Israel relied on France as its principal supplier of arms for more than a decade, but by the mid-1960s its desire to purchase more advanced and capable US weapons saw it buy the combat-proven Douglas A-4 Skyhawk to perform light strike missions.
Some 48 A-4Hs were initially ordered in 1966, and these soon formed the backbone of the Israeli Air Force’s attack arm.
Entering service two years later, the Skyhawk (dubbed the Ahit, or Eagle, in Israel) flew thousands of sorties during the 1967-70 War of Attrition with Egypt. Hostilities along the Lebanese and Syrian borders also triggered Ahit operations.
As told by Shlomo Aloni in his book Israeli A-4 Skyhawk Units in Combat, on 12 May 1970, Ezra ‘Baban’ Dotan, veteran Mirage III pilot and CO of No 109 Sqn, achieved a unique feat for an Israeli Skyhawk pilot when he claimed two Syrian MiG-17s shot down over the mountains of southern Lebanon.
On the morning of 12 May 1970, Dotan’s unit was flying strikes in support of IDF Operation Cauldron 2, which saw Skyhawk units supporting Israeli soldiers and armour in their efforts to mop up Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) strongholds in the eastern areas of south Lebanon.
Skyhawk participation began early on the morning of May 12 when leaflets were dropped over Lebanese towns and villages within the Cauldron 2 sector. Once the operation was launched, Nos 109 and 115 Sqns were tasked with providing CAS. Armed with rockets, pairs of A-4s orbited over the Cauldron 2 sector and waited for a call from a forward air controller (FAC). Simultaneously, and high above the Skyhawks, IDF/AF interceptors flew combat air patrols (CAPs), waiting for word from their air-to-air controller to engage enemy aircraft.
Shortly after Ezra Doran and his wingman Giora Ben-Dov arrived on station, the latter spotted four unidentified aircraft flying at low altitude. Dotan Ordered his wingman to keep the jets in his sight while he tried to determine the identity of these aircraft. Radio calls for identification were not answered, but evoked a response from the IDF/AF fighter controller who reported that the formation was Israeli. He ordered Dotan to focus on his CAS mission. This conflicted with Ben-Dov’s next report that he had positively identified four MiG-17s.
Ezra Dotan was a former Mirage Ill pilot with three aerial kills to his name, so instead of clearing the area and returning to his original mission, he ordered his wingman to lead in pursuit of the MiG-17s. Radio chatter quickly attracted the attention of two Mirage Ills flying a CAP, whose leader asked Ben-Dov for a vector towards the MiG-17s. Dotan abruptly told them that the MiGs were ‘his’, and that they should look for other prey! Unperturbed, the fighter pilots dove in search of the MiG-17s, and Mirage III ace Asher Snir eventually claimed one shot down.
The Skyhawks were ahead of the fighters, and they closed on the Syrian jets until Dotan finally saw them and ordered his wingman to open fire. Ben-Dov just missed the trailing MiG-17 with two bursts from his cannon, so Dotan followed up with a rocket attack. He fired 38 projectiles from two of his five pods, but his aim was off and the heavy air-to-ground weapons fell well behind their intended target. The Skyhawk was equipped with a simple air-to-ground gunsight, and this was useless for air-to-air rocket attacks. Having seen his first rockets fall short, Dotan aimed well above the MiG-17 and launched a second salvo from two more pods. This time the projectiles found their mark and the MiG literally vanished within a huge explosion.
Moments later Dotan came under attack from a second MiG-17, its pilot having just opened fire when Ben-Dov told his leader to break away. Dotan threw his jet into a hard left turn, spoiling the Syrian pilot’s aim. Just as he was about to complete his turn in order to attack his assailant from the rear, Dotan spotted another MiG-17 flying some 600 metres behind him in a perfect firing position.
The melee continued, with Dotan breaking to the left once again and diving so as to evade this new threat. Yet another MiG-17 overtook the diving Skyhawk, and the Israeli pilot attempted to follow it, but his Skyhawk would not recover from its dive. Realising that he was in trouble, Dotan jettisoned his external stores, including the four empty rocket pods. This did the trick, allowing him to recover at very low altitude. Fortuitously, Dotan levelled out right behind the aforementioned MiG-17! He opened fire from a distance of 500 metres but missed.
As so often happens in multi-bogey engagements the air combat scene suddenly changed from a sprawling dogfight to a two-aircraft duel. The lone Skyhawk in pursuit of a MiG-17 flying very low over mountainous terrain attracted light arms fire from unidentified troops below them. Ben-Dov watched the pursuit from above, keeping an eye out for additional MiGs. Dotan accelerated to 520 knots and closed the distance between him and his target. The MiG-17 pilot, meanwhile, continuously weaved, fully aware of the A-4 right behind him.
Suddenly, the MiG-17 disappeared from Dotan’s view. As the latter scanned the landscape ahead of him, the Syrian jet zoomed upwards out of a canyon, still ahead of the Skyhawk but now flying at a much slower speed than the pursuing jet. In haste, Dotan also slowed his A-4 by throttling back its engine and extending its air brakes and flaps. Although he had managed to avoid overtaking the MiG-17, Dotan was now too close to safely open fire with his cannon. Forced to slow down even more in order to open up the distance between him and his foe, the Israeli pilot nevertheless struck with the MiG-17 as it attempted to break away by turning right, reversing to the left and turning right again. This slalom finally placed the Skyhawk in a perfect firing position behind the MiG. Dotan squeezed the trigger and fired a long burst into the jet’s right wing root. The wing was quickly ripped away and the jet rolled right and crashed.
Ezra Dotan was flying Skyhawk 5303 during the historic engagement, this aircraft just happening to be the first locally equipped A-4 – fitted with French-designed and Israeli-manufactured 30 mm DEFA cannon. The IDF/AF had used strafing to great effect during the Six Day War, when most of its attack aircraft had been armed with two or four 30 mm cannon. The Israelis, who were accustomed to cannon with a heavy punch, had quickly identified the Skyhawk’s internal armament of two Colt Mk 12 20 mm cannon as not being up to the job.
The IDF/AF duly told Douglas that it wanted 30 mm DEFA weapons installed in place of the Colts, and the company designed a structural modification (with the help of Israeli engineers) that allowed them to be fitted. The first examples of the ‘upgunned’ A-4H were not ready until late 1969, however, when Skyhawks 03 and 34 were handed over to No 109 Sqn. No 22 Air Maintenance Unit at Tel Nof modified those jets already in service, its pilots having flown some 2000 hours during testing of the cannon fit prior to it being cleared for frontline use.
Whether the whole re-gunning effort was worthwhile is questionable, however, for although strafing was important for the Israelis during the Six Day War, it was no longer relevant by the late 1960s. Arab aircraft were now housed inside HASs protected by integrated air defence systems that incorporated both AAA and SAM sites, rather than parked in the open as had been the case in 1967. This in turn meant the A-4 pilots did far less strafing than had been anticipated when the IDF/AF chose to rearm the Skyhawk.
Israeli A-4 Skyhawk Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Oren Rozen Own Work via Wikipedia, Israeli Air Force and U.S. Air Force
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