Army: Crew of F-16 downed by Syria made ‘professional error’

Internal probe shows pilots did not respond properly to missile threat, but were right to eject after being hit

The remains of an F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses, in the northern Israeli Kibbutz Harduf, on February 10, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
The remains of an F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses, in the northern Israeli Kibbutz Harduf, on February 10, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

An internal military investigation into the downing of an Israeli F-16 jet by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile on February 10 has shown that the aircraft’s crew did not respond properly to the threat and made a “professional error.”

However, the probe also found that the pilot and navigator were right to abandon the warplane after it was hit.

The pilot and the navigator were injured, but nobody on the ground was hurt in the incident, which came amid a round of intense hostilities, sparked when an Iranian drone infiltrated Israeli airspace, triggering Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

The downing of the plane sparked a second round of Israeli strikes that the military said destroyed between a third and half of Syria’s air defenses.

President Reuven Rivlin visiting IDF pilots, who were injured when an Israeli F-16 was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, February 11, 2018. (Mark Neiman/ GPO)

The investigation showed that the F-16’s warning systems had behaved properly, and that the crew possessed sufficient intelligence to complete the mission successfully.

However, it also found that the crew did not correctly balance their desire to complete the attack mission with the need to defend themselves from counterattack.

“On the balance of completing the mission versus defensing themselves…the crew made a professional error in failing to defend themselves,” the military said. “Their actions did not fit the required priorities in light of the threats they faced.”

A senior IDF official stressed that “it was not negligence or a lack of discipline,” but “a professional error.”

“They should have put the mission aside and responded to the approaching threat,” he said. “Someone else would have backed them up and fired the arms (at the target) instead.”

But he added that the crew would not suffer any negative repercussions in light of the incident. “The plane should not have gone down, but we embrace them, and they are returning to operational activity.”

The official said that the lessons of the incident had been absorbed, and that last week, the entire air force command held a “learning session” about what had occurred.

Head of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, left, takes off with Maj. ‘Aleph,’ the navigator of an F-16 fighter jet shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, as the officer returns to fly for the first time since the crash, on February 19, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The pilot, who was seriously wounded in the incident after ejecting from the plane as it crashed in a ball of flame, walked out of Haifa’s Rambam Hospital in “good” condition last Sunday, and went home.

He had arrived at the hospital unconscious and attached to a respirator, with shrapnel wounds in his abdomen. He had to have emergency surgery to stem internal bleeding. His condition stabilized after the surgery, and he was moved out of intensive care within days.

The plane’s navigator, who also ejected, was lightly injured in the incident and returned to the skies last week, joined in the cockpit by Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin.

“From the moment you understood that you needed to abandon the plane, you made the right decision and saved the life of the major and of yourself,” Norkin told the pilot, according to an Israel Defense Forces statement.

Neither the pilot nor the navigator has been identified, in keeping with IDF policy.

The jet crashed into a hillside near Kibbutz Harduf in northern Israel, only a few hundred meters from homes and buildings.

In this image made from video provided by Yehunda Pinto, the wreckage of an Israeli F-16 is seen on fire near Harduf, northern Israel, February 10, 2018. (Yehunda Pinto via AP)

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