From 8,000 feet, the houses of Gaza City seem peaceful, wreathed in low, wispy clouds, coming in from the sparkling blue Mediterranean. I bank right and begin spiralling downwards, aiming for the Hamas headquarters in the centre of town, where I will level out at 2,000 ft for my bombing run. Suddenly my vision is obstructed and the plane shakes and bucks. A pilot’s worst nightmare — bird strike! The single engine begins faltering. What do I do now? Carry on with the mission? Regain height? Bail out? How should I know, I am only a journalist.
I look behind me and Lieutenant Dana Tal, the 22-year old simulator instructor, smiles and signals that my 15-minute dream is over. It is time for me to climb out of the cockpit and stop pretending I am flying an F-16 fighter jet.
In the next room, stern-faced Captain M (combat personnel names are kept secret), one of the handful of female combat pilots in the Israeli Air Force, is already suited up and preparing for her training session. For her it is not going to be fun and games — each of her responses to the emergency situations on the simulator are recorded and the final assessment goes on her personal service file. Get the procedures wrong, and she could be grounded.
In a briefing after Operation Cast Lead, Air Force Commander Major General Ido Nehushtan summed up his pilots’ contribution with satisfaction. Twenty thousand flying hours, 2,000 combat missions including 300 bombings, a total of 1400 targets attacked. Wounded soldiers were removed by helicopters and hundreds of reconnaissance flights had provided invaluable information for the ground forces. Despite the fact that at times, over 100 aircraft were operating in the small corridor above the Gaza Strip, not one air-safety mishap occurred during the entire operation.
He had only one misgiving. “Our aircrews have to learn how to operate under fire,” he said.
In flying circles, the Israeli Air Force is regarded one of, if not the, most professional in the world. “When we have joint exercises with other air forces, they are astonished,” says Captain Danny, an F-16 pilot who doubles as the commander of the F-16C simulator at Ramat David Air Force Base in northern Israel. “Our pilots manage to get more out of an F-16 than any other army flying the same plane around the world.”
But the commanders of the air force are aware that there is a huge gap in the experience of their pilots — not one of them flying today has faced a threat from a powerful enemy. The last pilots to know what it is to evade a missile hot on your tail and, no less important, to see comrades being shot down, are those who flew in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, running the gauntlet of the anti-aircraft missile defences of Egypt and Syria. And they have all retired.
A number of veterans who took part in the opening stages of the first Lebanon War, in which the entire Syrian anti-aircraft system in the Bekaa Valley was wiped out in one afternoon and over 100 Syrian planes shot down with no loss to the Israeli side, are still flying. But no Israeli pilot has since had to shoot down an enemy plane. All Israel’s wars in that period have been against guerilla groups, some of which are equipped with hand-held anti-aircraft missiles, like the one that shot down a transport helicopter over Lebanon almost three years ago.
“No one, since 1973, has flown against anything like the air defences of a sovereign country, like we can expect in a war with Syria or Iran,” says Colonel Erez, commander of the air force’s training department and a former F-16 squadron commander. “There is a limited amount we can do to recreate a full combat scenario, and we’re certainly not going to shoot a plane down to give pilots a more realistic feeling.” That is where simulators come in.
The Israeli Air Force has been using flight simulators for more than 30 years. But while in the past they were mainly employed to practise emergency procedures, now they perform a much wider range of training purposes, including tactical simulations in which several air crews simultaneously fly a mock mission in interconnected pods, with pilots firing missiles and dropping bombs.
A small group of female instructors operate the simulator’s training programme and take the pilots through their paces. “At first it is a bit strange,” says Lieutenant Tal. “I have never flown a mission in my life and all of a sudden I’m telling senior colonels and even generals what to do. And afterwards, sitting down with them and going through their mistakes. But most of them are very open to advice and realise that we know what we’re doing. Only rarely will a pilot say to me: ‘Well, I’ve been flying for 20 years and in the sky it’s different,’ to which I can only smile.”
The instructors train for six months, spending time in the combat squadrons and flying in the back-seat of an F-16 to acquaint themselves with the environment they will have to recreate in the simulator. “We have to be actresses also,” explains Tal. “When the pilot is in the simulator, we talk to him through his headset, pretending to be the tower, his squadron commander, his wingman and anyone else he might hear over the radio during a mission.”
A major role of the simulators, especially in peace-time, is to improve flight-safety. “We have an ethos that a pilot must bring back his plane at any cost,” says Captain Danny, “and our emergency procedures are different to those of other air forces where the pilot may bail out at a much earlier stage.”
A large part of the work is devoted to going through these procedures and training in flying in dark and bad-weather conditions. “Sometimes though, a pilot must bail out and we train also for that in the simulator,” says Danny, with a slight shudder. “It is very hard psychologically for a pilot to pull the ejection lever and we can at least help prepare him for that.”
What is almost impossible to prepare for is the risk of being shot down over enemy territory. Courses on evading capture and facing imprisonment and interrogation are part of the basic training of combat pilots in Israel and in many other countries but the pilots get used to the soft life in the squadrons and on the well-equipped air-force bases. “That’s why the training department will descend one night on a squadron and turn all the pilots out,” says Colonel Erez with a grin. “We then take them on long night hike, in an area they are unfamiliar with, to get them used to conditions of fatigue, pain, fear and uncertainty.”
In the background to all this is what the air force commanders euphemistically call “the special mission”, or “operations in the outer envelope”. No Israeli combat pilot will ever allow himself to be quoted on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. But almost everything they do is focused on preparing themselves for that day. When they talk about flying against threats, it is the Iranian advanced missile systems they are referring to. And when Erez talks of training sessions when “we just fly over Israel around and around to get used to being many hours in the cockpit”, it is the 2000-mile round trip to the Natanz reactor pilots are preparing for.
Over the past decade, Israel has purchased a squadron of 25 specially modified F-15Is and four squadrons of 102 F-16Is. All these planes have been fitted with special fuel tanks to carry out long-range strategic precision attacks. No-one has any illusion as to their purpose.