Duke took me on a visit to TOPGUN and I got to meet with the pilots there. The meeting was planned to last just 30 minutes, but I ended up sitting with them for three hours. They peppered me with questions about my dogfights…
Born in 1938 on an Israeli kibbutz, Giora Even-Epstein became fascinated with military aircraft and the aces who flew them. He desperately wanted to fly the French Mirage III but was turned down for flight training because of a heart defect. He tried again, was turned down again, but was incredibly accepted as a paratrooper. After 500 jumps, he tried again to enrol in the Israel Air Force (IAF) pilot training programme and was accepted, eventually gaining his wings to fly and fight during the critical periods of the Israel Air Force’s combat history.
After having flown for more than thirty years for the IAF, Epstein achieved recognition as the highest-scoring jet-mounted ace with the most number of confirmed victories.
In his autobiography “Hawkeye,” Epstein details not only his experiences in the intense conflicts of 1967, the Six Day War, and 1973, the Yom Kippur War, but also how along the way he met numerous fighter pilot legends such as Douglas Bader, Al Deere, Pierre Clostermann and Randy Cunningham.
After the latter conflict, the IAF attracted great interest, as Epstein remembers in Hawkeye. ‘After the war we received requests to host delegations from other air forces that wished to learn from us and our experience in the war. Each of these delegations, especially the ones from the United States, the country that had aided us so much in the war, were gladly welcomed and assigned a squadron commander or other senior officer as a guide. One of the most intriguing delegations that I got to host after the war was made up of American media people who were visiting a number of Middle East countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. I became friendly with two of them: Dan McKinnon, owner of a small television station in San Diego, and Randy Cunningham, a big hulking guy known as ‘Duke’ who’d been a TOPGUN instructor and commander of VF-126, the Aggressor Squadron at NAS Miramar, near San Diego. Duke was the US Navy’s only pilot ace in the Vietnam War — as a Phantom pilot based on the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CV 64), he shot down five enemy planes.
‘He told me all about his experiences as a pilot in the US Navy. In one of our conversations, he asked me how many planes I’d shot down. “I have a few kills,” I replied.
‘As part of their visit, I took them on a tour of the Golan Heights. Lying near the road where we stopped was some debris from a Syrian MiG-17. The two ignored the signs warning of minefields and ran to grab some pieces to take home as souvenirs.
‘At the end of the visit, I took them to the airport. Duke asked me again, “Tell me the truth, how many kills do you have?”
‘”Seventeen,” I said. They were both stunned. It looked like all the air went out of them at once.
‘A year later, they both came back to Israel for another visit, this time as private citizens. By then I was commander of No. 117 Squadron at Ramat David and I took Duke up with me in a two-seater Mirage for a drill of a dogfight against a Phantom. Years later, on one of my visits to the United States, Duke, who was still an active pilot and instructor in the famous TOPGUN Fighter Weapons School, which specialised in training US Navy pilots, introduced me to the other pilots as Israel’s biggest ace and boasted to them that on his visit to Israel he had flown in a Mirage and ‘ripped’ the Israeli pilots in a dogfight…’
‘My friendship with Duke grew stronger over the years. At one point, he decided to run for Congress as a Republican from San Diego. Since running an election campaign requires a lot of money – the estimate at the time was two million dollars – Duke organised fundraising events and asked me to come to one. As I was still an active pilot then, I consulted with the air force commander, Avihu Ben-Nun, about the invitation. Ben-Nun advised me that it was better that I pass as long as I was still flying with the air force.
‘Two years later, when Duke ran for Congress a second time, I was no longer an active pilot, and I agreed to make an appearance. I gave a speech before several hundred invited guests, many of them wealthy Jews who’d paid $5,000 each to attend the event, and I explained how important it was for there to be pro-Israel representatives, like Duke, in Congress. The evening was successful, and Duke went on to be re-elected. After the event, Duke also took me on a visit to TOPGUN and I got to meet with the pilots there. The meeting was planned to last just 30 minutes, but I ended up sitting with them for three hours. They peppered me with questions about my dogfights, and I gave detailed answers to each one.
‘My other friend from that delegation, Dan McKinnon, was a former helicopter pilot who specialised in rescue missions. In one remarkably complex operation, he had rescued 40 civilians from a ship that was about to sink. He came from an affluent family, his father was a personal friend of President Ronald Reagan, and Reagan appointed him head of the Federal Aviation Administration. He went on to enter the history books of American civil aviation when he brought in military air traffic controllers to break the big strike by civilian air traffic controllers in 1981. He later founded a small airline called North American.
‘On one of my trips to the United States, together with Sara and my son Guy, Dan invited us to the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, which had parts of aircraft carriers and real planes used by the US Navy. Later on, he arranged a special surprise for me: an air show by the Blue Angels acrobatic team. After they landed, the team commander told me that had he known before about my record as a pilot, he would have invited me join them in the show.’
‘To make up for it, he made me a very tempting offer: He’d add me to the aerobatic team and in return, I’d agree for one of my kills to be credited in his name. Of course, he was joking.’
Hawkeye is published by Grub Street Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy, Israel Defense Forces and Grub Street Publishing