“I flew the F-16 for nine years. Grandpa fighter pilot. Older than the parents of most of the young pilots at the base. I would soon be turning 59, an age where my pilot instincts would begin to decline,” Giora Even-Epstein.
For more than thirty years, Giora Even-Epstein flew fighters for the Israel Air Force (IAF), achieving recognition as a highly skilled military aviator and the highest-scoring jet-mounted ace with the most number of confirmed victories (17) in the French Mirage. Having overcome numerous hurdles just to learn how to fly, he went on to compile a record of Arab MiGs and Sukhoi kills that bettered any other combat aviators’ tally in the entire world.
After his last battle he became commander of the First Jet Squadron, 117, began civilian flying as an El Al pilot, moved to the reservist squadron 254 Midland Squadron in the 1982 Lebanon War, and became the eldest IAF pilot to fly an F-16.
“I found the F-16 to be an incredible plane with amazing capabilities. It was best of its kind around, like the Mirage, in its time, it had far exceeded enemy aircraft in its capabilities,” Epstein says in Hawkeye. ‘The F-16’s capabilities were far beyond those of the Mirage, but our enemies had also been busy upgrading their air forces over the years. They, too, had more advanced aircraft, with more advanced technological systems. As always, the key factor was the pilot. The result of the dogfight depended on him.
“Flying an F-16 was different than any other plane I’d ever flown. It felt like it was the computer more than the pilot that was flying the plane. Naturally, I made many comparisons to the Mirage on which I’d flown so many hours. The stick was on the pilot’s side and barely moved. Pilots complained that it wasn’t comfortable for them. You pulled to the left as hard as you could and the plane would turn in accordance with the parameters — velocity, altitude, temperature — but it is impossible to exceed 9 G. The computer would not allow it. The Mirage easily passed the 7 G limit. On the F-16, exceeding the G limit would damage the plane.
“But the more I got to know the new plane, called the `Hawk’ — the Americans called it the `Fighting Falcon’ — the more I came to admire its capabilities. In dogfights, even with a Mirage behind it, it could down the rival plane within 20 seconds — though, again, it all depended on the pilot. In the past, I’d had dogfights where I flew a Mirage and was able to down a Kfir or an F-16. Despite the new plane’s extraordinary capabilities, I still felt that the experience of flying the Mirage was more powerful.
“In January 1991, when the first Gulf War started, I was in the Golden Eagle Squadron at the Ramon base. I was at the base when the first Scud missile attack on Israel occurred. When those first missiles fell, pilots who were with me there readied to take off for Iraq. Everyone was on standby. Suited up and ready to go as soon as the order came, so I calmed them down. Most of them re young, they hadn’t tasted war before and they were keen to head out. I explained to them that it was night-time. If they didn’t go to sleep now, they wouldn’t have energy in the morning, if and when they were needed.”
After the war, Epstein was promoted to the rank of colonel and his family started to talk to him about retiring from IAF.
“Most fighter pilots stop flying at age 40-45. Yosef Tzuk – who was my close friend and who made air force history by being the first pilot to down a MiG during the 1956 Sinai Campaign — had stopped flying in 1988, at age 50, but he was definitely the exception,” he remembers.
“I flew the F-16 for nine years. Grandpa fighter pilot. Older than the parents of most of the young pilots at the base. I would soon be turning 59, an age where my pilot instincts would begin to decline. I barely felt it, but I did start to sense the reactions of the other pilots, that maybe it was time for me to start thinking of retirement from active combat flying. ‘It’s a shame, but maybe…’ some hinted.
“The squadron commander was much more blunt.
“‘Giora, maybe the time has come for you to stop flying,” he said to me one day.
“I was almost 59. He was 39.
“I realised that my time as a fighter pilot was nearing an end.
“It was time to give someone else a chance to break some of my records. I said goodbye to the IAF when I was 59, but not to flying. I kept flying for El Al for another six years after I left the military. In El Al, too, I flew until the maximum possible age according to aviation regulations, which was 65. For a time, my son Guy and daughter Dana were flight attendants with El Al, and we would head to Ben Gurion Airport together.”
“The long dry spell at El Al during which no new pilots were hired finally ended, and new pilot training courses were opened, which attracted many air force veterans. Often, the first officer sitting beside me was one of the ‘kids’ who’d been one of my cadets or a young pilot who’d flown with me in the combat squadrons. A heavy hint that the time for retirement was nearing.”
Hawkeye is published by Grub Street Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Israeli Air Force