The IAF carries out a wide range of special and challenging missions, most of them leaving those who hear about them awe-inspired. An essential part of these missions is the transport division, which plays a crucial role for the IAF and the IDF as a whole. Providing aerial images, aerial refueling for aircraft, and aerial equipment supply are just some of the division's capabilities.
Often, an activity that may look like an accident bound to happen takes place over Israeli skies - aerial refueling of fighter jets, transport aircraft, and helicopters. Some of the IAF's operations require aircraft to stay airborne for long periods, such as operations deep in hostile territory, international flights, and other prolonged operations. In order to execute these missions, aircraft need fuel. That's where aerial refueling comes into play.
In the 120th ("Desert Giants") Squadron that operates the "Re'em" (Boeing 707) aircraft, the person responsible for refueling missions is the Boom Operator (an experienced Flight Engineer who specializes in aerial refueling). In the plane, there's a fuel pipe called the Boom, the "Boomer" is responsible for connecting the pipe to the aircraft for fueling purposes. Both planes need to fly close to each other at the exact same high speed to prevent crashing. The connection process of the boom is very challenging and complicated - "one of the biggest challenges for the boomer is the fixed distance to the aircraft. Any change in weather or unexpected movement of the fighter jet or the fueling aircraft could lead to major accidents", explained Maj. Y, Commander of the Boom Operators and Flight Engineers Department in the squadron. Despite the complicated process, it's essential for the force, and therefore the transporting squadrons that carry out these missions train constantly in order to maintain their capabilities and improve.
Precision is key
Another capability the squadron has that we'll dive into hasn't been used since the 2006 Lebanon War. However, that capability is essential not just for the IAF but for the IDF as a whole. Therefore, the squadron practices it every 6 months. We're talking about aerial equipment supply. The 131st ("Knights of The Yellow Bird") Squadron that operates the "Karnaf" (C-130HI) aircraft and the 103rd (The "Elephants") Squadron that operates the "Shimshon" (C-130J Super Hercules) aircraft, are the squadrons responsible for cargo drop. The aerial supply process is carried out when ground forces in the field are in need of equipment. The request is passed by the IAF's HQ and the equipment is packed and loaded on the planes. The equipment is connected to parachutes that deploy instantly when dropped.
A precise drop-off of supplies is not an easy task. "The challenges begin on the ground", explained Cpt. M, an aircrew member in the 103rd Squadron. "We must ensure the cargo reaches its designated plane. In the air, the flight is executed at a low speed and altitude, and the plane has to be stable when reaching the drop-off point. The drop-off coordinates must be precise in order to deliver the packages to the exact point where they're needed." Said Cpt. M. "Any small mistake or deviation can lead to a major difference of tens of meters in the landing of the equipment, and there could be a mountain or a river preventing the forces from reaching the packages."
Building an Aerial Image
Israel has several ATC (Air Traffic Control) units that manage missions and create a live aerial image that presents all aircraft in the country's airspace and beyond. A live aerial image is crucial for keeping the skies free of any threats and making sure no flight paths, commercial and military, collide. That being said, every ATC unit has its limits. The IAF's aircraft must occasionally fly beyond the reach of its ATC Unit's, leaving them without a situational image- a dangerous situation, especially in enemy territory. The airborne ATCs' of the 122nd ("Nachshon") squadron, which operates the Gulfstream G-500 ("Nachshon") aircraft, offer a solution to this issue.
The airborne ATCs' sit in the cabin of the "Nacshon" aircraft and work from the air. Thanks to the live operational image they provide, fighter aircraft can be guided throughout far-away missions. "The tasks of an airborne ATC are based on those on the ground, only they focus on missions deep into enemy territory", explained Maj L, an ATC in the 122nd Squadron. "In routine times, we prepare for special missions that take place far from Israel. We train for extreme events that happen from time to time and conduct complex and meaningful tasks".
Intelligence for the IAF and the whole IDF
One of the main roles of the 100th ("Flying Camel") squadron, that operates the Beechcraft King-Air B200 ("Tzofit") and Bonanza ("Hofit") aircraft, is to collect intelligence and pass it on to the IAF's Intelligence Directorate and the IDF's Intelligence Corps. The "Hofit" aircraft gathers intelligence through stills photography and the "Tzofit" through video. Stills are generally used for mission planning, while video is used for live intelligence. Those responsible for gathering intelligence are the airborne ATC's in the cabin who interpret information in real-time or after the sortie.
"There are two patrollers in each cabin - senior and new", described Maj. A, reserve Air Patroller and Operation Commander. "The newer patroller operates the imaging systems and processes the pictures. The more senior patroller interprets the intelligence and decides how to direct the cameras to match the demands of the operation". One of the interesting roles of the squadron is to guide ground forces in the field. "Tzofit" aircraft join ground, air and navy forces and provide them with important and live life-saving information that helps them execute their missions.
The IAF's transport aircraft squadrons have unique capabilities and are continuously evolving. The missions presented in this article display only a fraction of their abilities. However, they illustrate the significance they have in the IAF as well as the rest of the IDF. Whether in gathering intelligence, aerial images, aerial refueling, or airdropping missions, remember that there is always someone protecting from above.