Near the end of the War of Attrition, I was appointed the deputy commander of the Mystère squadron. Readiness and interception scrambles were replaced with assault scrambles. The Mystère 4 aircraft was quite old and barely suited the operations in the Suez Canal sector, not to mention actual operations. Its days were numbered (I won't discuss how the fuel tank fell apart during the parting sortie, in which I landed at the last moment with the aircraft spilling fuel like a punctured barrel).
On the last night before the ceasefire was set to take effect, the squadron received an operation order. No one wanted that flight; I manned myself for an attack in the canal. Before leaving home, I managed to watch part of a TV show where the late Yoram Ronen interviewed the late Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and seemed as if scolding him for not concluding the supervision arrangements for force movements and especially surface-to-air missiles after the ceasefire.
I was considerably experienced in day-and-night attacks and an attack on an outpost on the western bank of the Suez Canal did not seem complicated or risky. I planned the sortie myself, referred to the moon's direction during the attack in order to allow me to see the canal and the target area. The outpost I was about to attack was near the island of Al-Balah, in the northern sector, so I had a pretty good plan of attack. I admit, I did not considered the wisdom of tasking a mission less than an hour before the end of the war – after all, a pilot aspires to fight but hates wars.
I made my way to the aircraft, which was in a well-lit hardened aircraft shelter; the time was almost 22:00. The only instruction I received was to conclude the strike by a quarter to midnight (cease-fire, remember?). I planned the timetable so that I'd manage to switch an aircraft should there be a malfunction prior to takeoff. I checked it thoroughly – one must not underestimate a combat mission beyond the canal, in an area laden surrounded by anti-aircraft fire and tangent to the kill envelope of SA-2 missiles.
"My" Mystère, whose weaknesses I knew of, was loaded up to its maximum permitted weight. Two detachable containers filled with fuel were under its wings, and two stabilized napalm bombs as large as the containers were hung from the hardpoints. Despite its advanced age, I was fond of the aircraft, like one is fond of an old horse that carried you on its back and tolerated your quirks (and I've had quite a few of those).
I entered the cockpit, the mechanic I knew well helped me strap into the aircraft and the parachute, and handed me my helmet. He gave me an odd look; I patted his shoulder for encouragement and asked him to make me a warm cup of coffee when I return (I didn't get to drink that cup).
I activated the starter, and the engine began to turn at an increasing speed. I checked that all the gauges were giving indications, asked that most of the lights be turned down inside the aircraft shelter and adjusted the compartment lighting as every pilot adjusts to his comfort. For the assault, I would have to weaken the lighting so it would not blind my eyes when looking for the target.
I took off and flew for two-three minutes above the lightened Israel, happy for the sense of tranquility felt by citizens of the country while the few ensure their well-being. I flew at a convenient altitude, planning to enter the assault without circling, for the purpose of identifying the target. I estimated that the sound of an aircraft flying above would send the Egyptian soldiers into their bunkers (thinking about it today, perhaps I would have made two laps).
I flew quietly and safely and the controller did not say much, as befitting a professional. As I approached the canal, I activated the bomb and cannon switches. I pumped the button that inserts air into the anti-G suit (which helps pilots overcome centrifugal force in strong maneuvers) to increase the blood flow in my arteries and refine my readiness – an activity I used to do before crossing a border line. I arrived from a western direction and planned the attack run from north to south along the canal. I looked west most of the time in order to detect an unpredicted missile launch. Some of my best friends had been recently hit by missiles and fell to captivity, and I thought that it would be pointless to join them several minutes before a ceasefire.
I started the process of target identification; I saw the canal route and followed it a bit south until I recognized the island of Al Balah. "My" outpost was located nearly on the opposite side of the island's southern tip. I entered to attack, and everything was quiet, not even anti-aircraft shells were fired at me – I guessed that I surprised them.
I dived relatively shallow, letting the lower diamond of the sight to slowly move to the target so that the height of the release – 1,000 feet as I recall, but correct me if I'm mistaken – and the arrival of the diamond to the goal would happen at the same second, and that was what happened. I released one stabilized napalm bomb and I felt a strong jolt from the wing with the remaining bomb, as it was quite heavy.
I balanced the aircraft, and pulled the stick hard enough to gain altitude, then turned east and north. I flew along the canal on our side and tried to estimate if I hit the outpost correctly according to the fire that broke out on the ground. I decided to do a second run in the opposite direction, as they would expect me to return from the same direction. I maneuvered gently (because night is not the same as day), and entered for the second run.
This time they fired, and fired a lot, small arms, heavy weapons and anti-aircraft fire of various types. At night, everything looks very impressive – tracers fill the sky and the 57mm explosions are not particularly sympathetic, even when they're at a distance. I released the second bomb, and this time the aircraft felt much better and balanced itself. I pulled and went to see if there was anything "new." I had quite a lot fuel and cannons with roughly 300 rounds, so why bring them back to the weapon warehouse?
