Monday, December 7, 2015

Lavi: The Lost Chapters - Haunted

A rare photo of the first two Lavi prototypes in formation
There were a number of individuals that played a pivotal role in the development of Israel’s Lavi fighter, from political champions such as Minister of Defense Moshe Arens, to the program’s Project Manager at IAI, Ovadia Harrari – who was sometimes described as the “heart” behind the program. Among these key participants, however, was Israel’s Director of Development, Menachem Eini. For Eini, the real story behind the Lavi began not in March 1980, when the program was officially launched, but nearly a decade earlier in July 1970, during the War of Attrition.

Menachem Eini was the navigator aboard an F-4E Phantom flown by squadron commander Shmuel Hetz, on that fateful day in July.  Hetz was widely admired as the most preeminent pilot and squadron leader of his generation.  In the words of Menachem Eini,
Hetz was the most outstanding individual of our age-group in the air force, head and shoulders above everyone else. He radiated a special kind of intensity; he was smart and always charming. He was an obvious choice as the first Phantom squadron leader, though it was the first time they had picked someone from the younger generation and not a veteran and more experienced pilot. 
We started basic training together, then pilot school. He went on to fighters, I to navigation. After advanced training we split up: Hetz went to Hatzor and I went to Tel Nof. But our friendship was never cut off, and I was quite happy when our paths crossed once more with the arrival of the Phantoms. He was chosen squadron commander and I was appointed senior navigator.[1]
In July 1970, Israel and Egypt were engaged in some of the fiercest fighting of the War of Attrition – a war launched by Egypt’s President Nasser to take advantage of Israel’s sensitivity to casualties, and to grind down Israel’s defenses along the Suez Canal. The Egyptians, supplied by the Soviets, had begun to install a layered anti-aircraft system, in an attempt to blunt Israel’s advantage in the air. The latest Soviet anti-aircraft missiles, manned by technicians from North Korea, were progressively installed between Cairo and the Canal Zone.

Electronic countermeasures were, at the time, still a relatively new science. Earlier that month, the United States had delivered to Israel a set of electronic warfare pods – the AN/ALQ-87 – intended to counteract the SA-2 surface-to-air missiles that were being deployed by the Soviets in Vietnam as well as in Egypt. The new ECM pods required that the Israeli F-4E Phantoms fly to and from their targets in close formation, at medium altitude, to provide mutual coverage between each aircraft – effectively blinding the SA-2’s radar.[2] It was a tactic that was vehemently opposed by many in Israel’s pilot ranks. As Menachem Eini would recall,
We were to fly in pairs at 18,000 ft, in a straight flight path and with a minimum of banking so as not to upset the pod as it interfered with the guidance systems of the missiles being sent up against us. Our pilot instincts rebelled against this flight profile. We felt we would be sitting ducks, flying straight and level at 18,000 feet above the missile nests. But the pod was portrayed as being so efficient – a magic potion against the SA-2 and SA-3 – that we had no choice but to follow the directions and fly accordingly.[3]
Another squadron commander, Iftach Spector also shared Eini’s apprehensions, and confronted Hetz directly one evening, just two days before the planned raid:
“Tell me just one thing, Hetz. Is this what we have learned, to rely on magic?” And when he didn’t answer me, I said, “Hetz, missile batteries are dangerous! You can’t march in there – into the heart of the killing zone – like it was a parade!” 
“I know, Iftach.” 
“Into the killing zone you slide in like commandos, in small groups, and from several directions, so that if one is hit, the others may still hit the target.” . . . 
We sat a little more, perhaps for a longer time than expected of two busy men whose squadrons await them, but long enough for the moon to set. It became dark, and then something strange happened. Hetz was not the sentimental type, and it was not his habit to open his heart, at least not with me. But then, sitting behind the wheel, he opened up and told me of a strange dream that kept repeating the past few nights: Aki was visiting him. This was the first and only occasion when Aki’s name was brought up.[4]
Aki was the nickname for one of Hetz’s oldest friends, Yitzhak Arzi – who had died over Egyptian territory in December 1967, shortly after Israel’s resounding victory in the Six Day War. Hetz’s beyond-the-grave vision would prove to be tragically prophetic.[5]

