The head of Israel’s air force praised a pilot who decided to eject from his damaged F-16 fighter jet on Saturday, amid an investigation into why the plane went down.
Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin visited the injured pilot on Sunday, a day after his jet crashed in a ball of flames in a hillside in northern Israel after apparently being shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
“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 on Monday.
The pilot was seriously injured in the incident, though his condition has since stabilized and is now said to be moderate. The navigator, who also ejected, was lightly injured in the incident and has since been released from the hospital.
In transcripts leaked to Hadashot news 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 the damage to the plane that ceased to function,” one of the two is quoted saying.
Neither the pilot nor the navigator has been identified.
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 Saturday as Israel carried out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets in response to an Iranian drone infiltrating Israeli airspace.
One resident of Harduf told Army Radio Saturday that she was sure their community was under terrorist attack after hearing the loud noise that shook the kibbutz.
If the plane was indeed downed, it would be the first such incident for Israel since 1982, marking a rare blemish on the country’s near unchallenged air superiority in the region, even against Syria’s Russian-made air defense array.
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. The preliminary results of the investigation are reportedly due to be released later Monday.
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.
Hadashot and Channel 10 TV on Sunday both speculated that the pilots may have been so focused on attacking their targets that they failed to internalize the extent of the danger posed by what one TV report said were dozens of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles fired toward them.
The pilots did eventually become aware of the incoming missiles, and managed to avoid several, the Hadashot report said.
Channel 10 cited one unnamed official as saying that the loss of the jet “should not have happened.”