MILITARY AFFAIRS: A legend who was born to fly

Top air force test pilot Danny Shapira recalls career heights: ‘Every new plane that Israel received, I flew on it’

DANNY SHAPIRA in his Haifa home, in front of certificates given by the IAF for his contributions to the state. (photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
DANNY SHAPIRA in his Haifa home, in front of certificates given by the IAF for his contributions to the state.
(photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
‘Since I was a young boy, I wanted to be a pilot,” legendary Israeli test pilot Danny Shapira told The Jerusalem Post in his home in Haifa.
At 93 years old, he has fought in six wars and has watched his beloved air force grow “from zero” to a regional superpower.
“I started when we didn’t have our own country, our own army or air force. We didn’t fight with weapons, but we fought with our hearts; we had to win,” he said. “The wish for freedom, sacrifice, dedication, and the dream to have our own country under our own flag is what won the War of Independence.”
Shapira, a fifth-generation Sabra, was born in Jerusalem in 1925 and remembers Germany’s Graf Zeppelin passenger airship flying over the skies of Haifa accompanied by two British planes when he was a young boy.
“I was 14 years old when I saw that,” he said, with his blue eyes sparkling as he recounted that pivotal moment. “I told my parents then that I wanted to be a pilot.”
Shortly after that Shapira joined the Hagana’s Sherut Avir (Air Service), the precursor to the Israel Air Force, and began flying before becoming a gliding instructor at the age of 18.
“We knew in 1948 that the British Mandate would expire,” Shapira said, “and we hoped we would get our state. But we also knew that there would be a war, a great war.”
When the decision was made to establish the State of Israel, Shapira, along with another 100 people who held flying licenses, were called up to start taking reconnaissance pictures and bringing supplies such as arms to the Jewish yishuvim (communities) around Jerusalem under the guise of private flights.
ONE MORNING Shapira received a message that said he had been selected, along with 10 other pilots, to attend an advanced combat pilot course in Czechoslovakia.
“We bought arms from whoever was ready to give us, and Czechoslovakia was the only country really willing to sell us planes. We left for the course in Czechoslovakia just two days before the declaration of the State of Israel,” he said.
Just years after the end of the Holocaust, the young Jewish pilots began training on the German Messerschmitt Me-109, an irony still not lost on Shapira.
“It was very weird,” he said with a smile, but “the fact that there was no air force or air academy for us back in Israel at that time gave us the motivation to learn as much as we could.”
Israel sent US Air Force veteran and Mahal pilot George Lichter to train the Israeli cadets, who until then had only informal military training with the Hagana and Palmah. Under Litcher, who flew with each pilot to judge if they reached his standards, only four passed his strict, disciplined, American approach to training, including Shapira and the late Maj.-Gen. Mordechai (Motti) Hod (known then as Motti Fein), who later became the head of the Israel Air Force.
After flying the Messerschmitt, Shapira was chosen by Lichter to be the first to fly the British Spitfire aircraft that Israel had just purchased from the Czechs.
“He told me, Danny, if you survive, I’ll let the others fly. But if you are killed, the others won’t fly it.”
He took off alone in the plane, and while there were some issues with it, Shapira landed the Spitfire safely. It was the first test flight of many for Shapira, who at the time did not even have his pilot’s wings.
Shapira was in Europe when the War of Independence broke out, and returned to the embattled State of Israel in the famed Velvetta operation, ferrying Spitfires from Czechoslovakia to Israel via Yugoslavia along with 13 other pilots, two of whom did not make it.
“There were not enough pilots to fly the Spitfires, so he [Lichter] said that he would fly with me and Motti, despite us being only cadets. Had he not done it, the Spitfires would have stayed in Czechoslovakia,” Shapira said.
“We had no radios, bad weather and no experience. But that’s what we had,” he continued, recalling the operation.
The day after landing in Israel, the planes joined Operation Horev, playing a pivotal role in the large-scale offensive, toward the end of the War of Independence, against the Egyptian Army in the western Negev.
While Shapira did not take part in the operation, he, along with Hod, Tibi Ben-Shachar and Shaya Gazit, completed their training at Hatzor Air Base. On March 14, 1949, a “historic day,” Shapira and the three other young Israelis received their wings, becoming the first four pilots of the State of Israel.
“It was the beginning of the Israel Air Force,” he said. “We were cadets, and the air force gave us priority and promoted us to the positions we later held.”
FROM THAT moment onward, Shapira didn’t stop flying until the age of 72, accumulating over 12,000 flight hours, setting and breaking dozens of records.
“Every new plane that Israel received, I flew on it,” he told the Post, explaining that for him it was “important to be one of the first” to fly for Israel.
For Shapira, one of the biggest triumphs of the IDF was the integration of 76 French-made Mirage fighter jets, a plane the French offered to sell to Israel in 1959.
Shapira was asked to evaluate the plane by IAF Maj.-Gen. Ezer Weizman, after he completed the French test-pilots course in 1959, something initially Shapira was cautious to agree to, as the plane, which was designed to be a high-altitude interceptor, was not what the Israelis needed, which was a versatile fighter that could win in ground-attack scenarios.
“I told Ezer that he was placing a heavy weight on my shoulders,” Shapira said, adding that after the modifications he recommended were made, the Mirage “was one of the best planes I ever flew.”
After personally ferrying the planes to Israel via Corsica, the three squadrons of Israeli Mirages were responsible for downing 51 Arab planes in dogfights and destroying hundreds of other enemy planes and tanks on the ground during the Six Day War in 1967.
“The Mirage played a very important role in the Six Day War. It was the best decision that Israel made before the F-16s and F-15s,” Shapira said.
He credits the strong bond between the US Air Force, which sold Israel the F-16s and F-15s, to another historic moment in his career, the defection of the Iraqi MiG-21 in 1966 in an operation led by the Mossad. After the plane landed in Israel, Shapira became the first Western pilot to fly the Russian-made jet, learning the plane’s tactical weak spots without a flight manual or checklist.
“It was a very, very, very important operation for the morale of Israeli pilots, so they would understand the plane and not be afraid of it.”
After flying against elite Israeli pilots to show them the tactics that eventually led them to shoot down many enemy planes, Shapira was sent to the US on a secret mission to teach American pilots who were up against the same planes in Vietnam.
“Since I gave the briefing to the Americans in Vietnam, relations between us have only gotten closer,” he said, telling the Post that when the F-35I, the most advanced American jet to date, landed in Israel, the American pilots lined up to shake his hand.
“The American general told me that the friendship between our two countries is now forever. I sure hope that’s true,” said Shapira.
FOR SHAPIRA, who stopped flying years ago, the urge to take to the skies has continued to run in the veins of his children and grandchildren.
His daughter Irit became a flight stewardess, and his two sons Ronen and Oded both became IAF pilots flying F-15s and F-16s. During the 1982 First Lebanon War Shapira flew alongside his two sons, with Ronen shooting down two enemy MiGs. His grandson is now in the pilots course in the air force.
“We are a family of patriots, and I teach my children and grandchildren that this is the only place that Jews can live safely and freely. It is important for me, for my family, and for all pilots to know that we must be the best and always one step ahead of our enemies,” he said.
“Our air force is the very best. We have the most advanced planes and the best pilots, who are some of the most experienced in the world. We came from nothing, and we got where we are today because we had to. We know how to protect ourselves.”