F-16 navigator downed in Syria strike returns to the skies
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F-16 navigator downed in Syria strike returns to the skies

Maj. 'Aleph' takes first flight after the crash, which seriously injured his pilot, with the head of the air force manning the controls

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Head of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, left, stands 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)
Head of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, left, stands 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 navigator of the F-16 fighter jet that was shot down by a Syrian surface-to-air missile last week returned to the skies on Monday, joined in the cockpit by the head of the Israeli Air Force.

Maj. “Aleph” — for security reasons, he can only be identified by the first letter of his Hebrew name — was lightly wounded and the pilot of the aircraft was seriously injured after their plane was apparently hit by shrapnel from a the Syrian air defenses. The two ejected from the plane as it crashed in a ball of flame into a hillside in northern Israel.

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)

“[Maj. ‘Aleph’] completed his first flight since his injury with the IAF Commander, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin,” the army said late Monday night.

After the crash, the two were taken to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center for medical treatment.

The navigator was released from the hospital a day later. The severely wounded pilot, who arrived at the hospital unconscious and attached to a respirator, was discharged on Sunday.

When the pilot arrived, he was seriously hurt from shrapnel wounds in his abdomen, and had to receive emergency surgery to stem internal bleeding. His condition stabilized after the surgery, and he was moved out of intensive care within days.

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)

A day after the crash, Norkin praised the pilot’s decision to eject from the jet.

“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 IDF statement last Monday.

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

In transcripts aired by Hadashot TV news last Sunday, the airmen say they had mere seconds to eject from the plane after a missile exploded alongside them.

“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 damage to the plane that ceased to function,” one of the two was quoted as saying.

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

Nobody on the ground was hurt in the incident, which came amid a round of intense hostilities on February 10, sparked when an Iranian drone infiltrated Israeli airspace, triggering Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

One resident of Harduf told Army Radio last Saturday that she was sure the community was under terrorist attack, after hearing the loud noise that shook the kibbutz.

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

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. It was the first Israeli plane downed in combat since 1982.

Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, the Israeli Air Force’s second-in-command, said the Israeli planes faced a massive barrage of Syrian anti-aircraft fire, which reportedly included at least four different types of Russian-made air defense systems, specifically the SA-5, SA-17, SA-6 and SA-3.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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