Just before 7 a.m. on Thursday morning, I set out for the Nevatim Air Force Base, a few miles southeast of Beersheba.
I had been invited by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit to fly with the Israeli Air Force on one of its Independence Day flypasts — the matas, as it’s known in Hebrew — gawked at nationwide by neck-craning citizens from Dimona in the Negev to Katzrin in the Golan Heights
Along with another photographer and an air force representative, I would be aboard a C-130 Hercules cargo plane — aptly known in Hebrew as a “Rhinoceros,” for its stubby nose and wide body.
I was told we would by flying in formation with another C-130 and a C-130J Super Hercules, an updated version of the more than 60-year-old Hercules. (In a coincidence, as an army photographer I had been in one of the planes that escorted the C-130Js to Israel when they were first delivered.)
The C-130 has been in service since 1956 and continues to be used in the military all over the world today. It was used famously in Israel in the 1976 Operation Thunderbolt, the code-name for the raid on Entebbe to rescue Jewish hostages of Palestinian terrorists being held in a Ugandan airport. Four of these “Rhinoceros” cargo planes flew into Entebbe airport undetected, filled with Israeli commandos and a replica of Ugandan president Idi Amin’s Mercedes limousine.
Though Israel now has the newly updated C-130J, known in Hebrew as the “Samson,” these 60-year-old propeller-driven planes still fly cargo and paratrooper missions. To quote one of the pithier, thoroughly inappropriate, pilots of the C-130: “It’s like a woman who is older, but everyone still wants to [sleep with] her.”
Following safety instructions and an overview of the flight path, we took off soon after 10 o’clock.
The best way to take photographs on the C-130 is to be strapped into the back with the cargo bay door open. That, unfortunately, did not happen.
“Well, we certainly can open the cargo bay doors, but we won’t,” a member of the flight crew said when asked.
Instead, after takeoff, we two photographers and our air force liaison were invited to take pictures from the cockpit.
The additional three guests made the tiny cockpit — full of blinking dials, switches and levers — feel even smaller.
Crammed against the hot, sweaty cockpit’s right-most window, I started to photograph the pastoral, miniature country below me.
Our journey began in Beersheba, the capital of the Negev and home to some 200,000 Israelis.
From there, we continued south to Arad and Dimona before making a U-turn and traveling northwards to Jerusalem and then on to the Golan Heights. Finally, we would fly down Israel’s Coastal Plain and back to Nevatim.
We flew in a triangular three-plane formation, with the C-130J leading the pack, at an altitude of approximately 1,000 feet (300 meters), so we would be seen clearly from the ground.
In addition to the C-130s, for Independence Day this year the air force flew F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, Blackhawk helicopters, Apache attack helicopters, Gulfstream jets, a Boeing 707 refueling plane, three Lavi training planes and the Beachcraft King Air turbo-prop airplane.
“Amazing,” “awe-inspiring,” “majestic,” one might think.
But the splendor of seeing Israel turn 68 years old from high above was somewhat lost on me.
Fying that low, the plane is constantly experiencing turbulence. Nothing too dramatic or bone-rattling, just relentless jolts and dips.
To maintain that perfect formation with the other Hercules and the Super Hercules, furthermore, the pilots must make constant adjustments: a little to the left, a little to the right, a bit faster or slower to match the speeds of the other crafts.
Oh, and also, so the tiny people below could have the best opportunity to see the flyby, the formation made great swooping, curving turns over the cities.
The constant turbulence, the flight corrections and the winding turns, combined with the heat of too many people crammed into too small a space, began to take their toll sometime after we passed Dimona.
This reporter is not too proud, or too polite, to admit: I vomited. I barfed, puked and blew chunks. I tossed my cookies.
But I also had a job to do, and Jerusalem was coming up.
I steadied myself and readied my camera as we passed over the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.
“So that’s what all the fuss is about,” I thought.
After passing the capital, the flight had some time before we reached any more major cities.
So I moved back to the significantly cooler cargo bay.
The motion-sickness bags provided by the air force warn users: “Even veteran travelers are subject to occasional motion sickness.”
The other photographer, a hobbyist who works in the helicopter unit of the Israel Police and came to the flyby wearing his own flight-suit, soon joined me in the cargo bay, also experiencing severe “motion sickness.”
Our air force liaison, splayed out on the floor, kept his lunch down, though his pale face advertised his own inner-ear discomfort.
This was not a good flight for any of us guest passengers.
I missed the northern towns of Beit She’an and Katzrin, but went back into the cockpit for another round as we approached the coast.
As the cliche says, things on the ground did seem calmer and more peaceful from up in the air. The people were barely visible, the cars only if you squinted. But the forests, the fields and cities were clear.
Down below, people were partying, arguing and dancing, but from 1,000 feet up, the country was silent.
After I’d taken some shots of Tel Aviv and Ashdod, the air force liaison had the chance to take some photographs of his own as we made our way back to Nevatim for landing.
When we touched down, a little before 1 p.m., it had taken less than three hours to fly from the Negev Desert to the mountains of the Golan and back again, which gave new perspective on how incredibly minuscule this international headline-grabbing country truly is.
Weak and shambling, I made my way off the plane, back to blessed ground, and to my car.
I won’t quickly forget my Independence Day flyby. But next year, I’m thinking, I might just go to a barbecue.
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