Israeli Air Force History:
Early years (1948-1957)
The IAF was formed when Israel achieved statehood in 1948 and found itself under immediate attack. Its predecessor, Sherut Avir, was the air wing of the Haganah. The IAF's humble beginnings made its first air victories particularly impressive and noteworthy; at first, it was assembled from a hodge-podge collection of civilian aircraft commandeered or donated and converted to military use. A variety of obsolete and surplus ex-World War II (mostly Ex-Luftwaffe) combat aircraft were quickly sourced by various means to supplement this fleet. The backbone of the IAF consisted of 25 Avia S-199 (purchased from Czechoslovakia, and essentially Czechoslovak-built Messerschmitt Bf 109s) and 62 Spitfire LF Mk IXE. Creativity and resourcefulness were the early foundations of Israeli military success in the air, rather than technology (which, at the inception of the IAF, was generally inferior to that used by Israel's adversaries).
During the 1950s, France became a major supplier of warplanes to Israel, but the trust between the two countries was violated just before the Six-Day War, when France declared an arms embargo on Israel. This had a two-pronged effect: Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) significantly increased its efforts and abilities in weapons production (initially based on the French models) and the United States replaced France as Israel's principal military-aircraft supplier, producing the majority of the IAF combat fighters from the late 1960s until today.
The Six-Day War
During the Six-Day War, the Israeli Air Force achieved absolute air superiority by eliminating the vast majority of opposing Arab air forces on the first day of fighting. On June 5, 1967, in Operation Focus, a massive coordinated raid employing special Durandal and conventional bombs, rockets and strafing, the IAF destroyed most of the Egyptian air force while their planes were still on the ground. By the end of the day the Syrian and Jordanian air forces were virtually wiped out as well. The IAF shoot-down record at the end of the war was a claimed record of 451 enemy aircraft downed versus 10 downed of its own. While this operation was taking place, only a handful of aircraft were left to guard Israeli skies.
The War of Attrition
In the War of Attrition, the IAF operated in air "dog fight" and bombing of strategic targets deep within enemy's territory. Notable operations were:
September 11, 1969: IAF planes shot down 12 Egyptian jet fighters in dogfights.
September 26, 1969 - Operation Rooster 53: IAF Super Frelon and Sikorsky CH-53 Yas'ur helicopters carried paratroopers in a raid to "hijack" and airlift back an advanced Soviet P-12 radar deployed in Egypt near Suez. A CH-53 helicopter carried the 4-ton radar back, tethered underneath it.
January 7, 1970: the IAF started performing deep strikes on Egyptian targets, in order to force them to cease artillery and commando attacks on Israeli forces arrayed along the east side of the Suez Canal.
July 30, 1970: the IAF ambushed and shot down 5 Egyptian MiG-21 fighters.
Yom Kippur War
In the Yom Kippur War, the IAF suffered heavy casualties from Soviet anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles but managed to regroup and assist IDF's ground forces and later bomb infrastructure targets in Syria and Egypt. One of the first battles in the war's air front was 2-28 Air Battle. IAF helicopters proved to be highly useful in logistics and rescue efforts (MedEvac). According to Israel, during that war, the IAF lost 102 planes while the Egyptian Air Force lost 235 and the Syrian Air Force lost 135.
Growth (1973 - 1982)
From the 1970s onwards, following the Yom Kippur War, most of Israel's military aircraft have been obtained from the United States. Those included the F-4 Phantom II, A-4 Skyhawk, E-2 Hawkeye and others.
The Israeli Air Force has also operated a number of domestically-produced types like the IAI Nesher, and later, the more advanced IAI Kfir, which were unauthorised derivatives of the French Dassault Mirage 5 [Israel bought and paid (and was reimbursed for) for 50 Mirage 5's from Dassault Aviation, but they were not delivered due to the French embargo during the Yom Kippur war]. The Kfir was adapted to utilize a more powerful US engine, produced under license in Israel. In 1976, the IAF participated in the Operation Entebbe rescue mission in Uganda.
