Top guns, top geeks

Israel’s air force, which spearheaded last month’s operation against terror groups in Gaza, relies on deep cooperation between its tech whiz kids and its drone operators and fighter pilots

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

An F-15I fighter jets flies over the air force's Hatzerim base. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)
An F-15I fighter jets flies over the air force's Hatzerim base. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

Captain G, a mild-mannered pilot trained to fly Israel’s most advanced fighter plane, spends four out of five workdays in a low-ceilinged office space, surrounded by some of the smartest tech nerds in the IDF.

His mission: To help make the F-15I, Israel’s most advanced fighter plane and the model reportedly purchased in order to thwart the distant threats from Iran, a more potent weapon.

His ally in this is Major Avshalom, the commander of the Human Factors Engineering department in the Israeli Air Force’s Operational Requirements Branch, which streamlines all man-to-machine interactions in the airforce. It’s a long name for an office inhabited by two computer programmers, two engineers (including the commander), one statistician and one psychologist. Though they occupy a mere several rooms in the air force tower of the IDF’s headquarters, they are a critical component in the IAF’s long history of excellence, and surely played a significant role in both the initial strike that marked the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense and the 1,500 others that followed.

Demands for technological advances come from the field all the time. When soldiers complain, it’s not only about lack of sleep and subpar food but also about equipment that fails them. Suggestions found to have merit are collected and prioritized, and then — before the IAF sends out projects for bidding among internal and external high-tech companies — the ideas pass through the office of Major Avshalom, where they are tested, picked apart and re-assembled.

“Everything from Iron Dome to helicopters to fighter planes to commando units to air force intelligence is us,” said Major Avshalom. He defined his notion of design success with a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who said that perfection is achieved “not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Captain G practicing on a screen that simulates the F-15I cockpit (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Captain G practicing on a screen that simulates the F-15I cockpit (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Major Avshalom’s soldiers sit with air force pilots and field soldiers and watch how they work. “We want to know how they think, not just what they do,” Major Avshalom said. Then they invite them to the lab at army headquarters in Tel Aviv, where they run the field personnel through a series of simulations that they develop.

One such simulation involved the hazard-warning system on the F-15I. Ever since a 2010 IAF accident in Romania, in which a CH-53 Sikorsky Sea Stallion helicopter slammed into the peak of a mountain in the Carpathian range, killing four Israeli pilots, two crewman and one Romanian officer, the air force has sought to upgrade its obstacle safety programs. Major Avshalom and his staff built several simulated systems so that that the air force brass could examine them and make a choice.

Captain G sat down in front of a green-tinted screen and palmed the stick. In the first version, as his plane approached a thicket of electrical wires, an insistent and somewhat frantic male voice commanded the pilot to “pull up, pull up, pull up.”

Major Avshalom said this version was not particularly successful. “Pilots don’t like being told what to do. You have to understand their psychology,” he said. “I saw they prefer” – and perform better in simulation – “if I provide the information and they make the decision.”

Captain G nodded his agreement and moved to another program in which the nature of the obstacle, its height off the ground and its distance from the approaching aircraft were displayed within the pilot’s visor screen — without verbal commands.

Captain G and Major Avshalom and his staff are currently working on 10 programs for the F-15I, which is an American F-15E Strike Eagle that McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) tailor-made to Israel’s specifications.

The F-15I climbing as it releases anti-missile flares (Photo credit: Ofer Zidon/ Flash 90)
The F-15I climbing as it releases anti-missile flares (Photo credit: Ofer Zidon/Flash 90)

Not all of them can be discussed. But the examples that they spoke of highlighted the Human Factors Engineering Branch’s position as a crucial junction on the path to crafting the IAF’s weapons of the future.

In the F-15I, for instance, a warning light and a high-pitched beep alert a pilot to mechanical failure. Captain G said that the beep “drives me crazy” but that the light, by itself, is insufficient because “it does not penetrate” into the pilot’s consciousness. “So we came to them,” he continued, “and we said, ‘Should we have a voice alert? If so what kind of voice? Man or woman? How many times should it alert us?'”

The programmers and the engineers built the simulator and will send the results on to the IAF for development.

Another project stems from a problem with the radio and navigational system in the F-15I. “It was down here,” said Captain G, seated at the simulator and pointing to his left knee. That means looking down and taking my eyes off the world around me.”

It was also cumbersome to use. Numbers had to be punched in using a +/- button. This is not easily done on an aircraft capable of flying at twice the speed of sound — certainly not in the middle of combat or while executing a turn that can put nine times the force of gravity on a pilot’s body.  “I told them I wanted a screen on the UFC [the up-front control],” he said.

The soldiers serving under Major Avshalom built a model cockpit with both the original system and a new screen. They then had to decide if the new screen should be a touch-pad much like a smartphone’s call screen; if there should be a finger clasp behind the screen so the pilot could punch the numbers in accurately while flying; where it should be located; and whether the new system should have the capacity to override the old one. “Some of those things are questions we wouldn’t even have thought to ask,” said Major Avshalom.

At last he escorted this reporter to one of the simulators.

Perhaps deeming the F-15I a bit too advanced for the likes of this non-aviator, he steered me into a different office, where the staff was running a test for a drone squadron.

The engineers built a program that simulates a drone following a car through a changing and undulating landscape. In order to photograph the car, the drone must keep the vehicle within its line of sight. (According to the Sunday Times, this is exactly how IAF commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel was able to authorize the killing of Ahmed Jabari in real time as the car moved down Omar al-Mukhtar St, in central Gaza.) The drone operators — the ones who handle the aircraft while it’s airborne — use a stick, the pilots’ tool of choice. But, Major Avshalom said they wanted to see if, perhaps, a mouse was a better tool.

I did miserably with the mouse, losing the car around most every bend, but the trained handlers, Major Avshalom said, performed slightly better with the mouse than the stick. “That’s what the academic studies showed,” he acknowledged, “but they don’t chase cars — so we built a simulation of our own.”

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