The ground-shaking shriek of an F-16 fighter plane signaled the end of an era last week, when the Israeli Air Force’s oldest combat pilot, with more than three decades of aviation experience, finally hung up his wings.
Major (Res.) Nir Yarkoni, 55, began flying jets for the IAF 36 years ago and continued in his role as a combat pilot ever since, Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Sunday. On Friday, he flew for the last time, and as is the tradition in the air force, family members radioed through the permission to take off and land. In Yarkoni’s case, it was his mother Yehudit, 86, who told the veteran airman that he was clear to go. As he returned to base, his father, Mousa, and wife, Dalit Ofer, gave him permission to land.
More than 200 family and friends, including air force commander Amir Eshel, gathered at the Nevatim airbase to see the flight that brought an end to Yakoni’s historic career.
“At the age of 55 I will retire from active combat roles,” he said, which “require a lot of effort, but also luck. And good genes don’t hurt.”
Yarkoni gained his wings in 1977 when he completed the IAF’s training course to fly Skyhawk jets. He then went on to fly the Israeli-made Kfir jet and in 1983 began flying F-16 fighters. He remained in the cockpit as a reserve pilot after completing his mandatory service. And while most air force pilots opt out of highly demanding combat roles by the time they hit their forties, Yarkoni kept going, even surpassing the air force’s regulation upper limit of 51 years of age, with a little help from his commanding officers who didn’t want to see him go.
Yarkoni said that over the past 40-odd years things have changed for pilots, with the focus shifting to technology. What hadn’t changed, however, he said, “is the need to stay focused on the objective, the ability to know what matters and what is irrelevant. Those are the skills that don’t change, despite all developments.”
Yarkoni is aware that flying past middle age has its price in the many hours one must spend airborne in order to maintain the skills needed to be a combat pilot.
“I decided to keep flying until a late age, and it’s quite probable that I paid a price for that,” he was quoted as saying. “The role requires many days of reserve duty. According to my calculation, if you add up all the days I spent in reserves, it comes to six years.”
Over the decades, Yarkoni also competed a law degree. He currently serves as the director of the Civil Aviation Authority and owns a law firm.
The aging pilot said the trauma of seeing comrades shot down was the most prominent memory he had of his time in the air.
“I will never forget the first time I saw a plane shot down next to me,” he told Yeditoth Ahronoth. “It doesn’t matter how much you train, it’s never the way you imagine it or the way you see it in the movies. You know that someone has been killed, and you have to continue to operate.”
As he left the cockpit for the last time, Yarkoni offered some advice to the new generation of IAF pilots.
“You always need to make an effort,” he said. “Never stop training and improving.”