During the 1980s and 1990s the IAF was equipped with a variety of additional U.S. aircraft (e.g. F-15, F-16, AH-1 Cobra and C-130 Hercules).
Bombing of the Osiraq nuclear reactor
On June 7, 1981 8 IAF F-16A fighters covered by 6 F-15A jets flew in Operation Opera, which entailed the destruction of the Iraqi Osiraq nuclear reactor. Eight IAF F-16 fighters flew to Iraq and bombed the nuclear facilities of Osiraq. Among the pilots that took part in the attack was the late Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut. The attack was code named Operation Opera (sometimes also referred to as Operation Babylon or Operation Ofra) by Israel.
1982 Lebanon War
During the 1982 Lebanon War, IAF planes destroyed the Syrian air defence without a single fighter lost and shot down 100 Syrian aircraft (however Syria claims to have shot down Israeli aircraft during the operation). However, one IAF A-4 Skyhawk, piloted by Captain Aharon Achiaz, was lost to a PLO SA-7 missile, with the pilot being captured. IAF AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships destroyed dozens of Syrian armored fighting vehicles and other ground targets, including some T-72 main battle tanks.
After the war has ended, the AH-1 Cobra and the IAF main activity during those years was to attack Hezbollah's and the PLO's positions in south Lebanon.
Bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunis
On October 1, 1985 Operation Wooden Leg undertook the bombing of PLO Headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, the longest combat mission ever undertaken by the IAF: 2300 kilometers, involving in flight refueling by an IAF Boeing 707.
The attack provoked a strong outcry, even among the United States, Israel's strongest ally.
High Tech age (1990 and beyond)
During the 1990s the IAF upgraded most of its aircraft with advanced Israeli-made systems, improving the performances of the aircraft. In the 1990s the IAF also received the AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship and equipped its aircraft with the Rafael Python 4, Popeye and Derby advanced Israeli missiles. In 1991, the IAF participated in Operation Solomon which brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
That same year, Israel was attacked by Iraqi Scud missiles during the first Gulf War. Israeli Air Force pilots were on constant stand-by in their cockpits throughout the conflict, ready to fly to Iraq to retaliate. Diplomatic pressure from the United States, however, kept the IAF grounded while Coalition air assets and Patriot missile batteries supplied by the U.S. and the Netherlands sought to deal with the Scuds.
In the new millennium, the IAF bought the F-15I Ra'am (Thunder) and the F-16I Sufa (Storm), two of the most advanced variants of the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, manufactured specially for Israel according to the IAF requirements. The IAF has purchased 102 Sufa F-16I warplanes, the first planes arrived in April, 2004 (the IAF is the largest operator of F-16's after the US Air Force). The IAF also purchased the advanced Israeli air-to-air missile Rafael Python 5, with full-sphere capability, and considered among the best in its field, as well as a special version of the Apache Longbow, designated AH-64DI or Saraph. In 2005 the Israeli Air Force received special Gulfstream V jets (known as "Nachshon"), modified with the newest and most advanced intelligence systems in the world, all made by Israel Military Industries.
Command structure of the IAFThree IAF squadrons (150 Sqn, 199 Sqn and 248 Sqn), based at Sedot Mikha airbase, are thought to be responsible for Israel's surface-to-surface nuclear strike capability, maintaining a stockpile of between 21 and 100 Jericho I and II medium-range ballistic missiles. The Jericho III, capable of reaching targets throughout the Middle East and Europe, as well as much of Africa and Asia, is thought to be currently under development - but may indeed have already been deployed.
During the al-Aqsa intifada, the IAF was largely employed in targeted killings of leaders of Palestinian militant groups viewed by Israel as terrorists, most notably Salah Shakhade, Mahmoud Abu-Hunud, Abu Ali Mustafa, Ahmed Yassin and Abed al-Aziz Rantissi. This policy is controversial - due to the collateral damage caused in certain instances. Israel claims it is vital to fight terrorism and that IAF pilots do whatever they can to avoid civilian casualties - including aborting strikes.
