“I decided to press ahead, even though I could see the SAM approaching us. In a split second my mind flashed crucial data and information: what the missile could do, what the missile could not do,” Harel Gilutz, Kurnass pilot.
In the years that preceded the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel invested heavily in the creation of a heavy attack force of four F-4 Phantom/Kurnass squadrons. They would fly 3.000+ sorties, claim 80+ kills, and suffer 30+ losses during the nineteen days of one of the most intensive, savage wars in modern military history.
Outflanking the Syria Air Defense Force (SYAD) deployment from the south, Israel Air Force (IAF) Squadron 107 was tasked to commit five crews to Model 5 AAA suppression loft missions (SEAD missions against Egyptian SAM batteries west of the Suez Canal were coded “Model”) on Oct. 7, 1973 (Day 2 of the Yom Kippur War) and was planned to Dive Toss (DT, bombing) six targets, but actually launched four crews for loft and nine crews in four formations to DT four SA-2 batteries at the rear of the SYAD south flank deployment of SAM batteries.
Kurnass pilot Harel Gilutz recalls in Shlomo Aloni’s book Ghosts of Atonement, Israeli F-4 Phantom Operations during the Yom Kippur War:
“I graduated Flying School in 1968, converted to Kurnass in 1971, and accumulated some 50 combat sorties by October 1973 so, by that time standard, I was quite experienced.
“We prepared for war in May 1973, but by October 1973, nobody thought war was imminent, not even when we were told on Oct. 5, 1973 that something might happen.
“At 06:00 on Oct. 6, 1973, a siren scream summoned us to the squadron. When we arrived at the squadron, we were told that war would break out and we started preparations for a preemptive strike. At 13:50, we were stunned to hear that we were under attack; Arab aircraft were attacking Israel. We were scrambled in a hurry for air defense and from this first flight we realized that it was not “business as usual”; pilots reported ejections, not one chance ejection, but two or three ejections over enemy territory, and then I grasped that we were facing a totally different ball game.
“If this was not enough, that evening, we were tasked to attack targets along the Egyptian front line. When we marked those targets on the map, we realized the targets were on our side of the Suez Canal, within what was our territory before the war. Prior to war such a scenario seemed impossible, so we called IAF Head Quarters (IAFHQ) to make sure this was not an error. It was not a mistake; the Egyptians were already in Sinai and when we flew this mission, we noticed AAA fire over Sinai, so the first thought that crossed my mind was, “this is friendly fire,” but it was not, it was Egyptian AAA fire. We were used to “rules of the game” that were no longer relevant, and it was then that fear crept in; not anxiety, but fear.
“Fear can be contained. Each one of us expressed different symptoms of fear, but all vanished upon entering the cockpit. Once the engines were started, we were all focused on our mission. My personal “test of courage” was during MODEL 5.
“That morning started with a SEAD operation against Egypt. We attacked a target west of Suez City, returned to the squadron, and were told that priorities had changed; that SEAD operation against Egypt was aborted and our next mission was a SEAD against Syria. We received our orders, maps, and photos and learned our missions in quite an orderly manner considering the circumstances. We then left for the aircraft and taxied to “last chance” position prior to take-off. There, someone signaled me not to fly to where I was supposed to fly, but to follow another pair. I did not know which target that pair was tasked to attack; I only knew it was a SAM battery in Syria. This was not an insignificant issue; SEAD was a very complicated mission of utmost professionalism and precision. Now, I was about to follow someone to attack an unknown target, but at least that someone, the pair leader, was our squadron commander and I trusted that he would lead us properly.
“Tension built up as we approached the border crossing point. We flew north along the River Jordan, turned right to follow the River Yarmouk, and entered Syria; still, it was all quiet. Mount Druze was visible in the distance and we turned left to attack the Syrian SAM deployment from the rear. Suddenly, all at once, a mass of AAA fire and SAM launches erupted as though the ground was in flames and the sky full of comets; a very frightening vision. Then, my leader reported that he had pinpointed a launching SAM battery and that SAM battery would be our target; a correct call.
“We pulled up and identified the target. At this point we noted a couple missiles still far away from us. As we were climbing sharply, I dropped the right wing and asked my navigator to make sure there were no missiles coming from this side, as we would be blind to anything coming from that direction for the next twenty seconds. We placed the nose of the aircraft in the direction of the target and that moment the battery launched a SAM that homed directly towards us. Decision time—a brief moment to decide what to do, to press ahead or to break away—a very difficult moment, because you remember why you were there and that this was a real war, and that if you did not accomplish the mission that time then you would return to attack the same target.
“I decided to press ahead, even though I could see the missile approaching us. In a split second my mind flashed crucial data and information: what the missile could do, what the missile could not do. I continued diving and the missile got closer. The bombs of my leader exploded in the center of the battery and the missile started to roll—small rolls, as though it was a little bit out of control—then it passed by so close that I could hear it and see sparks of fire emanating from it.
“I dropped my bombs on target and broke away to evade AAA fire and SAM launches. From this point—when my Kurnass weighed some 20 tons and was at an altitude of 4,000-5,000 feet and travelling at a speed of about 400 knots—we managed three such breaks before we reached the deck. I did not see any SAM during that time. I acted automatically, but a colleague that attacked a SAM battery nearby saw another SAM battery—not the one we attacked and not the one that he attacked—launching missiles at our Kurnass. The first missile exploded and the Kurnass emerged, flying out of the fireball. The second missile exploded and the Kurnass emerged flying out of the fireball. The third missile exploded and the Kurnass emerged flying out of the fireball. By the time we completed the breaks, we reached the safety of the deck at the height of a spire of a mosque that was on our course south and disengaged.
“On top of understanding how dangerous it was, I knew that I had passed my personal test.”
Ghosts of Atonement, Israeli F-4 Phantom Operations during the Yom Kippur War is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Biton Hey’l Ha Avir, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy