Flying the Unfriendly Skies
High-Tech Holy Land
On the second day of a recent four-day “Israel Innovation Summit,” sponsored by Beit Issie Shapiro, an Israeli non-profit that provides innovative services for children with special needs, we visited the Hatzor Air Force base, near Gedera, home of the 101 Squadron, which essentially represents the first iteration of the Israeli Air Force. The 101 shares the base with an additional air group; both contain 30 F-16 fighter jets, along with pilots and support personnel. We were greeted by “Mickey,” the squad’s 40-year-old commander, who told us that his task is no less than to assure that this, “the third re-birth of the Jewish state,” is not destroyed. “It will not happen on my watch,” he intoned solemnly. His talk was punctuated, and perhaps affirmed, every few minutes, by the earth-shaking, ear-splitting, feel and sound of F-16s roaring and soaring off the nearby runway into the cloudless blue sky.
Describing some of the training routines, the commander told of a visiting squad of American pilots. When U.S. pilots are doing maneuvers and are told to turn left, he said, they might take 200 miles to accomplish the task. “If our pilots do that, however,” he smiled, “they might find themselves three countries away.” He was pressed by members of our group to describe the range of his planes, and was specifically asked if they can reach Iran. “I’ll give you the “p.c.” answer,” he replied. “Our missions can last as long as necessary.”
He then introduced one of his pilots, a baby-faced 24-year-old who projected none of the Top Gun attitude. The soft-spoken flier answered questions about how he was selected and trained, and he described some of the challenges he faces on his almost daily missions and training flights. During one assignment that involved destroying a target in Gaza, he recalled, as he neared his destination, a civilian was detected standing adjacent to it. “I was directed to circle above the target for over an hour,” he continued, “until the civilian departed and I was able to complete my mission.”
After our introduction to the base and its personnel, we were given a briefing on the Iron Dome missile defense system, recently developed by an Israeli consortium (and funded in part with American funds), which is designed to detect and destroy incoming rockets at a range of four to 70 kilometers within 14 seconds of launch. The Hatzor air base has been designated as the headquarters for the new system, which will be deployed, in some sections of Israel, early next year. Iron Dome is portable, consisting of sophisticated detection and tracking Radar along with rocket launchers. Its main objective is to counter the threat of the short-range Qassam rockets that terrorized Sderot in 2008. Spurred by that experience, the project went from blueprint to reality in less than three years. The briefing officer showed videos demonstrating successful intercepts. When asked how the system had been designed so quickly, he replied: “We had highly motivated and talented people working long hours; multiple teams attacking each problem; and no involvement by lawyers.”
Our visit to Hatzor concluded in the base’s training facility, where we observed pilots honing their craft in room-sized flight simulators. Guided by controllers who sat at computer screens in a separate room, the pilot and his navigator were seated in a full-sized cockpit, in a small, planetarium-like room, where, in a setting alarmingly similar to a video game at my local Dave and Buster’s, the sky, horizon, and ground were projected. The simulator is used primarily to replicate life-or-death situations, such as landing a plane without wheels or dealing with engine loss—situations which cannot be safely practiced in-flight.
As our bus pulled away from the base, past concrete bunkers, hangars, monuments, and memorials set amidst bucolic clusters of small homes, my takeaway was that Israel, with daily challenges to its existence and the looming threat of a nuclear Iran, is fortunate to have its fate intertwined with the men and women of the 101 Squadron.
Earlier: Driving to a Better Place