In 2003, 27 retired Air Force Pilots including the famous commander Yiftach Spector composed a letter of protest to the Air Force Commander, announcing their refusal to continue and perform attacks on targets within Palestinian population centers, and claiming that the occupation of the Palestinians "morally corrupts the fabric of Israeli society". This letter, the first of its kind emanating from the Air Force, evoked a storm of political protest in Israel, with most circles condemning it as dereliction of duty. IDF ethics forbid soldiers from making public political affiliations, and subsequently the IAF commander, Dan Halutz, announced that all signatories were to be suspended from flight duty, after which some of the pilots reconsidered and removed their signatures.
After a landmark 1994 High Court appeal by a Jewish immigrant from South Africa, Alice Miller, the Air Force was instructed to open its pilot's course to women. Miller passed her entrance exams, yet failed the medical tests and thus did not qualify. The first female fighter pilot successfully received her wings in 2001 (several female navigators graduated before her).
Records and highlights
The Israeli Air Force is considered the strongest air force in the Middle East, and one of the best and most sophisticated in the world. Over the past few decades Israel has purchased sophisticated American fighters and installed on them its locally developed and produced avionics and weapons. Perhaps the greatest strength of the IAF is the skill of its pilots. Israeli combat pilots are considered among the best in the world, and hold a large number of shoot-down records. The IAF relies on its Air Intelligence Directorate for intelligence, including analysis of aerial photography. Many of the IAF's electronics and weapons systems are developed and built in Israel by Israel Military Industries, Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit and others.
The IAF holds world records respective to the amounts of enemy warplanes shoot-downs, air combat performance, special operations, and air to ground operations from the jet era onward.
Some of the records and highlight moments are as follows:
Six Day War
June 5, 1967 – the Six Day War: The destruction of the entire Egyptian air-force within 3 hours. By the end of the day the Syrian and Jordanian air forces were wiped out as well. The IAF shoot-down total at the end of the war was a claimed record of 451 enemy aircraft downed versus of its own ten downed. See: Operation Red Sheet.
War of Attrition
March, 1969 until August, 1970 – the War of Attrition: 111 enemy warplanes were shot-down in dogfights by IAF pilots while only four IAF warplanes were shot down in dogfights by enemy pilots (according to Israeli sources). Also, during the Cold War the Soviet Union held close relationships with the Arab nations. On July 30, 1970 the tension peaked: An IAF ambush resulted in a large scale air brawl between IAF planes and MiGs flown by Soviet pilots — five MiGs were shot down, while the IAF suffered no losses.
Yom Kippur War
October 9, 1973 – the Yom Kippur War: The destruction of the Syrian General Staff in Damascus: On October 9, 1973, two F-4 Phantom quartets attacked and destroyed the Syrian General Staff Headquarters in the heart of Damascus. The Syrian Air Force Headquarters was damaged as well.
Also, during the Yom Kippur War, the IAF shot down 277 enemy warplanes accounting for over a third of the IAF's total kills since 1948.
1982 Lebanon War
June 8, 1982 – 1982 Lebanon War: The destruction of the entire Soviet supplied Syrian air-defence system in Lebanon within a few hours without a single warplane lost; Syria with the help of the Soviet Union built up an overlapping network of surface-to-air missiles. Also the IAF states it achieved in dogfights a total of 80 Syrian planes shoot-downs, without a single Israeli plane being shot down.
Israel-Lebanon Conflict: July - August 2006
The IAF played a critical role in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict by leading the Israeli attacks on Lebanon. These strikes - mainly, though not exclusively, in southern Lebanon - were officially aimed at crippling Hezbollah's militia which is primarily based there. The IAF flew more than 12,000 combat missions during this war, destroying a good deal of Lebanese infrastructure. Widespread condemnation followed the 30 July 2006 IAF airstrike on an apartment building near the village of Qana, in which at least 28 civilians were killed. Hezbollah shot down an IAF CH-53 Yas'ur helicopter on the last day of the war. Earlier, an IAF F-16I crashed on take-off.
The only documented successful emergency landing of an F-15 with one wing, the other torn off after an airborne collision with an A-4 Skyhawk. The Skyhawk exploded and its pilot ejected. McDonnell-Douglas, the F-15 Manufacturer, refused to believe it was possible until photos of the incident were shown. The F-15 was restored to flight status.
