Military Aviation


Israeli Air Force F-4 fighters

The incredible story of the first gun kill scored by an Israeli Phantom.

Acquired by Israel in 1969 the McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II quickly became the backbone of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) thanks to its range, payload and bombing accuracy, .

The second IAF unit to receive the Kurnass (as the Phantom was called by the Israeli Air Force) was the 69 Squadron Hammers that widely used its F-4s for the first time in combat during the so called Operation Blossom, a series of missions that targeted headquarters, logistic centers and training facilities all over Egypt, with the aim to persuade the country to abandon the Attrition War policy.

It was during one of these missions that the 69 Squadron gained its first ever air-to-air kill, when on Feb. 8 1970, after a strike against a logistic facility at Helwan, a pair of MiG-21s took off to pursue a pair of Kurnass flown by Avihu Ben-Nun with Achikar Eyal and Aviem Sella with Shabtai Ben-Shoa.

IAF Phantom pilot

The story of how Aviem Sella came to find himself in the right place and at the right moment to shoot down the first enemy fighter in the Hammers history, is very interesting. A story that, as recalled by Sella himself in Shlomo Aloni & Zvi Avidror book Hammers Israel’s Long-Range Heavy Bomber Arm: The Story of 69 Squadron, begins before the IAF Phantom purchase: “Circa 1968 I was planned for conversion to the Mirage, but I already realized that flying was not enough. I initiated academic studies in the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, immediately after the Six Day War.

“The Mirage conversion course was at Ramat David, and the implication was that I would have had to discontinue my studies, so I turned down this offer. A fighter pilot turning down an offer for Mirage conversion was an unheard of event, and I was summoned by the IAF Commander. The general attitude at the time was that a pilot did not need to study any further than he did during his flying training. I insisted upon studying, renounced the opportunity to fly the Mirage, and for this reason I was later assigned to 69 Squadron.”

While Aviem Sella continued his studies,the IAF purchased the Kurnass and 69 Squadron was reactivated: the result of this event was that Sella flew during the Attrition War while attending his academic lessons. Actually serving as Deputy Commander, three or four times a week he returned from missions over Egypt flying at low altitude over Haifa to inform his lecturers that he would have soon attended their lessons. Then he landed at Ramat David, and an hour later he was sitting in the class at Haifa.

MiG Killer

Sella attended his first Kurnass conversion course at Hatzor and then he was assigned to 69 Squadron and he flew his first Kurnass mission on Dec. 25, 1969, when, with slightly more than 30 flying hours on the Kurnass under his belt, he attacked a SAM battery.

He had only 20 more hours on the type when he splashed down the first MiG in 69 Squadron history: “In February 1970 I shot down my first MiG. I am not sure if I practiced air to air gunnery prior to that combat; I launched the first AAM – the wrong missile, as I confused the switches; instead of launching a heat seeking missile I launched a semi-active radar homing missile. Then I launched the second missile beyond the effective range.

“I had only flown some 50 flying hours in the Kurnass until then and I hardly knew the cockpit, but luckily for me the Egyptian pilot had plenty of patience for me to do all possible errors until I shot him down.” In fact the Egyptian pilot flew slowly over the Nile Delta, and Sella got into cannon range and managed to shoot him down during his seventh cannon burst.

He completed his air-to-air training during that sortie, and he certainly made history: in fact he scored the first ever gun kill for an Israeli F-4 as well as the first air-to-air kill in 69 Squadron history.

Moreover once the Attrition War ended, Sella finally got nine months of leave to finish his studies.

Photo credit: Bukvoed via Wikipedia and Israeli Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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  • So just to get this story straight...
    1) During one of the largest air-battles in the War of Attrition, seemingly novice pilot Aviem Sella stumbles on a naive Egyptian Mig-21 pilot who amusingly claims "I am not sure if I practiced air-to-air gunnery prior to that combat."

    2) It's a bit odd that the Israeli Air Force would put a pilot so unseasoned in the cockpit of their newest and most advanced squadron. Why would an Air Force so formidable put someone like that in the cockpit of an F-4E? He mistakes the trigger toggle and can't find his range? The IAF is better than that to believe this.

    3) Why would Aviem "accidentally" fire the semi-active radar homing missile (for longer range) when he intended on firing a heat-seeking one the first go-around, which assumes he was in closer range? He admits this was a mistake with the first missile which insinuates he corrected the mistake the second time around with the second missile being a heat-seeker (used for closer-range). Yet then admits he was "out of effective range". Huh???

    4) Assuming commons sense kicked in with the first mistake of firing a medium-long range missile, why would he choose a short-range heat-seeker (sidewinder) when he was out of range?

    5) So let me get this straight, the Egyptian pilot gave him "plenty of patience" and was flying slow yet he couldn't catch up for two missiles fired out of effective range and seven cannon bursts to take it down???

    6) He fails to mention there were 3 missiles fired, off of which missed the "slow" flying Egyptian Mig. Also not mentioned was the section of Phantoms and Mirages in the calculated ambush, all firing at the Egyptian Mig (Shlomo Aloni, "Israeli F-4 Phantom II Aces", Tom Cooper, David Nicolle, "Arab Migs Volume 4").

    7) So it really took 3 missiles and 7 cannon bursts to take down one slow flying Egyptian Mig-21 pilot? And that from one of two sections, one of Phantoms and a flight of Mirages (Tom Cooper, David Nicolle, "Arab Migs Volume 4).

    8 ) It seems both super aces Avraham Salmon and Aviem Sella contradict each other with claiming the Mig kill as their own that day (too many contradictory sources to list).

    9 ) There's no mention that there were two Mig-21's who had shot down 2 of the 4 Phantoms, used as bait, in the pre-planned ambush of Operation Priha (Wikipedia: Operation Priha, New York Times, Feb 10th, 1970 publication, "Israelis report losing Jet in Dogfight at Canal") in which the latter reveals the IAF admitting to losing one of their own and the EAF confirming 2 kills in a multi-wave combat involving 40 planes from each side.

    10) Aviem is a decorated pilot and a founder of the elite 69 Kurnass Squadron. Very hard to believe the IAF would put such a novice who didn't recall having gunnery practice and makes mistakes with selecting his weapons and can't find his range with a total of 10 attempts (3 missiles and 7 cannon bursts) before claiming to have finally shot the Egyptian Mig down. Not to mention claim contradicts with fellow Ace Avraham Salmon's claim to the same Mig.

    12) Last but not least, Aviem was indicted and found guilty of espionage against the United States, so egregious that the sentence was life in prison with a half million dollar fine. On top of it all, our Congress even threatened to cut aid when the IAF not only sheltered him, but promoted him in rank. This was one of the few and rare low-points in U.S. - Israeli relations between the close allies.

    The story is just too full of documented holes with plenty of facts contradicting his tale. Not surprising given he was convicted and found guilty of espionage and sentenced in absentia on three counts of espionage against our nation. When he was then promoted by the IAF, Congress threatened to cut military aid then forcing him to resign.

    His claims don't add up in the face of facts and his less than honest record.

    Still a fan of your writing Dario!...Just sayin'.


    • Thanks a lot for pointing out the issues. And mostly thank you very much for following my site. In case you have any interesting story you would like to share, just le me know and we could write an article. This would at least give you some good publicity around the world.

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