Shortly after Israel declared its independence, a column of Egyptian forces invaded Israel from the South and advanced toward Tel Aviv. Israel's meager ground forces were unable to stop the flow of the Egyptian army and it seemed that Tel Aviv would quickly be overrun. Since Israel didn't possess any combat aircraft capable of stopping the Egyptians, Israeli agents in Czechoslovakia hastily purchased four small World War II Messerschmitts, took them apart, loaded them into larger aircraft and rushed them to Israel for reassembly. Israel's newly acquired planes met and attacked the Egyptians near a bridge a mere 20-minute ride from Tel Aviv. Although two of the four planes were damaged, the Arab advance was halted. In part, this amazing success was due to the psychological effect on the Egyptians, who were astonished to find that our fledgling country had any air force at all. The following day, a Messerschmitt flown by dark-skinned Canadian volunteer Milton Rubenfeld was hit by Egyptian fire. Rubenfeld parachuted into the water by Kfar Vitkin and suffered multiple injuries. Like the Egyptians, few Israelis were unaware of the fact that their brand-new country had an air force - complete with airplanes! So when Rubenfeld stumbled toward them, area residents thought he was an Arab and started shooting. Rubenfeld didn't speak Hebrew, and desperately needed to let his captors know that he was Jewish. So he shouted out the only words he knew in Yiddish: Gefilte fish and shabbes! (Or at least that's how the story goes...) You can view several early Messerschmitt aircraft at the exciting Israel Air Force Museum at Hatzerim, right outside of Beersheba. But what will leave the most impact - and probably touch your heart as well - are the stories that accompany them. For this museum is not just a collection of planes on a wonderfully landscaped tarmac: it is a living testimony to the State of Israel. (Noisy planes flying overhead every few minutes make the museum seem even more alive than it already is.) Combine your tour of the museum with a scenic drive developed over the past few years by the Jewish National Fund. Called Sculpture Way, the route runs through Hatzerim Forest near Kibbutz Hatzerim and ends at the museum. Allow yourself up to two hours for the scenic route, whose attractions include a cistern nearly 2,000 years old and a beautiful memorial overlook. Enjoy the opportunity to choose whether you want to stay in the car, or to stretch your legs while you let the young 'uns run around. Please do not let children climb on the sculptures, which range from giant ants to a grand piano! Sculpture Way is located on Road 2357 near Kibbutz Hatzerim and the air force base; large signs point to both to the scenic route and to Hatzerim Forest. Designed specifically for the Negev's savannah landscape, and boasting carob, pomegranate, olive, sycamore, mesquite and tamarisk trees, the forest was only developed over the past few decades. Indeed, as late as 1988 travelers driving on the dirt road to the kibbutz passed sand, scraggly brush and refuse from area settlements. Then one day, kibbutz member Marga Fishtein suggested lining the little road with beautiful environmental sculptures. Fishtein, a sculptress who works with ceramics, was delighted to find fellow artists from all over the country quick to help out. The groundwork was laid with the help of the JNF and, after Fishtein picked 20 top-quality works from well-known sculptors, she carefully placed their environmental works at artistically strategic points along the road. Fishtein had assumed the new sculptures would simply make driving through the sands more enjoyable. To her surprise and delight, however, she discovered that instead of passing through, people were now stopping to wander around or to picnic on the sand while soaking up the unusual ambience. That's when she had another brainstorm and again approached the JNF for help. The eventual result: a fabulous 21â„2-kilometer scenic route which features over 40 environmental creations scattered on hilltops, along slopes, in valleys and on the sides of the road. You may encounter Marga, or husband Yisrael, along the route. The couple visits daily to check on the sculptures, for vandalism is a huge problem requiring creative solutions. Take the Sababa sculpture, a huge "Garfield" lying in a hammock. When one leg was partially demolished by would-be thieves, the Fishteins "bandaged" it up, altering the original sculpture but making it just as delightful. Look in all directions, and into the distance for sculptures, although the first is next to the road. Called "Pictures," it consists of a metal figure filming a movie; the second is "Window to Hatzerim." Examine "tzip-dag" from all angles: from one you will see a fish and from another a bird. Continue to discover Fishtein's "Making the Desert Bloom" and Yehuda Garin's "Together." A side road leads to the Scouts (Tzofim) Grove, planted by the first settlers at Hatzerim. Hatzerim was one of 11 Negev communities established in a blitz campaign on Yom Kippur night, 1946. Picnic here, or drive past the Giant Ants to a lovely recreation site shaded with palm and olive trees, almonds, carob and sycamore. Note the benches: some of them are actually environmental sculptures! You will see modern-day ruins along the route, left from a Beduin hamula (extended family) that relocated. On your left are remains from a well built by the British for the Beduin, who sold water to the kibbutzniks until the War of Independence. Just now it is in terrible shape, for area residents removed stones from the well to decorate their gardens. An enormous, ancient, lone tamarisk tree paints a striking picture in the sands. Nearby, watch for Sun Statue and the unusual "Return of the Birds," with its little trough. When you reach "sababa," created by Varda Givoli and Ilan Gelber, look off in the distance to find the Grand Piano on a hill. At the junction where the road continues to the right, you will see a sign for Givat Haradar (Radar Hill). Just before the Six Day War, a small army unit camped out here and operated the radar that kept watch for