Shortly after Israel declared her independence, a column of Egyptian forces invaded Israel from the south and advanced towards Tel Aviv. Israel’s meager ground forces were unable to stop the flow of the Egyptian army and it seemed that Tel Aviv would quickly be overrun. Since Israel didn’t possess any combat aircraft capable of stopping the Egyptians, Israeli agents in Czechoslovakia quickly purchased four small World War II Messerschmitts, took them apart, loaded them into larger aircraft and rushed them to Israel for reassembly. 

Israel’s newly-acquired planes met and attacked the Egyptians near a bridge a mere 20-minute ride from Tel Aviv. Although two of the four planes were damaged, the Arab advance was halted. In part, this amazing success was due to the psychological effect on the Egyptians, who were astonished to find that our fledgling country had any air force at all.

The transformed Messerschmitt from the Independence War (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The transformed Messerschmitt from the Independence War (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The following day, a Messerschmitt flown by dark-skinned Canadian volunteer Milton Rubenfeld was hit by Egyptian fire. Rubenfeld parachuted into the water by Kfar Vitkin and suffered multiple injuries. Like the Egyptians, few Israelis were aware of the fact that their brand-new country had an Air Force — complete with airplanes! So when Rubenfeld stumbled towards them, area residents thought he was an Arab and started shooting.

Rubenfeld didn’t speak Hebrew, and desperately needed to let his captors know that he was Jewish. So he shouted out the only words he knew in Yiddish: Gefilte fish and shabbas! (Or at least that’s how the story goes . . .)

Along with other historic aircraft, several early Messerschmitts are on display at the Israel Air Force Museum near the Hatzerim Air Force base (outside of Beersheva). But what will leave the most impact — and probably touch your heart as well — are the stories they have to tell. For this museum is not just a collection of planes on a wonderfully landscaped tarmac: it is a living testimony to the State of Israel. (Noisy planes flying overhead every few minutes make the Museum seem even more alive than it already is).

After scavenging for parts from Spitfires that the British had discarded, Israeli engineers were able to build two. All they were missing were…motors! Providentially, four Egyptian Spitfires bombarded a Jewish target. The enemy Spitfires were downed and their motors were inserted into the new planes.

The Air Force Museum opened in 1991 with cast-off planes collected by its founder, former pilot and ex‑Israeli Chief of Police Brigadier General (res) Ya’acov Turner. There are several parts to the museum, including a wonderful indoor exhibit. But the main attraction is an enormous tarmac featuring over 140 types of aircraft, each with its own unique, riveting story.

Take the Auster, for instance, hard to miss because it is both small and bright orange!  Although the Messerschmitt is commonly billed as the first plane used by Jewish pilots in the War of Independence, it was really the Auster (known locally as the Primus) that was our first warplane.

Back in 1947, when the writing was already on the wall, former World War II pilots and navigators came to Palestine as volunteers and helped found the Jewish Air Service — predecessor to the Israeli Air Force. But where were they going to get warplanes? Nobody wanted to sell them to the Jews of Palestine, so they were reduced to lies and subterfuge.

Under false pretenses, volunteers bought British Austers abroad and smuggled them into Israel: the little planes were dismantled, and transported in crates labeled as agricultural implements.

The British had used Austers as observers, to assist artillery. It took imagination and tons of improvisation, but engineers transformed the little Austers into combat planes. Indeed, in 1948 there were 11 Austers in the first Jewish fleet.  But there was a problem. After the planes were loaded with as many explosives as they could handle, two pilots entered the cockpit and took off. Once over their target, the pilots dumped the explosives out of the planes. However, the bombs, homemade and totally unreliable, sometimes blew up immediately afterwards, seriously endangering the lives of the pilots.

Spitfire, Air Force Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Spitfire, Air Force Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

As the War of Independence continued, it became clear that the fledgling Air Force needed aircraft better than Austers and superior to the Messerschmitts.  The British withdrawal from Palestine provided the solution, for when they left Palestine, they evacuated several Air Force bases. After scavenging for parts from Spitfires that the British had discarded as unusable, Israeli engineers were able to build two Spitfires. All they were missing were…motors! Providentially, soon afterwards, four Egyptian Spitfires bombarded a Jewish target. The enemy Spitfires were downed and their motors were inserted into the new planes.

A MiG 21, located on one side of the tarmac, boasts the numerals “007”. This plane was flown to this country by Iraqi pilot Munir Radfa, who defected in 1966 after ensuring that the Israeli government would get his family out of Iraq and pay him a substantial sum of money. On his arrival, Radfa was dubbed Double 0 Seven.

At the time, the MiG 21 was the predominant fighter plane used by Arab air forces. Israeli test pilots examined Radfa’s plane carefully in flight and discovered a blind spot, similar to that found in cars. The MiG’s blind spot was over the cockpit on the left hand side, and could keep a pilot from seeing that he was being attacked. Knowledge of the MiG 21′s Achilles’ heel gave Israeli pilots an edge that was to be significant during the Six Day War the following year.

Visitors will view a Mirage airplane whose 13 sticker‑medals refer to the number of its successful hits. Further along the tarmac, a small collection of Super Frelon helicopters includes the aircraft that carried President Sadat around Israel during his historic trip to this country.

Super Frelon, Air Force Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Super Frelon, Air Force Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A Grumman Avenger like that on display was part of the American Navy in World War Two. A crew of 13 was on a mission to blow up a Japanese broadcasting station when it was hit by an anti‑aircraft missile. The aviator — later to become US president George H.W. Bush — bailed out before the plane crashed into the sea. There were no other survivors.

Two Syrian pilots were on their way to a base in South Lebanon in 1968 when they miscalculated and landed, by mistake, near Nahariya. Both pilots were returned to Syria in exchange for Israeli prisoners of war; one of the Syrian planes is on display.

Training planes called Tzukit have two seats — one for the instructor and one for the cadet. In 1967, the IAF’s Tzukits were drafted into the war, carrying bombs under their wings. Many pilots flying in Tzukits were killed during the fighting because the trainer-planes lacked ejector seats.

The museum features an excellent indoor exhibit, with displays of the gear worn by combat pilots, and a description of each item’s purpose. Signs explain exactly how modern ejection seats work, what happens when a pilot hits the sea, and what he/she carries in the all-important survival kit.

If you are lucky enough to visit the museum, ask for a guided tour (included in your entrance fee). For details, or to book a tour in English from outside of Israel, call +972 8 990 6853 (in Israel, 08-990 6853). Closed on Saturdays.

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Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.