A palm-sized piece of metal. A scrap of wood. Pieces of rivets. A shard of plastic.
Nearly 54 years after Lt. Yakir Naveh’s Fouga Magister crashed into the Sea of Galilee, Israeli Navy divers continue to find fragments of the plane — but Naveh’s body remains missing.
Lt. Naveh is one of 179 Israel Defense Forces soldiers whose burial place is unknown. But one unit is hoping to change that.
Since 2000, a team of soldiers and civilians have been coming out to the Sea of Galilee almost once a year with maps and diving gear to search for Naveh’s remains.
“They sent him on a mission from which he never returned. Now we’re doing all we can to bring him back,” Maj. Matan Bar told The Times of Israel, looking out from the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
On May 6, 1962, Naveh was training a cadet on a Fouga Magister when their plane got too low over the water and the engine cut out. The nose of the plane hit the water, sending them into a fierce spin, wing over wing.
“The plane came apart — completely,” Bar said, on the harbor in Kibbutz Ein Gev.
In 1963, a search team found the cadet who had been flying the plane, Oded Kouton, but no trace of Naveh.
Naveh was born in Ramat Gan in 1939. He was 23 years old and newly married at the time of the accident. His older brother and his nephew — who was named Yakir in his honor and also went on to become a pilot — still meet with the team before they set out on their yearly mission.
It’s still difficult for the family to visit the Sea of Galilee, knowing that’s where Naveh died, Bar said.
The commander of an Israeli Navy Underwater Combat Unit, Bar has been involved in the search for Yakir Naveh’s plane for over a decade, first as a diver in 2003 and now as an officer leading this year’s search, which began on February 28.
Over the years the teams involved have gotten close to finding the missing pilot, Bar said. They’ve found his watch, his pistol, even pieces of his chair. But Naveh is still missing.
The “Sea of Galilee” is a misnomer. It is a lake — and not even a particularly large one at that. The Sea of Galilee has an area of just 64 square miles (167 sq. kilometer). Even on a hazy day, you can see the other side.
The IDF has access to SONAR, metal detectors, any number of gizmos and gadgets that should make quick work of this search. So how has Naveh been missing for over 50 years in such a small body of water?
Looking out from the shore, Bar remarked: “Up here it looks pretty pastoral, right?”
It did. Birds were chirping. The waters were still, and the bright spring morning was warm, though there was a gentle, cooling breeze coming off the shore.
“Well, down below it’s hell.”
How to find a 54-year-old crash site
From a video screen on board the boat the army is using to conduct its search, you can see the depths of the Sea of Galilee through a camera attached to a diver’s helmet.
You can’t see much.
The black-and-white picture is mostly white, as there’s little to no visibility at the bottom of the lake. Occasionally a pipe or piece of rope passes by, only to disappear a second later, leaving a white screen showing the light from the helmet’s LED bulbs bouncing off particles floating in the water.
“It’s complete darkness, complete darkness,” Bar said. “And it’s cold. We’re talking about 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14 C°).”
(Hypothermia can set in at water temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit.)
The divers wear American-made wetsuits to ward off the cold and carry knives in bright yellow sheaths. They don’t use scuba gear, but instead have oxygen and communications piped into their metal helmets through brightly colored tubes — known as an umbilical cord — from the surface down to the bottom, approximately 105 feet (32 meters) below.
A small team of officers and experienced divers monitors the system and stay in constant contact with the diver using a large, transportable box full of dials and gauges.
“Sometimes you feel claustrophobic, but speaking with the people on top calms you down,” said Cpl. Sahar Nitzan, one of the divers searching for Naveh’s remains. “And you feel cold, you definitely feel cold.”
For the navy, this mission also has the side benefit of giving divers like Nitzan, who enlisted less than a year ago, the opportunity to train in a new challenging environment, Bar said.
Using a pump from the surface, Nitzan and seven other divers dredge the Sea of Galilee, bringing up sediment from the bottom into a small, simple boat — a “bathtub,” as Bar called it — where it gets strained through a fine mesh net.
