Seconds after the SyAAF MiG-21 had crashed, an AAM fired by an unseen Syrian fighter exploded inside the right-hand engine nozzle of F-15 Baz 686 flown by Ronen Shapira, destroying the F100 turbofan engine and starting a fire.
The Israeli acquisition of the F-15 Eagle was initiated under the Peace Fox programme in 1975 and Israel became the type’s first export customer. The requirement for a new air superiority fighter emerged after the 1973 Yom-Kippur war and the great changes the Israeli Air Force (IAF) underwent to deal with threats revealed in that war (these changes included the purchase of the F-15 and F-16).
The first 4 IAF F-15 Baz (Falcon, as the F-15 Eagle is dubbed by IAF) fighter jets arrived on Dec. 10, 1976.
Unlike the IAF’s previous generation of jet fighters such as the Phantom H and Mirage IIIC, the F-15 had plenty of fuel to continue flying its CAP after a brief aerial engagement. Crews flying the F-4 or Mirage IIIC rarely returned to their CAP station following a clash with enemy fighters because their older jets had less fuel to burn, and they also consumed it at a greater rate since their aerodynamic and weapon system performance were on a par with enemy MiGs. This in turn meant that they had to dogfight, and this was usually when fuel burn was at its worst.
The Baz’s superiority over Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) fighters was so profound that air combat in June 1982 during the Lebanon War bore no resemblance to the engagements of 1973.
However, while no Eagle has ever been shot down in combat, the closest call for an F-15 pilot came during an engagement of Jun. 9, 1982.
On that day, as told by Shlomo Aloni in his book Israeli F-15 Eagle Units in Combat, Yoram Peled led a four-ship CAP formation from Tel Nof over the Mediterranean Sea. Accompanying Peled on this fateful mission were Ronen Shapira, Eitan Ben-Eliyahu and Oran Hampel.
The F-15s turned east, crossing the Lebanon Mountain ridge and heading into the Lebanon Valley. Here, the formation conducted a CAP over Rayak until GCU vectored the formation south to intercept Syrian fighters that had been detected some 20 miles away. Closing to within three miles of the contacts, Ben-Eliyahu was the first to visually acquire two MiG-21s, which in turn made him formation leader.
With the rear pair of F-15s now in the lead, Ben-Eliyahu and his wingman Hampel (in Baz 695) each launched an AAM. The latter pilot watched his AIM-7F hit the MiG, which burst into flames — only the forward fuselage could be seen ahead of the fireball, and as the fighter lost height, Hampel spotted his Syrian counterpart ejecting from the cockpit.
Ben-Eliyahu had not enjoyed the same level of success with his missile, having to violently manoeuvre his jet so as to avoid an accurate burst of AAA, thus breaking the Sparrow’s radar lock on its target. The Syrian’s good fortune did not last long, however, for Yoram Peled (in Baz 684) downed the MiG-21 with a Python 3. By then the whole area was alive with fiery ribbons of AAA, and GCU ordered the Baz pilots to disengage.
Seconds prior to the disengagement order being issued, a MiG-21 shot across the nose of Ronen Shapira’s Baz 686. The two jets were barely 200 metres apart at the time, and the pilots simply looked at each other as they flashed past at a combined closing speed of nearly 1000 mph. Having heard the call to disengage, Shapira was in the process of rejoining the remaining three Bazs when his Syrian opponent completed a perfect turning manoeuvre that placed his MiG-21 right behind Baz 686.
Spotting the SyAAF jet on his tail, Shapira slowed his F-15 down and then pulled into a high-G turn of his own that ended with him sat aft of the Syrian fighter. The first AAM that he fired missed the MiG-21, but the second Python 3 struck its target. However, the jet did not explode, but instead lost height whilst trailing a plume of white smoke.
It was at this critical moment that Ben-Eliyahu joined the fight, and Shapira, who was determined to make sure that the kill was his alone, followed the MiG-21 down until it hit the ground and exploded. By choosing to stay with the MiG-21, Shapira had traded his situational awareness for kill verification, and this was almost his undoing. Seconds after the SyAAF jet had crashed, an AAM fired by an unseen Syrian fighter exploded inside the right-hand engine nozzle of Baz 686, destroying the F100 turbofan engine and starting a fire.
Ronen Shapira was the son of Danny Shapira, who was flying Meteor F8s with the IAF at the time of Ronen’s birth. Shapira senior later attended the French Air Force’s EPNER test pilots’ school from 1958, and he eventually became the IAF’s Chief Test Pilot. In 1970 he joined IAI as its Chief Test Pilot, and he served in this capacity until 1984. Ronen junior followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating from Flying School Class 73 in 1974 and eventually being posted to a fighter squadron. He had completed the US Navy Test Pilots’ School course just prior to the Lebanon War, and he joined IAI as a test pilot soon after the conflict ended. Ronen Shapira has been IAI’s Chief Test pilot too.
Twenty-two years earlier, on Jun. 9, 1982, Shapira needed all of his piloting skills to coax his crippled jet back home. His F-15 was on fire and struggling at low altitude through heavy AAA on just one engine. Shapira switched off the rapidly overheating right turbofan and applied full power to the functioning F100. Avoiding the AAA, he slowly climbed up to 17,000 ft, which was just high enough to clear the peaks of the Lebanon Mountains, before heading west towards the Mediterranean Sea.
Accompanying Shapira throughout this ordeal was Yoram Peled, who maintained station off his left wing, Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, who was off his right wing, and Oran Hampel, who trailed behind all three F-15s and guarded the tail of the damaged jet. Upon crossing the Lebanese coastline, Shapira decided that he would be able to nurse the jet to Ramat David, which was the IAF’s northernmost base.
A ‘normal’ single engine approach and landing was duly made, followed by a somewhat hair-raising stop using the jet’s landing arrestor gear. The latter was torn off the F-15 shortly after it caught the raised runway barrier, and Ronen Shapira decided not to apply the brakes so as to avoid generating more friction that could in turn add further heat to the already burning jet. The damaged Baz eventually rolled into the emergency netting at the end of the runway and stopped. Ramat David’s firefighting crews quickly extinguished the fire in the right engine, thus allowing Shapira to make a preliminary inspection of the damage.
The right F100 engine was wrecked, the left one had also suffered some splinter damage and there were hundreds of holes all over the horizontal and vertical stabilisers. A fire had consumed the underbelly of the jet, the conflagration having been fed by fuel leaking from a ruptured tank in the right wing. Despite looking worse for wear, Baz 686 had survived thanks to the F-15’s reliance on two powerful engines. The jet was back in the air within two months, sporting two kill markings beneath its cockpit.
F-15 Eagle Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Israeli Air Force