Moshe, our ten-year old grandson, has become enamoured of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). He has read a thick history of the IAF at least three times. One day in the late summer, when I saw him reading the book, I mentioned I had visited the IAF museum several years ago. He immediately asked his parents to take him there. They agreed, and planned a family trip for Succot. The group quickly expanded to include two of his siblings and both sets of grandparents.
This week, the long anticipated outing took place. Nine of us piled in to a rented van for the trip to Hatzerim, a little to the west of Be’er Sheva. Harold, Aliza’s father, asked Moshe how excited he was, on a scale of 1 to 10. The answer came back immediately: “20.”
An open-air museum
The word “museum” generally brings to mind a picture of a large building, full of pictures on its walls and tastefully displayed artifacts. The IAF museum has no large building. Just inside the museum entrance are a snack bar and souvenir shop. Nearby are a few small buildings: the administration offices, archives, and exhibits related to the history of the IAF. This is the desert—the annual rainfall of nine inches makes large roofed areas a needless expense. Besides, most of the exhibits are outside.
More than 150 aircraft are parked on a large expanse of concrete. The aircraft are arranged in chronological order of their use by the IAF. We were lucky—because there were so many of us, we had our own English speaking guide. Audrey made aliyah from France as a teenager. She spent a year improving her Hebrew before drafting into the Air Force. She was probably assigned to guiding museum tours because of her fluency in three languages. As she led us around the field, she told us about the history of IAF, the air planes, and the men who flew them. (Women have been able to train as pilots only in the last decade or so.)
Audrey had her work cut out for her. Moshe kept interrupting her with added information or questions. Several times she stopped in the middle of a comment to tell him that the plane was he had just asked about was “parked over there—we’ll get to it in a few minutes.”
Messershmitts: The beginning of the IAF
The first plane in the first row is one of the Messerschmitts Israel purchased from Czechoslovakia in 1948. The planes were brought disassembled to the new country as pieces of “agricultural equipment.” When the six planes were re-assembled, some parts were missing. For example, there was one more body than engine. After a frantic search, the procurement team located the wreck of a Messerschmitt whose engine remained in good condition. The wreck was dismantled and its engine placed in the German plane, whose body had been repainted to cover the Nazi insignia.
By now it was late May 1948, and the Egyptian army was advancing on Tel Aviv. Israel was desperate. With no time to test fly the aircraft, the newly assembled planes were immediately pressed into battle just in time to stop the Egyptian army from capturing Tel Aviv. Twenty-five percent of the Israeli Air Force—one air plane—crashed into the Mediterranean.
Audrey pointed out a major problem with the German craft. Its machine gun sits behind the propeller. Any slight defect in the timing mechanism could cause the bullets from the machine gun to destroy the propeller. The Czechs were not as careful synchronizing the timing as the Germans, who had designed and first manufactured the planes, had been. Later Israel acquired some Messerschmitts with guns on their wings, which did not require synchronization with the propeller.
Another problem was psychological. Many people felt uncomfortable that Israel was using German aircraft so soon after the Nazis had tried to wipe out the Jewish people. The air force needed to find new sources of equipment.
The aircraft came from many countries
Israel bought aircraft from whoever was willing to sell them. We walked past rows of American planes and French ones. A British Spitfire was also on display, which seemed odd. When the British Mandate for Palestine expired, the British were determined not to leave anything usable in the hands of the Jews. A few Spitfires were left at one airfield. Since since none of them was complete, the British must have felt these planes were of no use. They failed to take Jewish ingenuity into account. The Israelis were able to construct two completely functional Spitfire planes, from the pieces they cannabalized from the planes. They used the engine from from a downed Egyptian Spitfire. These planes served the IAF well for years.
Audrey pointed a French Ouragon, which had survived a dangerous malfunction during a flight. As soon as she mentioned the pilot’s name, Yakov Turner, we knew the story would end well. In her introduction, she had mentioned that the
museum was the idea of General Turner when he was the commander of Hatzerim Air Force base. It had opened in 1991 when he was mayor of Be’er Sheva.
