On Oct. 6. 1973, the first day of the Yom Kippur War, the Kurnass community was faced with an unorthodox challenge.
The American-manufactured F-4 Phantom II was used by the Israelis in air-to-ground missions, as an attack aircraft and in air-to-air missions as a fighter. Despite performing both roles with equal success, the Israeli reliance on the Mirage delta fighters meant that the F-4 (known to the Israeli Defence Force/Air Force as the Kurnass, Sledgehammer) was used most regularly in its air-to-ground role.
As told by Shlomo Aloni in his book Israeli F-4 Phantom II Aces, on Oct. 6. 1973, the first day of the Yom Kippur War, the Kurnass community was faced with an unorthodox challenge. It was dusk when F-4 crews were given the task of intercepting low- and slow-flying Egyptian Mi-8 helicopters under barely acceptable light conditions over the desert. Dozens of Mi-8s penetrated Sinai, carrying Egyptian commandos tasked with attacking the IDF’s thinly-defended key rear sector installations and setting ambushes to create havoc among Israeli reinforcements. With most IDF frontline units already committed to the fighting, and with the reserves still being organised, only meagre forces were ready to face the commandos. That fateful dusk it was the F-4s which actually tipped the balance. The teamwork between the two crew in each Kurnass, plus the jet’s combat ability, provided the critical element.
As a result, Kurnass interceptors smashed two major Egyptian raids, at Ras Sudar in the southern sector and at Tasa in the centre. The big fighter-bombers arrived when the Mi-8s had almost reached their designated landing points. The crews were soon to find that fighting Mi-8s was a very different form of air combat. Engaging the slow, low-flying helicopters was more like attacking vehicles on the ground than combat aircraft. Ground strafing techniques were to be more useful than air-to-air tactics.
Ran Goren was a fighter unit CO flying as an EP with No 107 Sqn. He was already credited with two kills as a Mirage III pilot, and his next assignment was to be as CO of No 201 Sqn. Now he was the first to engage the Mi-8s, as he later recalled;
`At noon I was the leader of the first QRA pair, with Dubi Yoffe as my wingman, and we were scrambled to the Suez Canal. We were vectored to intercept attacking Egyptian aircraft, and we saw the smoke of various air raids from a distance, but by the time we got nearer there were no aircraft to engage as they had already retreated. The first time we jettisoned our external fuel tanks, but I wasn’t worried about our fuel state as I thought we could land at Refidim. When we’d completed these futile interceptions, Yoffe had enough fuel to return to Hatzerim but I didn’t, so I contacted Refidim over the R/T and asked to land there. The answer was, “Refidim was bombed, you cannot land here”. I said, “I’m low on fuel. I’ve no other option, I must land”. I was told, “Land on the parallel runway”. That was only 20 metres wide, compared with a normal width of 45 metres, but it was apparently less damaged than the main runway.
‘I landed and taxied to the QRA HAS (hardened air shelter). I noticed a number of No 119 Sqn Kurnass nearby from an older production block. Throughout this ordeal I didn’t meet the No 119 Sqn aircrews as they were all airborne. When the groundcrew worked on my jet, they noticed a hole in the auxiliary air intake door caused by a stone thrown up by the wheels when I landed on the narrow parallel runway. They improvised a patch and told me, “Your aircraft is okay. You can fly home”.
‘I taxied to the parallel runway, and when I started the take-off run I got a flat tyre. I was going pretty fast and had to decide whether to abort the take-off or try to accelerate a bit more in order to achieve flight. I decided that if I continued we’d crash, so I aborted, I managed to keep the aircraft on the narrow runway. I turned away so as not to block the runway, switched off the engines and waited for a jeep. By then it was about 1700 hrs, and when I arrived at the QRA HAS I noticed a Nesher there. I don’t know where I got this idea from, but I said to the Nesher pilot, “We’re a pair from the No 119 Sqn QRA”. I notified GCI we were ready, but it was getting dark so I figured that there was a slight chance of being scrambled. About 15 or 20 minutes later, a siren went and we were scrambled!
`We rushed to the aircraft and GCI told us, “Helicopters flying cast. Scramble, heading 270”. We took-off on the parallel runway. It was 1745 hrs, and getting dark. Suddenly I saw 12 Mi-8 helicopters flying at low altitude in a diamond formation. I dived, opened fire and missed, but they scattered all over the place. A helicopter was a difficult target. We could attack it with a fixed sight as if it was a ground target but moving really fast, or with a gyro-sight as though it was an aircraft flying very slowly. Another difficulty I experienced was that the switches in the earlier block aircraft were unlike those in our later ones. But that was the least of my troubles.