On July 18, 1970 the F-4E Phantom piloted by Shmuel Hetz would cross the Suez Canal with Menachem Eini as the navigator. The U.S.-supplied ECM pods, designed to protect against SA-2 missile batteries deployed in Vietnam, proved ineffectual against the newer SA-3 missiles that had recently been deployed in Egypt. Hetz’s Phantom was struck before ever reaching its target. Aborting the attack, Hetz dived to low level to evade further missiles. On the deck, at over 550 knots, the Phantom finally died less than half a minute from reaching the Israeli side of the canal.[6] Even years later, that moment when his airplane failed him would remain etched in Eini’s mind.
When I left the aircraft, we were flying at 600 knots, a tremendous speed, and from the shock of hitting the air I lost consciousness. I remember, as if through a fog, the parachute opening and, afterwards, me crawling wounded on the ground, my left leg with a compound fracture, lying lifeless and askew. My right arm was broken in three places, and I couldn’t move this either. There were fractures in other places and I was bleeding heavily from a deep gash in the groin.
The only thing I could do was look around. I saw the mushrooms of smoke given off by our Phantom not far from where I had parachuted. There was no sign of Hetz and I supposed he was dead.
Eini would spend the next forty months as a wounded prisoner of war in Egypt. Hetz, of course, had not been so fortunate.[7]

Within the small, close-knit community of Israel’s fighter pilots, the loss of so promising and rising a star as Shmuel Hetz was keenly felt. Legendary pilot Ran Ronen, who would succeed Hetz as the commanding officer of 201 squadron, would recall the swearing-in ceremony as the new leader of the battered unit.
At a routine change of command ceremony, the squadron’s servicemen would be wearing dress uniforms and standing stiffly at attention in formal observance of protocol. The air force commander and airbase commander would arrive in their shiny official cars. The podium would be draped with the air force and squadron banners. Moving speeches would be delivered and an uplifting atmosphere would prevail. This morning there was not a trace of any of those things. This wasn’t a real change of command ceremony. There was nobody to replace. I stepped down from the balcony stairs to the asphalt parade ground. I glanced at the people and saw a beaten squadron: dejected soldiers in stained fatigues with grief in their eyes. I asked them to sit down on the grass, stood in front of them, and spoke from the heart. 
“The squadron took a hard hit yesterday. Shmulik’s plane was hit and he was killed. It’s a terrible loss to his family, the squadron, and the air force. We’ve lost a beloved commander, a fine, upstanding gentleman, a true friend. We all feel the pain of his loss. . .” 
For the first time in my life I saw an entire squadron weeping collectively. Some cried openly, others kept it locked in their hearts. Not a single person was left unmoved by the sad event.[8]
For the men who had known him, men like Ran Ronen and Menachem Eini, the loss of Hetz was not just another statistic from decades of war. It was deeply personal. As Eini would later recall, “I sat in an Egyptian prison for forty months, including a year in a military hospital at Maadi, and not a day went by without my thinking about the aircraft going down and Hetz’s death.”[9]

For Eini, the Lavi was not just about Israeli arms independence or developing an indigenous fighter. It was about the debt that he owed to his lost comrades, the pledge to never again allow another Israeli pilot to lose his life or become a prisoner of war because of a second-hand electronic warfare suite that was dependent upon U.S. goodwill. For Eini, as for many others in the program, the Lavi was about developing the kind of survivable warplane that would put the well being of its crew ahead of any traditional statistic or convenient performance metric.  In the words of the Lavi program’s Deputy Director, “survivability must be our priority."[10]

Derided by critics in the Weinberger Pentagon, where he was described contemptuously as “the little Iraqi” by Dov Zakheim – Weinberger’s lead protégé in the campaign to “terminate” the Lavi – Menachem Eini was yet another member of the Lavi development team to be haunted by the ghosts of preceding wars.[11] It would be these ghosts that would prove to be the motive force, shaping the Lavi into the unique warplane that it was.

[1] Merav Halperin and Aharon Lapidot, G-Suit: Combat Reports from Israel’s Air War (London: Sphere Books Limited, 1990), 73-74.
[2] Andreas Klein and Shlomo Aloni, Israeli Phantoms: The ‘Kurnass’ in IDF/AF Service 1969-1988 (Erlangen, Germany: Double Ugly Books, 2009), 39.
[3] Halperin and Lapidot, 75.
[4] Iftach Spector, Loud and Clear (Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2009), 227-9.
[5] Spector, 196-7.
[6] Klein and Aloni, 40.
[7] Halperin and Lapidot, 77.
[8] Ran Ronen, Eagle in the Sky (Tel Aviv: Contento De Semrik, 2013), 274-5.
[9] Halperin and Lapidot, 77.
[10] Peter Hellman, “The Fighter of the Future,” Discover, July 1986, 27.
[11] Dov S. Zakheim, Flight of the Lavi (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1996), 52.

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