Israel’s 117th Air Force Squadron: A Glorious Past

By Engr. Edgar Mana-ay

Israel Defense Force (IDF) Chief of Staff Major General Aviv Kochavi recently announced that Israel Air Force’s most decorated and famous 117th Squadron will cease to exist by October of this year.

According to the Chief of Staff, this move is part of a series of plans to promote efficiency, along with the absorption and development of a new system. Part of this process is the closing of the famous 117th fighter squadron.

Established in 1953, the “First Jet” squadron of Israel Air Force took part in all of Israel’s wars and campaigns. It was the first to down enemy aircraft in 1955 and over the years counted 121 enemy kills.

The unit was first in the world to down a Russian MIG 23 aircraft. The 117th based at Ramnat David Air Base operated the first Israeli jet aircrafts, the Gloster Meteor, flying the T7, F8 and FR9 variants.

The 117th Squadron saw its first combat action in September 1955 when two Meteor Jets shot down a pair of Egyptian Vampire aircraft in the Negev dessert. In April 1962, the 117th were flying French Mirage 111C-J.

During the 6 Days War in 1967, Israel launched an extraordinary preemptive strike that  in one day it destroyed the entire Egyptian Air Force composed of Russian MIG’s. Intelligence fed to the 117th Squadron shows that as the war is imminent, half of the Egyptian war planes were always on patrol and as soon as the patrol lands, the second half will take over. The 117th timed the attacked when all the war planes were on the ground thus the total annihilation.

Earlier, Egypt and Syria concluded an agreement to combine their armies to “wipe Israel off the map”. In the war of attrition against the Arabs, 117th squadron lost 5 aircraft while logging 101 kills. The first jet squadron “has glorious battle heritage”, which includes participation in known and COVERT operations.

Among its well-known participation was the air support to the Entebbe, Uganda on July 4, 1976 to rescue hundreds of Jewish passengers from Air France hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The Israeli planes flew at a sufficiently low altitude to evade Ugandan radar, then landed at a remote part of the airport. Three other planes followed. A Mercedes-Benz was lowered out of the first plane with a hefty Israeli soldier inside to resemble Dictator Idi Amin. This confused the Ugandan and terrorist troops for several seconds. The Israelis commandos burst into the terminal where the hostage were held and within 15 seconds killed all the terrorists.

In less than an hour after the first Israeli plane landed, the Jewish hostages was flown out to Israel. Only one Israeli soldier was killed, the commander of the raiding team, Captain Yonatan Netanyahu, the older brother of the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

There are many more covert operations that the 117th squadron participated but cannot be revealed in public. The squadron also led Operation Opera in June 1981, the attack that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor under construction by French technicians and that certainly changed the equation in the Middle East. To avoid international uproar if the French technician were killed or hurt, 117th planes perfectly timed it at 12:30 PM when all the French technician were out of the plant for lunch break. The intelligence of course was supplied by the Mossad, the spy group of Israel.

In the 1982 Lebanon invasion by Israel, the squadron F16’s conducted several attacks against the Syrian MIG’s, reporting 80 kills and 13 losses. By year 2005, the 117th squadron was upgraded to F-16C. Success of the 117th is mainly attributed to the skills and discipline of Israeli pilots where the “strongest drink they take is orange juice.”

Part of the plan to upgrade the Israel Air Force (IAF) is the incorporation of the latest US made stealth F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). By the way, stealth aircrafts are designed to avoid detection by using a  variety of technologies that reduce reflection/emission of radar, infrared, visible sunlight, radio frequency spectrum, these are collectively known as stealth technology. This is a 5th generation fighter jet nick named ADIR (mighty) in Israel and considered one of the world’s most advance fighter aircraft  and was declared operational by the IAF in December 2017. It is designed to defeat today’s most advance threat system both in the air and in the ground.

Israeli air force has acquired a total of 50 F-35s at staggered delivery until December 2024 at a cost of $80 million each. The Israeli F-35 was the first outside of the US to be declared operational, preceded only by the US Marine Corps and the US Air Force.

On May 22, 2018 Israel’s Air Force Commander Major General Amikan Norkin reported that Israel became the first country in the world to use the F-35 in combat with Iran MIG 23 in Syria with success. Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 Lightning II is a single seat, single engine, all weather stealth, multi role combat aircraft. It is designed to defeat today’s most advance threat system both in the air and in the ground. Its multi role are air-to-air, air-to-ground, intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Pratt & Whitney builds the F-35’s propulsion system, the world’s most powerful fighter engine.

Despite its glorious battle heritage, where most of its legacy is kept secret from the public, the 117th Israel Air Force squadron will have to give way to modernization and rationalization of the Israeli Air Force with the arrival of the 5th generation of US made F-35 stealth Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

The Jewish people will be forever indebted to the men and women (there are women pilots in the Israeli Air Force), past and present of the 117th Air Squadron who risks their life in the battle field so that the Jewish nation will continue to exist.

To express that nostalgic feeling of loss is to quote Henry Woodsworth Longfellow: “A feeling of sadness and longing, that is not akin to pain, and resembles sorrow only as the mist resembles the rain.”