The pilot and navigator of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet that was targeted by Syrian anti-aircraft missile fire indicated they did not hesitate before bailing out of the critically damaged plane as a missile exploded alongside them, in leaked transcripts of their debriefings Sunday.
The pair said they were fortunate not to have been killed outright by the blast, recognized that the plane was no longer responsive, swiftly went through the procedures for ejecting, and were shot from the plane at a height of some 14,000 feet just before it crashed into a hillside near a northern Israel kibbutz.
The statements, broadcast by Hadashot news, came as the IDF continued to investigate the Saturday incident, which appears to mark the first time that an Israeli fighter plane was downed by enemy fire since the 1982 Lebanon war.
A video broadcast Sunday showed the jet as a ball of flames streaking through the sky, which bolstered the prevailing theory that it was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire during sorties as border tensions skyrocketed over the weekend.
The news outlet said the transcripts came from the two-man crew’s testimony during their debriefing to the military.
The F-16 — which was reportedly leading several jets in an Israeli strike on targets in Syria early Saturday, launched in retaliation for the infiltration into Israeli airspace of an Iranian drone — fell to earth in flames at Kibbutz Harduf in northern Israel.
The airmen, who have not been named, said they heard “an explosion and understood we were hit; it is a very uncomfortable feeling, the loss of control.”
“The bailing out was straight away,” one is quoted saying in report, which did not specify where or in what precise circumstances the comments were made or which of the pilots was speaking.
The navigator was lightly injured in the incident and has since been released from the hospital. The pilot was seriously injured, though his condition has since stabilized and is now said to be moderate.
“There is no long process and also there is no time. A few seconds. The understanding [was] that we need to quickly abandon, as a result of the physical damage to us and also as a result of the the damage to the plane that ceased to function,” an airman is quoted saying.
The pilot and navigator, who operates the weapons systems, described how they had led the attack on their targets. “We were very focused on the mission,” the transcript reads.
“There was no shouting in the cockpit” when the anti-aircraft missile exploded nearby.
“We were extremely lucky. The missile exploded close to the plane and the force of the explosion could have killed us,” the testimony continued. “The missile exploded at a certain distance from the plane and its shrapnel did enough damage to the plane [as to render it inoperable].
“The decision to bail out was [taken] within seconds. We coordinated between us the [logistics of] ejection,” they said, including with a focus on “pressing the arms [to your sides] in order that we won’t be injured in the actual ejection. You repeat the orders on the intercom and then activate the ejector seat.”
Once they were out of the plane, the airman described the descent. “You are hanging on a parachute at a height of 14,000 feet; you have long minutes until you reach the ground and immediately begin the procedure of reporting on the radio. On the air force emergency channel. All the forces’ [other] planes are listening to us, and so is the ground control.
“[We gave] the height at which we bailed out, the exact position, and the condition of our [physical] health, so that the rescue helicopter could link up with us.”
The Israeli Air Force has developed a reputation for aerial superiority in the region; the more advanced Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets have a significant advantage over the generally older Russian air defense systems.
However, Saturday’s downing served as a stark reminder of what many Israeli defense officials and analysts have been saying for years: no military system is perfect and unbeatable.
Investigators are still reviewing exactly how the plane was hit and are reportedly probing whether there were any technical failures, such as some of the F-16’s early warning systems not working correctly.
Hadashot and Channel 10 TV on Sunday both speculated that the pilots may have been so focused on attacking their targets that they failed to internalize the extent of the danger posed by what one TV report said were dozens of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles fired toward them.
The pilots did eventually become aware of the incoming missiles, and managed to avoid several, the Hadashot report said.
Channel 10 cited one unnamed official as saying that the loss of the jet “should not have happened.”
In response to the downing of the F-16, the Israeli military conducted another round of strikes a short time later on Saturday, specifically targeting Syrian air defense systems. Then too, Israeli pilots faced significant Syrian anti-aircraft fire, that set off multiple warning sirens in northern Israel, sending residents into bomb shelters.