"Ace" pilots: 39 IAF pilots shot down at least five jet planes, ten out of them shot down at least eight jet planes.
"Ace of Aces": Aluf Giora Epstein shot down seventeen jet planes, holding the world record of jet aircraft shot down, and the most of any aircraft shot down since the Korean War.
Obtaining the first shoot-downs for the American fighter jets, the F-15 and the F-16. 
126 enemy planes were shot down in dogfights in the years between the wars — most of them in the 1970s. The IAF lost only two planes in dogfights between the wars, once in 1959 and the other in 1964.
Pilot Selection and Training
Ezer Weizman, widely considered the architect of the modern Israeli Air Force, coined the phrase "the best for pilots" to describe his goal of recruiting only the cream of Israeli society to man the aircraft of the country's air force. His reasoning was that the skill and bravery of the ground forces would be for naught if they could be attacked at will from the air. As a result, only those thought to possess the innate ability to succeed as Israeli pilots are even invited to begin the training process, and only the most qualified succeed in completing what is probably the world's most demanding military selection course.
Thus, potential Israeli pilots are marked out several years prior to reporting for national service at age 18. High scores in school and on standardized tests, excellent physical condition and an exceptional loyalty to the state are among the factors taken into account.
Those meeting these and other criteria are invited to participate in a six-day gibush (cohesion), a selection phase involving strenuous physical, mental, and sociometric challenges. Recruits are screened not only for their ability to perform the tasks assigned, but for their attitude in performing them. Do they take hardships and unexpected difficulties in stride, or do they become sullen and easily frustrated? Do they have trouble working in groups, or making a decision and sticking to it? Do they pitch in and help an injured comrade, or take the lead in solving a difficult problem? As many as 90 percent of those who commence the gibush will be dropped from further consideration at its conclusion.
The survivors embark on a nearly three-year journey to their wings, a journey that involves not merely learning to fly, but also how to be an officer and how to lead, and includes an academic degree. Part of the course involves spending time as an officer in an infantry unit, so the future pilot will know what his comrades on the ground expect from the air force.
As the body of knowledge the student pilot is expected to master accumulates, and as exams and quizzes become more frequent and difficult, the ranks of the hopefuls thin yet further. Academics aren't the only reason a candidate could be expelled. Excessive drinking, rowdiness or other evidence of ill-discipline could also be cause for a candidate to be dropped from the course. And while rare, cases have been known of a few overconfident unfortunates who have been expelled literally days or even hours before graduation. Depending on how far the candidate progresses, someone expelled from the course at an advanced stage will either remain in the air force in a non-flying capacity, or transfer to an army unit.
For the few dozen who make it to graduation, only those with the highest academic and leadership scores will be assigned to train as fast jet pilots (considered the most desirable assignment), while the remainder will learn to fly helicopters, transport aircraft, or train as navigators.
The pilot course was opened to women in 1995, though the first female pilot did not receive her wings until 2001. (Several female navigators had graduated earlier.) And while Israeli Arabs may volunteer for the IDF without being subject to conscription, it is unclear whether or not they can seek air force training. In 2006, an Israeli Arab applied to be considered for the pilot program, but was not accepted.
List of IAF Commanders
Yisrael Amir (May 1948-July 1948)
Aharon Remez (July 1948-December 1950)
Shlomo Shamir (December 1950-August 1951)
Hayim Laskov (August 1951-May 1953)
Dan Tolkovsky (May 1953-July 1958)
Ezer Weizman (July 1958-April 1966)
Mordechai Hod (April 1966-May 1973)
Binyamin Peled (May 1973-October 1977)
David Ivri (October 1977-December 1982)
Amos Lapidot (December 1982-September 1987)
Avihu Ben-Nun (September 1987-January 1992)
Herzl Bodinger (January 1992-July 1996)
Eitan Ben Eliyahu (July 1996-April 2000)
Dan Halutz (April 2000-April 2004)
Elyezer Shkedy (April 2004-)