Three-quarters of a century ago, the fledgling state of Israel – carved out from portions of British Palestine by the United Nations – found itself besieged on all sides. The newly formed Israeli Air Force (IAF) was stymied by America’s sales ban of surplus assets under the 1939 Neutrality Act, while Britain supplied aircraft and training to Arab forces.
The first World War (1914-1918) introduced military aircraft into the combat theater. These wood-and-canvas contraptions featured stubby multi-plane wings and box-frame fuselages. The interim years introduced metal-skin monocoque frames equipped with sleek wings, powerful piston engines, radios and retractable landing gear. Except for transports or observation, most military aircraft were designated as either fighters intended for pursuit, interception or ground attack, and bombers for delivering explosives or incendiary munitions over an enemy target.
Typically, fighters were flown by a single pilot, while bombers had two pilots in addition to other crew (although some naval aircraft might correspond to intermediate categories.) The most famous of the fighters of that era were the Supermarine Spitfire flown by the Royal Air Force and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 flown by the Luftwaffe. Over the course of the second World War, these piston-engine aircraft continued their service with various upgrades.
By modern standards, these aircraft seem diminutive. With respective wingspans of 36 feet and 32 feet, each of the Spitfire and Bf 109 was not quite 30 feet long and weighed 2.5 tons empty. By comparison, transition to turbojets comprised more massive platforms to vastly increase both speed and range. A decade after the war’s end produced the Lockheed F-104G at 55 feet in length and 21 feet wingspan, weighing 7 tons empty, and the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21bis “Fishbed” at 44 feet in length, 23 feet span and 6 tons empty.
The late 1970s and early 1980s pushed further advancements in engine performance and avionics featured in the General Dynamics F-16C (49 feet long, 33 feet span, 9.5 tons empty) and the MiG-29 “Fulcrum” (57 feet long, 37 feet span and 12 tons empty). Both aircraft remain in service, together with their newer counterparts. Capabilities and technical complexity have advanced apace, but the pilot training and skill need to pilot them restrict any of these machines to rare folk with fine-tuned hand-eye coordination and ice-water in their veins.
Israel’s Fight for Independence, with German Surplus Planes
During the massive struggle, Avia – a Czech automobile manufacturer – had licensed the design of Germany’s most recognized single-seat fighter, the Bf 109G designed and built by Willy Messerschmitt. Designated S.99, this fighter employed the Daimler-Benz DB 605 inverted V-12 piston engine delivering 1775 horsepower (1.3 megawatts) at takeoff with a dry weight of 0.83 ton.
Unfortunately, the original engines intended for these aircraft were destroyed in a warehouse explosion, so the Avia S.199 variant substituted the Junkers Jumo 211F inverted V-12 piston engine that powered the Junkers Ju-87 dive bomber and Heinkel He-111 medium bomber coupled to an oversize propeller. These replacements delivered peak power of 1350 horsepower (1.0 megawatt) at sea level with a dry weight of 0.71 ton. This rendered the S.199 less responsive and underpowered. The Jumo’s higher torque needed for a bomber produced poor ground handling qualities for the mismatched fighter exacerbated by the aircraft’s narrow wheel carriage.
Czechoslovakia reemerged from its occupation after Germany’s military defeat, followed by a coup d'état in February 1948 installing a Soviet-allied government. Later that May witnessed the establishment of the State of Israel that was precariously surrounded by hostile Arab nations. Prague offered to sell the newly formed Tel Aviv government twenty-five S.199 fighters, albeit for the enormous price tag of $4.5 million including weaponry and training (by comparison surplus North American P-51 Mustangs cost a mere $4 thousand apiece). Desperate for aerial armed capability, Israel accepted the deal.
After minimal training in Czechoslovakia, Arab armies invaded, so the five volunteer pilots returned to Israel with a few disassembled aircraft brought by transport to Ekron field. The Egyptian army marched northward along the Mediterranean coast and by May 29thhad reached within twelve miles of Tel Aviv. Four pilots took off that evening. They spotted trucks and armor south of Ashdod and dove onto the enemy column to drop bombs and strafe the vehicles. One S.199 was shot down, while another was damaged on landing.
The surviving airmen were despondent – trivial damage to the enemy in exchange for one pilot killed from a single encounter. However, radio intercepts revealed that the Egyptian commander halted further advance – stunned by the unexpected appearance of Israeli fighters. The following dawn, the two remaining S.199s attacked Jordanian-Iraqi forces, with the loss of another aircraft and the pilot severely injured. With only one flyable S.199 and three pilots, the unit was designated 101 Squadron.
A few days later the lone serviceable S.199 intercepted a pair of Egyptian C-47 bombers over Tel Aviv and shot them down. The weeks that followed added to the tally with Egyptian flown Spitfires downed. Meantime, the delivery of another ten S.199s came by month’s end. In July, the S.199 revealed a deadly flaw after two pilots were lost on separate sorties. The synchronizer for the cowl guns failed to prevent firing into the propeller. A major offensive that October forced the Egyptians to withdraw from Ashdod. The 101 Squadron harassed the retreating forces, but led to the tragic loss of its commander. By mid-December, only five S.199s remained and were retired in favor of more capable Spitfire and P-51 Mustang replacements.
Although a non-optimal engineering compromise due to limitations in materiél, the Avia S.199 provided emergency aerial support at a critical time during Israel’s war for independence. The tragic loss of life from a machine that had a propensity to kill the pilot sooner than could the enemy, renders the S.199 a mixed bag when contrasted with other aircraft that would have more effectively fulfilled the aerial support role. Nonetheless, one might in wry irony be tempted to indulge at the chagrin from former (and defeated) Nazis of that era when they were informed that a derivative of one of their most feared Luftwaffe interceptors displayed not the black Hakenkreuz (i.e., swastika) but a blue star of David. But such are the occasional twists from history.
Photo Credit- We are the Mighty Military History