‘I attacked one helicopter, again using my gyro-sight, and this time it exploded. By then it was 1800 hrs, and dark. I wanted to return the aircraft to Refidim. I contacted Refidim but the answer was, “No landings here at night”. I was in a dilemma. I had plenty of fuel, since we had not used afterburners in the engagement, so I could fly either to my base at Hatzerim or to the F-4’s at Tel Nof. I decided to return the jet to its owners at Tel Nof. I took the gun film as evidence of the kill, and we organised transport to Hatzerim aboard a Nord Noratlas transport flying an engine to the base. We arrived at 2000 hrs.
`Since taking of at about 1400 hrs, we had been vectored to engage, landed on a damaged, narrow parallel runway, our aircraft was damaged and patched, we’d got a flat tyre and aborted a take-off, we’d improvised a QRA pair flying another squadron’s aircraft with a Nesher as wingman, we’d been scrambled, we’d shot down a helicopter and we’d flown the aircraft back to its base and returned home in a Noratlas. Quite a crazy day!
`Only in retrospect did I realise the importance of our action. There were 12 Mi-8 helicopters, each carrying 25 commandos. The one we shot down crashed just outside the perimeter of Refidim. If 300 Egyptian commandos had attacked the base that evening when it was not yet properly secured and the local troops were still shocked by the Egyptian air raids, the consequences can be easily imagined.
`Since then, whenever Eliezer “Cheetah” Cohen, who was Refidim CO, meets me, he announces, “Here’s the pilot who saved Refidim”!’
A No 201 Sqn four-ship formation on a CAP mission was also vectored to intercept the low-flying Mi-8s. Navigator Itzchak Amitay recalled;
‘My first sortie during the Yom Kippur War was with Ben-Ami Peri. GCI vectored us to engage MiGs, but we found none. Instead, we evaded SAMs and exhausted our fuel, before returning to base. We were then scrambled to fly a CAP, but while airborne, the pair we were leading was joined by another. We continued the patrol as a four-ship formation, with Eitan Peled leading. The Egyptians launched many SAMs towards us, so we quickly learnt to fly on the boundaries of the Egyptian ADF SAM envelope. It was dusk and we were looking for the helicopters, as GCI had told us that they were there. Suddenly, someone shouted, “There they are”. And they were – six Mi-8s in a perfect formation at low altitude. Flying in a circle, we took turns in attacking them.
‘We had practiced helicopter interception scenarios, and we knew it was a tough mission. We could not lock our radars onto them as they flew so low. Peri, with his sight in cage position, attacked them like strafing a ground target. In four passes we shot down three helicopters. They were definite kills. It was a surreal scene, with helicopters catching fire at dusk. I concentrated on two vital issues during the engagement- not losing sight of the helicopters, and watching for any external threat, especially SAMs, so that Peri could concentrate on flying and shooting down the helicopters.’
Ben-Ami Peri and his navigator Itzchak Amitay shot down three Mi-8s, Eitan Peled and Abraham Ashael destroyed two more and Moshe Koren and Ilan Lazar claimed a sixth. Finally, a No 201 Sqn pair also joined in the combat, Yonatan Ophir and navigator Avikam Lif hitting two helicopters. They were credited with a single kill, as the second Mi-8 managed to limp back home to Fayid.
At the Ras Sudar sector, No 107 Sqn senior deputy CO Shlomo Egozy and navigator Roy Manoff soon learnt that launching AAMs at the Mi-8s was useless, as the available technology made such an engagement impractical. Egozy and Manoff then shot down four Mi-8s with cannon fire and finally resorted to using the blast from their jet exhausts, smashing the helicopters to the ground as they pulled up in full afterburner after a close overhead pass. Egozy’s wingman, Dubi Yoffe, got another Mi-8 before he had to disengage —the two Kurnass were flying in different configurations, Egozy’s jet having three external fuel tanks and Yoffe’s only two.
Egozy continued to fight the helicopters until the delta-fighters arrived, the latter downing two more helicopters.
Israeli F-4 Phantom II Aces, is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: IDF, Bukvoed via Wikipedia and SSGT CHERIE A. THURLBY / U.S. Air Force