The mud and rocks get dumped, while the pieces of wreckage are meticulously cataloged to build a complete picture of the crash.
They work based off a grid made up of squares, each 20 feet by 20 feet, to map out where they have already searched and ensure they don’t miss anything.
From the pieces of the plane that have already been discovered, and based off computer models and calculations, the dispersion of Naveh’s crash works out to be an area approximately 330 feet by 660 feet, according to the lieutenant colonel representing the IAF’s Accident Investigation and Missing Persons department, which is ultimately responsible for the search.
The larger pieces of the plane — the wings and canopy — have already been found, leaving only smaller pieces behind. And because visibility in the Galilee waters is nonexistent, the only way to search for Naveh and the remains of his plane is to go square by square, dredging and filtering, dredging and filtering.
Oh, and because of the depth, the diver can only remain below for approximately half an hour at a time before he has to come up in order to avoid decompression sickness.
It is slow and tedious work. “It’s not dangerous or difficult, but it’s challenging,” Bar said.
Our cast of characters
Though most of the legwork is being done by the navy’s Underwater Combat Unit, at least four separate groups are involved in the mission, which is known as “Yakir HaYam,” a Hebrew play on words with Naveh’s first name that also means “Darling of the Sea.”
The navy, the air force, the army’s “Eitan” Unit, which searches for MIA soldiers, and a small group of civilians are all involved in the search for Naveh.
The team on the boat gives the impression of a ragtag bunch that could appear in a Hollywood movie.
There are the divers, mostly fresh-faced new soldiers; their commanders, jovial officers and NCOs who crack jokes while expertly manipulating the diving equipment; two serious-looking representatives from the air force, cataloging pieces of wreckage and filling out search grids; and then there’s Menachem.
Menachem Lev is the skipper of the Gil, the civilian fishing boat the army is using to carry out the search. (The Israel Navy has little to no full-time presence in the Sea of Galilee.)
Lev has been involved in the search operation since it started in 2000, and his boat is also the same one used in 1963 to locate Oded Kouton, the cadet who died in the crash. “So we have to be the ones to find Yakir,” he said.
In the short time we spent on the boat, Lev made too many off-color jokes to count — “I’m a civilian, I don’t have to watch what I say,” he said with a laugh.
But when it came to the mission at hand, the joking stopped. “It’s a clear message to the State of Israel: We don’t abandon our soldiers,” he said.
What does ‘Mission Accomplished’ look like?
The army has been searching for Lt. Yakir Naveh for 54 years and has found nothing. But those involved aren’t prepared to give up.
“Right now he’s considered a soldier whose burial place is unknown,” Bar said.
And to the major, that is unacceptable.
“He’s one of us, and his family is in pain,” Bar said. “There’s a sense of calling. And there’s also a sense of ego: everyone wants to be the one who finds Yakir.”
In 2009, the dive team found some human remains on the bottom. Hopes were high that they had finally found Naveh, but after performing a DNA comparison, they discovered that the bones belonged to the cadet, Kouton, who was in the plane with him, Bar said.
Though disappointing, that discovery proved that some of Naveh’s remains could have survived this long.
“There’s no oxygen in the water at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee, so there’s nothing that will disturb the bones,” Bar said.
But despite the preservative waters, the chances of finding Naveh’s complete skeleton are slim. The team, instead, sets its sights a bit lower.
“At the end of the day, we are looking to find one of Yakir’s bones so that we can bury him,” Bar said. “In the [Jewish] religion, all you need is [a little bit].”
A Google search of Yakir Naveh’s name yields a host of articles spanning the 16 years of the renewed search, each making it sound as though that year is going to be the year that they find him.
The headlines have phrases like “dramatic turn,” “new leads,” or “high hopes,” but so far none of those turns, leads and hopes has panned out.
But maybe this year, the outcome will be different. Maybe this will be the year that Lt. Yakir Naveh is finally laid to rest.