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F-15 pilots at 30,000 feet: ‘We’re landing without a canopy, do you copy?’

Military investigating how top of fighter jet came off, exposing airmen to bitter cold and whipping winds; plane landed safely at nearby base

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

This December 29, 2016 photo shows an Israeli Air Force F-15 plane in flight during a graduation ceremony for new pilots in the Hatzerim air force base near the city of Beersheba. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
This December 29, 2016 photo shows an Israeli Air Force F-15 plane in flight during a graduation ceremony for new pilots in the Hatzerim air force base near the city of Beersheba. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The Israeli military launched an investigation to determine how an F-15 fighter jet’s canopy suddenly blew off at 30,000 feet during a training flight last week.

Israel Defense Forces officials praised the pilot and navigator of the aircraft for displaying a “calm temperament” when the top of their plane flew off suddenly last Wednesday, exposing them to frigid air, vicious winds, and deafening noise.

After a brief moment of panic, the airmen radioed the nearest control tower, informed them of the situation and brought the fighter jet in for a landing. An edited recording of the Hebrew radio chatter was released by the military on Monday morning.

The Israeli Air Force chief grounded the military’s fleet of F-15 fighter jets until the cause of the accident is found.

“This type of incident is very, very rare. The last time something like this happened, it was a Skyhawk jet in 2004. In that case, they needed to eject. This event ended very differently,” an army official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Israel’s F-15 fighter jets — known in Hebrew as the “Baz,” or “Falcon” — were first constructed and delivered in the 1970s, though they have been upgraded and refurbished in the interim decades.

An Israeli Air Force F-15 takes off during the Blue Flag air exercise at the Ovda air force base, north of the Israeli city of Eilat, on November 8, 2017. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The IDF official said it was not yet clear why the canopy blew off. Air force technicians were examining the mechanism that holds down the canopy to see if it had simply failed, as well as the pyrotechnic systems that blow off the canopy during ejections to determine if they had fired accidentally.

The two airmen, a captain who was acting as pilot and a lieutenant serving as navigator, took off from the Tel Nof airbase near the central Israeli city of Rehovot, and began a routine training flight southwards.

When the canopy came detached, the officers could be heard screaming, before they eventually calmed down and started working to land the plane. The temperature outside was approximately 45 degrees Celsius below zero (-49 degrees Fahrenheit). At the height of 30,000 feet, the airmen only had enough oxygen to breathe because of their masks.

For security reasons, the officers can only be identified by their ranks and first Hebrew letter of their name.

“I hear you, do you hear me?” Cpt. “Yod” asked Lt. “Resh.”

Before receiving a reply, Yod then begins speaking to the control tower of the nearby Nevatim airbase east of Beersheba.

“We’re landing without a canopy, do you copy?” he asks.

Turning back to his navigator, Yod asks, “Resh, do you hear me?”

Clearly shaken, Resh responds: “Are you okay?”

“Yes, everything’s okay,” Yod answers, in an apparent effort to reassure his navigator.

The control tower operator then confirms the pilot’s request for a landing in Nevatim.

“Will you make it?” the operator asks.

“We won’t have a problem reaching the base. Keep giving us figures,” Yod responds.

The pilot then turns back to his navigator.

An Israeli pilots sits at the cockpit of his F-15 Eagle fighter jet in an Israeli Air Force Base. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Israeli pilots in the cockpit of an F-15 fighter jet in an Israeli Air Force base. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

“Are you with me, brother?” he asks.

“Yes,” Resh says.

“Everything’s okay. Is your chair down?” Yod asks.

“Affirmative,” he answers.

“Wonderful, brother,” he says, calmly.

Turning again to the control tower, Yod asks for the lights to be turned on for their landing strip and informs them they’ll be landing from the west.

“Wheels down,” he says, just before landing the plane successfully.

“The air crew in the plane had full control of the incident throughout,” the IDF said in a statement. The airmen “acted with calm, professionalism and expertise in handling the unusual fault, and brought the plane to a safe landing at the Nevatim Air Force Base.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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