The Israeli F-16 pilot who was seriously hurt when an apparent Syrian anti-aircraft missile downed his fighter jet on Saturday regained consciousness on Sunday and was taken off a respirator.
After his condition improved on Saturday due to emergency surgery, Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center reported “an additional improvement in the pilot’s condition” on Sunday.
“The medical team has taken him off respiration,” said Yaron Bar-Lavie, director of the critical care division at the northern Israel hospital.
“He is fully conscious and his injuries are now defined as moderate,” he added. “He is still in the critical care department.”
The F-16 jet took part in Israeli airstrikes in response to an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace from Syria in the early morning hours on Saturday. A second pilot who ejected from the plane was lightly hurt and is set to be released from the hospital on Sunday.
The Israeli Air Force said it was investigating what caused the pilots to eject and if the aircraft was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles. If the plane was in fact shot down by enemy fire, it would mark the first such instance for Israel since the 1982 Lebanon War.
An initial Israeli Air Force investigation indicated that crash was caused by explosion of an anti-aircraft missile next to the plane, but not necessarily from a direct hit, the army said early Sunday.
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An army spokesperson stressed that the investigation into the crash is ongoing, but said that the current assessment is that the missile brought down the F-16, known in Israel as a Sufa.
“Even if it was just hit by fragments, that’s still because of the missile,” the army spokesperson said on Sunday.
At approximately 4:25 a.m. on Saturday, an Iranian drone from Syria entered Israeli territory from Jordan and was shot down by an Apache attack helicopter near the northern Israeli city of Beit She’an, the army said.
The military called the infiltration a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty,” and said Iran would be held responsible for its outcome, marking a dramatic escalation in tensions along Israel’s northern border.
The Israeli Air Force then conducted a series of reprisal strikes in Syria.
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.
According to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, the F-16 was hit while flying in Syria during the raid, but managed to return to Israel, where its two pilots bailed out of the plane, which crashed into a field in the Jezreel Valley.
Dr. Rafi Beyar, the head of Rambam Medical Center, reported the first improvement in the pilot’s condition, saying he was in stable condition after suffering injuries to his chest and abdomen. He said the airman required blood transfusions.
President Reuven Rivlin later spoke to the second pilot.
”My heart is with you and your comrades, and I hope that I will meet you soon. You and the entire squadron have proven that you do not come back until your mission is fulfilled, and I thank God together with the entire nation that you have returned,” Rivlin told the pilot, according to his spokesperson.
While the Israeli Air Force has developed a reputation for aerial superiority in the region, Saturday’s crash served as a stark reminder of what many Israeli defense officials and analysts have been saying for years: no military system is perfect and unbeatable.
The more advanced Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets have a significant advantage over the generally older Russian air defense systems — to say nothing of the F-35 stealth aircraft, which was declared operational in December — but that advantage is not total.
On Saturday, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former fighter pilot and head of Military Intelligence, dismissed claims that the downing of the F-16 showed that Israel had lost its air superiority.
“True, sometimes there are losses, or mistakes on our side, but the balance is unequivocal,” Yadlin tweeted.
“Israel demonstrated its abilities to defend its skies; it struck for the first time directly Iranian forces in Syria and exacted a price from Iran; it destroyed many Syrian SAM sites and left Damascus exposed to future attacks,” he said.