Perhaps I'll make another pass or two and snipe like we did during the Six-Day War just three years before? I was senior enough to decide without asking unnecessary questions (back then, instructions were merely recommendations), as if there was anyone to ask that time of night. I left a young pilot at the squadron with instructions what to do in "events and responses" such as what would soon arrive.
I reorganized and dove for a long sniping. They fired at me and I fired at them. This time, they were more accurate, or they had a radar-controlled ZSU cannon with a deadly rate of fire. I suddenly felt two blows against the aircraft - well, I was hit again; this pass was unnecessary. They were surprised during the first, took aim in the second and hit during the third.
I pulled home, added an engine because the Mystère had a very weak engine, and if you didn't push the throttle all the way, you wouldn't make it to a safe altitude. I pulled up and headed towards the Rephidim airbase. You mustn't continue to a distant base after being hit, and those that would try to bet – would lose everything (there are those among the readers who could attest to that).
I flew without reporting anything and collected my thoughts. However, they were interrupted by the worst warning light – the fire light. Such a light does not bode well – it bodes for many ills. The light blinded me considerably (I had a superstition that if I wouldn't dim it during night flights, it would not have a reason to turn on). I pressed and turned it until it was just a faint indicator.
I asked myself how long would the engine function, and would the fire increase, and I would not be able to remain in the quiet and air conditioned cockpit? I never received an answer. If you did not know, my aircraft caught fire during a night flight several years earlier, and I was forced to abandon it in a dark area such as the western Sinai; at least I had previous experience. I will not reveal which aircraft it was, because I loved it a great deal, and we have a rule, never speak ill of a loved aircraft or woman.
I had already reached a reasonable altitude when the light lit up. I gave myself a confident baritone voice and "calmly" announced to the squadron club controller what was happening to me, that I was intending to land at Rephidim, that fire extinguishers should be organized there and so on. I switched to the channel of the Rephidim tower. Again with a baritone voice, an announcement, and then I focused on the flight. I informed the squadron that the fire light was lit, and that I shouldn't be disturbed as I was somewhat busy then.
Now focus – being hit doesn't give you the right to make mistakes. When a fire is burning, one must decrease the engine as much as possible, which is what I did. I will not lie and tell you that I was completely calm, but pilots have a weird quality – they become quieter and more focused the more the situation grows dire. My main concern was to land the aircraft safely. I knew that I could abandon it at any given moment, except for the section towards a landing and after touching down on the route, because the Mystère's ejection seat had poor performance compared to modern chairs.
'Now Would be a Really Bad Time to Explode'
I felt better once I saw the lights of the runway at Raphidim from a distance. My altitude was enough for a crash landing, in case I had to turn off an engine. Meanwhile, the engine's temperature gauge was increasing at a reasonable rate. I descended at a high-enough speed, there was an issue of time, and I wanted to succeed and land before… I reached a slope with the wind (it doesn't matter much what that means), decreased velocity and lowered wheels and engine force as I approached to land. I said, "Now would be a really bad time to explode," and announced on the radio that I was "green" (a sign that my wheels were locked downwards). The engine temperature had reached a very high point despite the low rotations, and I told myself that the possibility of going around for another lap was gone.
All that really mattered now was to do all the activities as in a normal landing. I verified that the wheels were locked down one more time – it would be a disgrace if I were to land on the belly of the aircraft after everything. I turned on the landing light, decreased the speed and was at the appropriate altitude and speed for a good landing, nearly two hundred feet from the runway. I didn't need another engine, as it was hot enough as it was according to the temperature gauge and the constantly-lit fire light.
I touched the runway appropriately, and waited before extracting the brake parachute. I wondered, perhaps it had burned? Yet no, it flapped happily from behind like the tail of my pet collie as it approaches me. I didn't turn off an engine as this friend, the engine (a pilot has no better friend than a strong, functional engine; Well, that and an air-to-air missile on the tail of a Mig), generates hydraulics for restraints, electricity for the radio, and light to see the runway.
I reached the end, cleared the runway for the honor and glory, and stopped at the evacuation yard. I turned off the engine and wanted to leave the plane in a hurry, because fire in the engine and fuel in the tanks are not a good mix. The firemen arrived immediately and pulled me out at the last moment. Believe me that the most terrifying moment of the flight was when the firemen pulled me out and took me down from the fiery aircraft to the cold ground.
I called my wife, who was pregnant and always believed (or perhaps didn't) that "it won't happen to me." I told her there was a malfunction, and that I would return later. Our wives knew that if they heard our voices over the phone, then one thing was certain – that we were not in Abbasiyah prison or somewhere worse.
The engine was gone, the fuselage was damaged from the heat and stayed at Rephidim for "tin and color" repairs. I returned in a Cessna aircraft (which has no fire light) early in the morning, in order to hear that the ceasefire began at midnight. That was how the War of Attrition came to a conclusion for me.