Colonel Yehuda Koren, the Flying Ace Pilot
They say that the Israeli air force’s pilots are the best in the world. I went to investigate the buzz, and what is the best time to do it if not on a wintery sunny Friday afternoon in Israel, when it seems as if all of Israel is out and about and all the cafés are full of people.
I was introduced to Colonel (res.) Yehuda Koren. I met with Mr. Koren, a double ace pilot who is credited with at least 10.5 victories over the enemy. We sat at one of those trendy cafés in order for Mr. Koren to tell me the story of the Israel Air Force pilots’ yesteryears and the pilots who fly the skies today.
Mr. Koren does not look a bit like the heroism he represents. His demeanor is peaceful but his flying ace-pilot’s stories are heroic.
Yehuda Koren (born 1941), is a colonel (res.) who was a combat pilot in the Israel Air Force (IAF) during his 24 years of service. His service includes serving as the commander of the 117th Squadron, also known as the First Jet Squadron; he served as the head of the training department at the Air Force headquarters and was the commander of the Eitam airbase in Sinai. After Israel turned Sinai back to Egypt in return for a peace treaty, the base was evacuated and Mr. Koren became the first commander of the Ramon airbase, including during the Lebanon War, which broke while the base was still under construction. During Koren’s reserve service he continued to fly the Mirage and Skyhawk planes as a combat pilot and worked as an operational training course instructor until 1999. During his service he registered 10.5 downing of enemy planes.
Koren completed his combat pilot course in 1962 and served as a Mirage 3 (French make) pilot (the Hebrew name “Shahak”) in the 117th Squadron. On August 15, 1966, he was the second Israeli pilot to ever shoot down an enemy aircraft with the IAF Shahak plane, when he downed a Syrian MiG-21 (Russian make) during an air battle over the Sea of Galilee, during an incident involving the rescue of a guard ship at the Sea of Galilee.
During the Six Day War, Koren flew as a senior commander of the 117th Squadron and took part in patrolling of northern Israel and bombing strikes during ‘Operation Focus’ on the Faid Airport in Egypt and Amman Airport in Jordan. Also, he accompanied for coverage the Votuer planes that bombed the H-3 airport in Iraq and during this mission Koren shot down a MiG-21 plane as well as an Iraqi Air Force Hawker Hunter plane.
During ‘Operation Focus-Moked,’ which was the opening shot of the Six Day War, the airports of the Arab countries were destroyed.
The miraculous story of Colonel (res.) Koren began in the morning of the second day of fighting. The Iraqis sent a Tupolev Soviet bomber to bomb the town of Netanya. That morning he was not supposed to fly; suddenly he received a call from the commander of the fighting who ordered him to take off in the Mirage plane and with one other Mirage pilot they were to accompany and protect a quartet of Votuer planes that were on a mission to bomb the Iraqi H-3 airport.
On the way to the Jordanian border with Iraq the two Mirage planes flew low after the Votuer planes quartet. They gained height above ‘Mount Druze’ that looked like a scene from the moon with dark rocks. Passing the mountain, they flew over a desolate yellow desert where they saw a camel caravan traveling from somewhere to somewhere.
The mission ended in a stormy air battle during which Koren shot down two enemy planes. First Koren flew after an Iraqi Hunter plane that was circling around the targeted airfield in order to hit it. To achieve such a hit with artillery fire from the distance his plane was from the enemy’s plane was like hitting a razor blade. He fired a long artillery burst and saw parts of the Hunter plane flying all over.
When he was about to get back to the targeted airfield airspace, he saw an Iraqi MiG getting into a scissors’ maneuver with a pair of the Israeli Votuers, in order to hit them. Koren commanded everyone to cut off contact. He followed the MiG and came close to it and with brief artillery fire he hit the plane right on the wing and the MiG crashed.
Colonel (res.) Koren and his partner on the mission accompanied and protected the Votuer quartet all the way from Iraq back to the mother base, flying the skies over Jordan and Syria when at any moment the Syrian and Jordanian anti-aircraft systems could have intercepted them and shot them down.
They arrived on their very last drop of fuel.
