It’s easy to laugh at Monday’s F-35 reception ceremony in southern Israel.
The country’s first F-35 fighter jets, en route to their new home in the Negev desert, were grounded for hours in Cameri, Italy, due to the one-two punch of inclement weather and “American safety regulations.”
Alas, the fifth generation stealth fighter jet — a $100 million 51.6-foot long, 35-foot wide, 22-ton marvel of unparalleled lethal engineering — ostensibly couldn’t handle a bit of fog.
Just before the ceremony finally took place, US President-elect Donald Trump, either deliberately or in a poignant form of coincidence, added insult to injury as well, tweeting: “The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”
The entire affair offered fertile ground for a plethora of jokes. But of course, the truth was more mundane.
It’s not that the F-35 jets can’t fly in this type of weather per se, but that Italian authorities wouldn’t let them. The American pilots, delivering a state-of-the-art, wildly expensive aircraft to a foreign country, were more than happy to err on the side of caution.
The F-35 was supposed to set down at 2:04 p.m on Monday, but then came the initial delay of “less than an hour,” which became 90 minutes, which became “We won’t know until 4:30,” which became 7:30.
In the end, the first F-35 touched down at 8:16 p.m., followed a minute later by the second.
But by the second or third delay most of the audience had decided to leave. Some returned for the ceremony, but approximately half of the 4,000 white folding chairs set up for the event remained empty.
Just before the landing President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Israeli Air Force chief Amir Eshel spoke, delivering speeches that could have written themselves.
The Israeli speakers thanked the Americans for their support and boasted about the country’s enhanced “qualitative military edge.” The American promised the US would keep up its strong support of Israel.
After the speeches, the planes began circling overhead. But what would have doubtlessly been an impressive flyby in daylight, was instead blinking lights in the night sky. Impressive lights, but lights nonetheless.
The planes’ landings, however, made up for the lackluster entrance.
With jet engines roaring, the F-35s landed in Nevatim and delicately, yet loudly, pulled up next to the stage. The lighting rigs on the tarmac, which had been brought in and set up at the last minute, illuminated the jets dramatically, accentuating their stealthy curves.
Rivlin and Eshel placed an IAF sticker on the first plane, while Netanyahu and the commander of the Nevatim airbase slapped one on the second.
With renditions of the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikva, the ceremony came to a close.
And so ended a weeks-long public relations push, full of press briefings, social media campaigns, embroidered F-35 baseball caps and F-35 water bottles: in a perfectly adequate, but decidedly anti-climactic ceremony.
On Tuesday, specially trained maintenance teams will pore over the new fighter jets, before handing them over to pilots who will be the first Israelis to actually fly the aircraft.
When a plane delay brought a government to its knees
This wasn’t Israel’s first fighter jet reception ceremony that didn’t go as planned, and in comparison to the last one, Monday’s delayed event could be seen as a smashing success.
On December 10, 1976, Israel was scheduled to receive that era’s technological wonder: The F-15.
Some 3,000 people came out to the ceremony, which was held on a Friday afternoon, a few hours before Shabbat, the day of rest: a day in which religious Jews and official Israel refrain from work, travel and — obviously — operating airplanes outside of combat necessity.
The F-15 ceremony was scheduled to end before the holy day began, but the planes were delayed. Despite then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s best efforts, the ceremony ran late.
Rabin claimed that some members of the audience did, in fact, make it home before the Sabbath began, but few were convinced. Religious members of the government and the opposition fumed. After a fiery cabinet meeting and extended arguments in the Knesset, Rabin handed in a letter of resignation. And so the government was brought down by planes that ran late.
Netanyahu can rest easy. Only time will tell how long his coalition will last, but his downfall won’t come in the form of an F-35.
Though submarines may be a different story.
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