Patrick Jackson / BBC News – 2006-06-06 08:13:39
As part of a series marking 25 years since Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, BBC News speaks to four of the F-16 pilots involved:
Had mission commander Col Zeev Raz’s risk assessment been proven right, one pilot would have ejected over Baghdad and another would have been waiting out in the desert for helicopters to rescue him in the night.
Yet the loss of two planes would have been a price worth paying in the eyes of the pilots of the eight F-16s and their two F-15 escorts: several believed they were averting nothing less than a new Holocaust of the Jews.
Col Raz is the most vocal of the surviving pilots. For personal security reasons, three of them – Pilots A, B and C – would only talk to the BBC on condition of anonymity.
One Osirak pilot, however, became famous across the world in 2003 as Israel’s first astronaut.
Col Ilan Ramon was killed a few days later when the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Osirak posed a formidable challenge: to fly a round trip of some 2,000km (1,200 miles) over hostile territory in new jets laden with bombs and extra fuel tanks.
The US-made single-seat F-16s had been in service for only a couple of years with the Americans, and had arrived in Israel less than a year before, though the pilots had been in training earlier in Utah.
“None of us had flown more than 100 missions in an F16, which is not a lot, and the whole plane was completely new, its limitations were not completely clear, we were still learning,” says Pilot A.
Pilot B was anxious about the runway at Etzion, Israel’s Sinai Desert air base which has since been returned to Egypt.
“I was very concerned whether the runway at that altitude would be sufficient for a take-off at our weight,” he recalls.
In the event, all eight F-16s got away safely along with their escorts, rising into a clear sky just before 1600 (1300 GMT).
“After you take off, you have to pinch yourself and say ‘Hey, it’s the real thing’ because riding there it’s basically 90 minutes of navigation with not a lot of activity and it’s like in training,” says Pilot A.
Flying in unchallenged, Pilot C remembers his first glimpse of the reactor. “It glistened with the sun shining from the low west,” he says.
This was despite the dome having been covered in mud by the Iraqis, rattled by a small-scale Iranian air attack the previous autumn.
Col Raz remembers the view from the cockpit as his F-16 climbed for the bombing run: “We could look right and see Baghdad and look left and see the reactor.”
Within a minute, all eight planes had dropped their twin bombs on Osirak. Only two failed to explode.
Once the bombs were released, Pilot C recalls, his only thought was “jinking the AAA [anti-aircraft artillery] and getting to low level”.
With their lack of fuel ruling out dogfights, the pilots’ greatest concern was the flight home.
When they touched down at Etzion, each had at most 450kg (1,000 pounds) of fuel left.
A secret no more
Col Raz recalls relief, happiness and “some hugs” back on the ground but the celebrations had to wait until the pilots got back to their home base in Israel.
“Even then we didn’t have much time to celebrate because we were flown on a small cargo plane to Tel Aviv to debrief with the generals,” he says.
“It had gone just like in planning and therefore there was not a lot to say at the debriefing,” Pilot A adds.
“The planners, the analysts, they are the real heroes of this mission.”
Pilot A is still impressed by the mission’s modest cost: “a couple of million of dollars, the cost of an Israeli Air Force training day and very cheap for a military machine”.
But Col Raz was expecting very muted celebrations, if any. “When I landed back that night, I didn’t tell my family anything about the flight,” he says.
Long afterwards, he was angered to find out that four fellow F-16 pilots had told their wives even before the mission that they were being sent to attack Osirak.
“It wasn’t just a security breach,” he says. “It was something you shouldn’t do to your family.”
Gen Rafael Eitan, the Israeli chief of staff, had told the Osirak pilots that Israel was not going to admit carrying out the mission.
“And I was really amazed the day after to hear on the radio that our government had announced it was our mission,” Col Raz recalls.
It is not clear how far Israel would have succeeded in denying the mission. For one thing, the planes all bore Israeli markings.
Col Raz does not rule out a domestic political motive for the announcement though not, he stresses, the actual mission: Prime Minister Menachem Begin faced a general election within weeks.
‘For my grandfather’
Zeev Raz’s role in the mission remained secret for nearly a decade. Then, in 1991, when Iraqi Scud missiles were hitting Israel during the Gulf War, he was persuaded by the government to go public in a morale-boosting exercise.
Pilot B once relived the mission in a dream, a couple of years afterwards, but the mission had “no special effect” on his career.
Pilot C says life for him after Osirak was very much “business as usual with other missions that were more exciting, including several dogfights”.
“I had my first engagement in ’82, when I shot a MiG,” recalls Pilot A. “With the clashes in Lebanon, it was such a hectic time. Osirak only became interesting again after the 1991 war with Iraq when the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction came back.”
Col Raz and his fellow Osirak veterans commemorate the mission each year, describing it to younger pilots.
In July, the Osirak veterans will join other F-16 pilots at a base in northern Israel to celebrate the 25th anniversary.
Debate will continue about how much of a real danger Iraq posed to Israel, but all the pilots are still convinced they were fighting a mortal threat to their country.
Both Col Raz and Pilot C are named after grandfathers who were murdered by the Nazis, and Pilot A also had family killed by them.
“I recall feeling that even if I did not come back, this mission would prevent another Holocaust and I was in debt to my grandfather,” says Pilot C.
“Personally, I never connected the mission with the Holocaust,” says Pilot A. “But I knew this was a very important mission for Israel. It was something we could not miss, there was no second chance.
“Later, in Lebanon, there was some conflict within Israeli society but I don’t think there was any political debate about the legitimacy of attacking Osirak – the debate was about whether you could stop it or slow it or whether it would get even worse after a couple of years.”
“No doubt it was the most important mission of my career,” Col Raz adds.
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