As the story about the mission to Iraq goes, one can compare it to the story of the Maccabees.
Jewish tradition tells of the Maccabees who defeated the Greeks in a battle that ended with them retaking control of the Temple where there was a menorah that lit the Temple. Before chaos turned into order and sufficient oil supply for the Menorah could be brought to the Temple, the Jewish rebels found a small jug of oil that ordinarily would light the Menorah for one day and miraculously lasted eight days.
Just like the jug of oil managed to light the Menorah at the Temple for eight days, Colonel (res.) Yehuda Koren managed to get home from the daring attack mission on the Iraqi H-3 airfield with a small amount of fuel, below the planned minimum, and no detachable tankers, which he got rid of before the air battle. He even managed to carry out the traditional airplane “rolling victory” spin, the air maneuver carried out by anyone who comes back from a flying mission in which he or she shot down an enemy aircraft. Such spin includes a low flight and spinning-rolling upward that informs the entire base on the mission’s success and the downing of enemy planes.
During the 1967-1970 War of Attrition, Koren served in the 117th Squadron, participated in many air battles and shot down four more enemy planes. In June 1972 Koren was appointed commander of Squadron 117; he commanded the squadron during the Yom Kippur War and during the battles he shot down a Syrian MiG-21, a Syrian Sukhoi-7 (supersonic fighter aircraft developed by the Soviet Union in 1955) and two Syrian MiG-17s. In total, Yehuda Koren shot down 10.5 aircraft (one in a joint operation with pilot Kobi Richter).
Koren later joined the Israeli Aerobatic Quartet, similar to the American Blue Angels Quartet, the Jewish Harlem Globetrotters of the Skies.
Impressed with his aviation accomplishments, I asked Mr. Koren, what is the difference between pilots of your caliber and the ones who fly today the sophisticated F-35?
YK: “My comrades and I knew how to fly airplanes. Today’s pilots fly technology with extremely accurate missile, radar and electronic warfare systems. The irony is that due to the wars Israel had to fight and the experience it gained from them, today’s flying mission into enemy’s land is more focused and targeted.”
“What is the difference between Israeli pilots and pilots of the enemy neighboring countries Israel has been fighting against since her inception?” I asked.
YK: “Our pilots are slightly better than the neighboring pilots. Our intelligence is also better. Our command and control are much better. In total, all in all, we are so much better. We count on our deterrence and the enemy fights in defense even though their numbers are so much greater. From witnesses and reports we know that some enemy pilots even abandoned their planes and ejected them in order not to be killed. The pilot will shot some fire to appear as if he is fighting and then ejects to later on brag about his bravery in battle. In order not to add to the already low morale and lack of security, that very same pilot returns to base to see another battle and receive a pay check. The enemy is fearful and lacks the will to fight.”
“Before the Six Day War, the ratio was approximately 1 Israeli plane shot down to 7 enemy planes shot down; during the Six Day War the ratio was approximately 1 Israeli plane downed to 25 enemy planes downed; during the Yom Kippur War the ratio was approximately 1 Israeli plane down to 50 enemy planes down; and during the First Lebanon War the ratio was 1 Israeli plane-to-90 enemy planes.”
“What about the pilots of today?” I asked.
YK: “Today’s pilots are like computer room administrators sitting in a small cockpit office with smart bombs under their plane’s wings. Our air force is the spearhead of the defense of the State of Israel. If there is a war, our young pilots will do the job as good, or even better than my generation’s pilots.”
“All I want is them to invite us to tell the stories of yesteryears and not have to experience what the pilots of then experienced.”
My last question to flying ace Colonel (res.) Koren was: “what does a pilot feels when he is about to take off with the possibility he will have to fight in the air?”
YK: “Everyone is different. I, for instance, go through sensation of fear, to the point when my legs will tremble. But then, when I take off all I know is that I must do the best on my mission. I amass inner peace and I tell myself not to panic; that I may face a situation I did not expect to face and I will need to find an immediate solution so that I complete the mission as good as possible. The best is to have a very low blood pressure,” Koren jokingly smiles but means it.