Turner was returning from a mission, about to land, when he discovered his front landing gear would not deploy. The control tower told him to eject and ditch the plane. Yakov refused to obey orders. He was not about to lose his plane. He told the tower to cover the runway with foam, he was bringing the plane in. While the airfield crew was covering the runway with foam, he dropped his remaining bombs somewhere they would do no harm and emptied his fuel tanks. When the tower radioed they were ready for him, he landed the plane on its belly on the foam covered runway. The plane sustained much damage, but was successfully repaired. Yakov walked away from the crash, and eventually flew that same plane again.
We walked past one French-built Mystere fighter, painted in a different way from the rest of the Mysteres. This plane had a history of having killed 13 enemy planes, the most hits by an IAF plane. When the IAF retired it, it was sold to Argentina, for use in its war against Great Britain over the Falkland Islands. A few years later, the IAF wanted to buy it back to display at Hatzerim. The Argentines agreed to sell it to Israel for $1, on condition that its Argentinian colors were retained.
A Soviet MIG fighter
One unusual plane parked at the museum is a Soviet MIG-21. At one time the MIG was the best fighter plane in the world. No one else had a plane like it; no air force could defend against it. The MIG-21 was deadly against the Mystere, the major fighter plane of the IAF in the early 1960’s. At the time, the Soviets supported the enemies of Israel. Military support included supplying several Arab countries with MIGs. Israel wanted one to study and figure out how to defend against it. They found an Iraqi pilot who was willing to steal the plane and fly it to Israel, if his family could first be smuggled out of Iraq.
The plane, obviously, did not come with an instruction manual. Danny Shapiro, who had been one of the pilots trained by the French to fly Ouragons and Mysteres, was assigned to figure out what made the MIG so lethal. He trained himself, flying the plane hundreds of hours. He realized that because the cockpit was so narrow, the only way to bring down a MIG was from almost directly behind it. Thanks to his work, the IAF was the first air force to kill MIGs.
Capturing Egyptian radar
One of the non-aircraft exhibits was a large radar array on top of a truck. In the late 1960’s, when Egypt purchased this array from the Soviets, it was one of the most advanced in the world. The IAF needed to understand how it worked in order to counter the advantages it gave their enemy. They had to study it closely, which they could not do while it was in Egypt. To bring it to Israel, the Israelis cut the apparatus in two pieces. Two Sikorsky CH-53 Yas’ur helicopters were sent to lift it off the ground and carry it. The helicopters had problems because the machinery was heavier than they had estimated. One of the helicopters almost crashed several times. As soon as they were over Israeli territory, they landed. The radar was safe.
Daniel and Moshe filled in a few details Audrey had left out. Before the helicopters left the country, Israel sent paratroopers to Egypt to secure the site. At the end of the operation, the IAF was supposed to return and pick up the paratroopers. But when the radar arrived in Israel, the Israelis were so excited over the success of the operation, they forgot to go back. The paratroopers spent more time in Egypt than they had expected, until the IAF remembered to send a Super Ferlon helicopter back to pick them up. That Super Ferlon is parked next to one of the Yas’ur helicopters, close to where the now obsolete radar sits at Hatzerim.
Special for younger visitors
Because was in the middle of Sukkot, when schools are on vacation and many adults off from work, the museum had several activities directed to younger visitors. Tow historic planes made frequent demonstration flights directly above. A biplane flew Figure Eights, each one a little lower than the one before. It alternated with a bright yellow two seater Tzukit plane, which was used to train new pilots for more than forty years.
An activity strictly for children was “Pilot for a Moment,” where children had the opportunity to dress up in pilot’s uniforms. Yakov and Moshe wanted to participate; Sarah deliberated for a few minutes and then decided not to do it. Despite the lack of a visor, Moshe seemed very happy to be wearing the uniform. But, as Aliza pointed out, the boys will be in uniform soon enough. There was no need to rush it.
Over Shabbat, I asked the kids what they liked the best at the museum. Yakov said he liked dressing up as a pilot and getting in some of the planes. Sarah said she liked seeing the small planes flying so close above us.
Predictably, he said it was all so good, he couldn’t choose.