enemy planes. (When our forces reached El-Arish, they found a written Egyptian order commanding the army to blow up Radar Hill.) Wander down the slopes to view palm tree sculptures and other creations, then continue driving along the route to pass Zeev Krisher's memories of Goa and Ygal Tumarkin's unusual works. Before arriving at Tania Preminger's wonderful "Freedom of Motion," take a side road down to Dalia Meiri's "Well" and a stunning ancient cistern hewn into the rock. Beautifully restored with the help of the Antiquities Authority, it has an enormous column in the center to support the ceiling. But there is no plaster covering on the walls, and, unlike similar structures in the Negev, there are no canals to collect surface runoff from surrounding slopes and to channel them into the cistern. What was it used for? Nobody really knows! Back on the road, continue to Zorik Lookout. The site is dedicated to the memory of Colonel Arlozor Zorik Lev, a veteran pilot who commanded an air force base during the Yom Kippur War. While flying a mission over Egypt on October 9, 1973, Zorik's plane was hit by the enemy and dived into the sea. Zorik's body was never recovered. He was 40 years old. After following the green arrows to view Udi Dayan's penny-farthing bicycle, you will eventually end at the Air Force Museum and a large JNF recreation area (but - like the museum - is closed on Shabbat). For a picnic, head across the road where you will find tables, a playground and pergolas where soldiers from the base get together with their families. The Air Force Museum opened in 1991 with cast-off planes collected by its founder, former pilot and ex-chief of police Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ya'acov Terner. I recommend you call in advance and ask for a guided tour in English (included in your admission price). If you can't, request a tour when you buy your ticket, or wander around on your own: signs are in English as well as Hebrew. Kids are encouraged to climb on a few of the planes, and photographs are permitted. There are several parts to the museum, including a wonderful indoor exhibit. But the main attraction is an enormous tarmac featuring over 130 types of aircraft, each with its own unique, riveting story. Take the Auster, for instance, hard to miss because it is both small and bright orange! Although the Messerschmitt is commonly billed as the first plane used by Jewish pilots in the War of Independence, it was really the Auster (known locally as the Primus) that was our first warplane. Back in 1947, when the writing was already on the wall, former World War II pilots and navigators came to Palestine as volunteers and helped found the Jewish Air Service - predecessor to the Israel Air Force. But where were they going to get warplanes? Nobody wanted to sell them to the Jews of Palestine, so they were reduced to lies and subterfuge. Under false pretenses, volunteers bought British Austers abroad and smuggled them into Israel: the little planes were dismantled, and transported in crates labeled as agricultural implements. The British had used Austers as observers, to assist artillery. It took imagination and tons of improvisation, but engineers transformed the little Austers into combat planes. Indeed, in 1948 there were 11 Austers in the first Jewish fleet. But there was a problem. After the planes were loaded with as many explosives as they could handle, two pilots entered the cockpit and took off. Once over their target, the pilots dumped the explosives out of the planes. However, the bombs, homemade and totally unreliable, sometimes blew up immediately afterwards, seriously endangering the lives of the pilots. As the War of Independence continued, it became clear that the fledgling air force needed aircraft better than Austers and superior to the Messerschmitts used after the state was declared. The British withdrawal from Palestine provided the solution, for when they left, they evacuated several air force bases. After scavenging for parts from Spitfires that the British had discarded as unusable, Israeli engineers were able to build two Spitfires. All they were missing were - motors! Providentially, soon afterwards, four Egyptian Spitfires bombarded a Jewish target. The enemy Spitfires were downed and motors inserted into the new planes. One famous MiG-21, located on one side of the tarmac, boasts the numerals "007." This plane was flown to this country by Iraqi pilot Munir Radfa, who defected in 1966 after ensuring that the Israeli government would get his family out of Iraq and pay him a substantial sum of money. On his arrival, Radfa was dubbed Double 0 Seven. At the time, the MiG-21 was the predominant fighter plane used by Arab air forces. Israeli test pilots examined Radfa's plane carefully in flight and discovered a blind spot, similar to that found in cars. The MiG's was over the cockpit on the left-hand side, and could keep a pilot from seeing that he was being attacked. Knowledge of the MiG-21's Achilles' heel gave Israeli pilots an edge that was to be significant during the Six Day War the following year. Find a Mirage airplane whose 13 sticker-medals refer to the number of its successful hits. And, at the far end of the tarmac, discover which of its Super Frelon helicopters carried Egyptian president Anwar Sadat around Israel during his historic trip to this country. If you are pressed for time, skip the movie that is shown inside an old Boeing, and come back when a new one has been installed. But don't miss the excellent indoor exhibit, where you will learn about the gear worn by combat pilots, and the purpose of each item. Find out exactly how ejection seats work, what happens when a pilot hits the sea, and what he/she carries in the all-important survival kit. Tel. (08) 990-6888; Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 8 to 5; Fri. 8 to 1. Wheelchair accessible. Fee: NIS 28 adults, NIS 23 seniors, NIS 18 children. Note: Marga and Yisrael Fishtein offer guided tours of the Hatzerim Sculpture Route, as well as the kibbutz sprinkler factory, jojoba fields and processing plant. Call for fees and details: 052-501-3520.