Israel's Phantom F-4E
Israel's Phantom F-4EIsrael news photo

An Israeli surveillance airplane on duty over Baghdad 27 years ago led to the downing of an Iraqi MiG that pursued it.

The story was published in a recent issue of Air Forces Monthly, and its translation into Hebrew was permitted by the Israeli military censor. The translator was Avinoam Misnikov, editor of the Hebrew-language Merhav Aviri (Air Space) website.

The star of the story is a U.S.-made Phantom F-4E, nicknamed "Kurnass Shablul" (Sledgehammer Snail).  The plane was fitted with what was then state-of-the-art photography equipment. Shortly after they arrived in Israel, the planes were deployed intensively, regularly flying at extremely high altitudes over 60,000 feet (11.3 miles, 18 kilometers).  The missions were highly classified. The pilots wore high-pressure suits in case of high-altitude emergency, similar to that which astronauts wear: six layers of material, including fire-resistant Nomex, weighing a total of 12 kilograms (over 25 lbs.).

On Jan. 3, 1982, a half-year after Israel destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak, two of the planes set off on a reconnaissance sortie high over Iraq. The lead plane was flown by future IDF General Gideon Sheffer, with navigator Yuval Naveh, and the other was piloted by Ran Granot, with navigator Danny Grossman.

On their return home, while flying relatively low, they were intercepted by a single Iraqi MiG-21. Sheffer quickly calculated, based on its smooth flying formation and a full afterburner, that the Iraqi plane had used up much fuel during takeoff. The two Israeli planes then toyed with the MiG for several minutes, without giving it a chance to fire at them. Finally, the two sped off towards home at full speed, and landed safely after refueling in mid-air.

Intelligence information received afterwards showed that the MiG later crashed for lack of fuel – and the two reconnaissance planes were credited with the downing.

Rumors circulated after the Peace for Galilee War in June 1982 that one of the planes had been downed by a shoulder-fired missile, but this was found to be untrue.  Years earlier, a Sledgehammer reconnaissance plane was downed over Egypt; pilot Sheffer ejected safely, but navigator Ofer Tzidon was killed.