Sunday, July 10, 2011
Air Force Wings Ceremony
I received an email a few weeks ago from Nefesh B’Nefesh (“NBN”) offering busing to the Air Force Academy’s Wings Ceremony, in which pilot cadets graduate from flight school and “receive their wings”.
Being a pilot in the Israeli Army, is just about the most exalted position there is. In order to even qualify for the course, draftees must have very high test scores and a perfect physical profile. Only after several rounds of testing are a few select cadets admitted to flight school. The program is three years of rigorous studies and super demanding expectations. Only 10% of flight school cadets complete the three year training course. Since the army invest so much time and effort into its pilots, all pilots are committed to a twelve year army service. Once they have completed their first three years, they reach the rank of officer and have relatively cushy living conditions, at least on army standards. They also complete the army with both undergraduate and masters degrees, everyone in Israel’s respect and an incredibly strong network of successful businessmen, politicians and army personnel. When a cohort of cadets graduate flight school, the army does not treat it as a regular tekes (ceremony). The celebration is no holds bar. The army puts on one (several) heck of a show for friends, family and guests to celebrate the occasion. The pilots actually had three ceremonies, all of them were relatively similar as I understand. The first two Sunday and Tuesday were ceremonies where they were promoted to officers, and Thursday’s was the official Wings Ceremony, which was attended by the President and Prime Minister as well as many politicians and army generals.
In the past few weeks, a few friends from the States have come to Israel for the summer, and they all have relatively flexible schedules. Ari is in medical school and came to do research in a hospital. Since doctors employed by the government (a lot of them) are on strike, he has found himself with a lot of free time. Ruchie just arrived last week and is checking out Israel for a few months, trying to figure out if she wants to move here. Sarah is here to study for the summer at Pardes, a Judaic studies school in Jerusalem, which did not start classes until the day after the Wings Ceremony. So, lucky for me, I had a fun group put together for the trip.
We all met at the central bus station for a food court lunch before heading to the NBN bus.
After a 2 hour bus ride, we arrived at an air force base outside of Be’er Sheva (largest city in the South of Israel). As we pulled into the lot, we were told to have a look around the meuseum exhibit and that the graduation ceremony would start in about two hours.
The exhibit housed an array of aircraft used by the air force in the past and present. Everything from a firefighting plane to an F-16. It was pretty sweet. Stationed at each plane and helicopter was a pilot or museum representative that was speaking about the aircraft. The exhibit also had several missile defense systems on display, including an anti-missile system and the Iron Dome (previously discussed here). I thought it was kind of funny that there was an anti-rocket defense system on display, when I read in the news that Israel has not deployed enough batteries to defend all the residents in range of terrorist fired missiles from Gaza. I asked a soldier who worked with the Iron Dome system why this one was here and if there were in fact enough to defend from Gaza. He told me that that information was confidential. I took that to mean that there probably shouldn't be a rocket defense battery on display.
Here are some of the pics from the exhibit. Thanks to Nina S for showing me how to upload an album slideshow.
We headed over to the seating for the ceremony and air show. It started with several pilots taking off in stunt planes, then several groups of soldiers marching in, followed by the pilots. Seeing the whole procession was very moving and exciting. Large groups of families and friends came out to cheer on the pilots, many of them in matching T-shirts or hats cheered wildly as their pilot’s name was called. I got a kick out of the short profiles they gave on each pilot “Avi from Tel Aviv, son of Mark and Malka, brother of Zev and Shira, boyfriend of Sarah.” I thought the girlfriend was a funny touch – it was of interest to note that very few pilots were single. They are indeed a hot commodity.
After a few speeches including a blessing from the pilots’ commander, the air show began. The air force put on an awesome display showcasing everything from a historic Spit Fighter from World War II to F-16. The F-16s performed a bombing run with bombs willed with water. It was incredible to see how fast the F-16s flew – blink and you missed them. The accuracy of their bombing at that speed was also dazzling.
Apache helicopters fired guns a targets, the air force simulated a recovery of an injured soldier and an extraction of a ground force with Blackhawk helicopters landing and picking up the ground troops as Cobra attack helicopters stood guard and fired missiles at “enemy targets” over a kilometer away.
The demonstration ended with the performance of a high ranking air force general that has been flying for over 25 years in an F-15 fighter plane. He performed a few minutes of aerial feats turning the plane sharply in loops and circles, spinning and corkscrewing until each person either felt nauseous or was dying to get in the navigators seat.
The pilot’s graduation ceremony is held twice a year (and there are usually several practice/minor ceremonies before the official graduation. Each of them has an air force demonstration. If you ever have the chance to see on in person, I highly recommend it, especially to my former roommate Yaakov - I was thinking about you the whole time I was there.