatzerim air base in 1977 and the museum was opened to the public in 1991 when it moved from the base to its current location.
One of Terner’s old planes is also on display – along with a story, naturally. When he came to land his Ouragan after a mission in the North, he discovered a problem with the wheels, so he circled over the Sea of Galilee until he had almost run out of fuel and reduced the risk of the engine bursting into flames as it skidded on the ground.
The museum map lists the layout not by dates you might expect, but by periods that reflect Israel’s diplomatic history as much as its security situation. Here is the French Era (until Charles de Gaulle placed an arms embargo in the Six Day War); there, the American Era.
Another only-in-Israel historical tidbit: The official welcoming ceremony for the three F-15s that landed in Israel in December 1976 continued after the beginning of the Sabbath and as a result the first thing they brought down was the government, toppled by the religious parties.
In an honored spot of its own is the Lavi: the small, smart, state-of-the art, Israeli-made fighter jet that might have granted the country a measure of independence in the face of future boycotts. Possibly too much independence. The US put pressure on the Israeli government to ground it forever when it became apparent that the success of the “blue-and-white” fighter could adversely affect the American aviation industry.
Sitting among the enemy aircraft on display is a MiG-21, known as the James Bond plane and boasting the numerals “007.” It was flown by Iraqi pilot Munir Redfa when he was persuaded to defect to Israel in 1966, at a time when the Soviet plane was the predominant fighter used by Arab air forces. Here, test pilots studied the plane and discovered a blind spot, giving IAF pilots an advantage during the Six Day War the following year.
Other stars of the show include “the bar-mitzva twins”: two Mirages that each shot down a noteworthy 13 enemy planes. They are not identical twins, however. One sports the colors and flag of Argentina, which had bought the plane from Israel. When Terner was establishing the museum, he made it his mission to include the ace fighter. As a result of his determination, the plane was repurchased for the symbolic price of $1 and a promise that it would not be used in combat and would continue to display its Argentinean markings.
Some of the stories are legendary – literally the stuff that movies are made of. In fact, visitors can watch a short film on the history of the IAF in the body of the Boeing 707 used in the Entebbe rescue in 1976.
There is also a plane that participated in Operation Solomon, the incredible airlift that brought more than 14,000 Jews to Israel from Ethiopia within 33 hours in May 1991.
The F-16 flown by Ilan Ramon in Operation Opera on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 is also on display. The markings of a reactor have been painted on the side, where hits are recorded.
Ramon, of course, went on to become the country’s first astronaut. He took Israel from the peak of pride to the depths of sorrow when he was killed when the Columbia exploded on February 1, 2003, a few days after he had become the first person to make the Friday night kiddush blessing over the wine in space. Tragically, his pilot son Asaf was killed in an IAF training accident in 2009.
Other fallen aircrew are commemorated at the site, too, including legendary Zorik Lev, whose plane crashed at Port Said in the Yom Kippur War. I would like to have seen and heard more about the English-speaking Mahal volunteers who were critical in helping establish the air force in its earliest days.
The stories tell of incredible feats, some performed thousands of miles away. It’s possible that some of the best stories are still off the public’s radar – still classified, or yet to come.
I long for the day we can make the trip to the museum in peace – perhaps viewing the Iron Dome anti-missile system as an unnecessary cast-off, hopefully knowing the fate of missing navigator Ron Arad. It would be wonderful to celebrate a future Passover or Independence Day as a truly free people in a land free of threats.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]