Twice a year, around three-dozen Israeli Air Force (IAF) officers receive their wings. Of these, roughly half will go on to become fighter pilots or weapons system officers, a third will fly helicopters, while the rest are destined to join the transport fleet in different roles. The event is celebrated with a ceremony at Hatzerim Air Base, in the northern Negev, that brings the cadets’ three-year syllabus to a close. The graduation event for Flight Course 176 at the end of June additionally commemorated the 70th anniversary of both the IAF and the state of Israel. It also provided one of the first public appearances of the F-35A Adir after initial operational capability was declared for the fifth-generation fighter at the beginning of December 2017.
Where? Hatzerim AFB, Israel
When? June 2018
Brig Gen Avshalom Amosi, commander of Hatzerim AB, addressed the graduates in a speech: “Your future is in your hands. The operational theatre is constantly changing, and the air force operates both near and far. I know that you are all trustworthy. You are responsible for the future of the air force’s legacy, spreading your wings over the Middle East.” Hatzerim’s Flight Academy commander, Colonel A (full name withheld on security grounds) was even clearer about the graduates’ future tasks: “You will receive great power in the near future and will be required to use it,” he observed. The importance of the IAF and the event itself were underlined by the presence of Israel’s defence minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Recent additions to the IAF fleet emphasize the significance of the air arm to tactical and strategic operations in the region. Some of these new assets were displayed during a ‘show of force’ presentation that concluded the ceremony. With the M-346 Lavi, the IAF has a modern and highly sophisticated jet trainer that has now replaced all the veteran Tzukit (Magister) trainers at Hatzerim. It’s a platform well adapted to preparing future pilots for different versions of the F-16, F-15 and the most recent F-35 Adir (“the Mighty”).
A combat search and rescue (CSAR) scenario featured a C-130J Shimshon that air-dropped cargo in a mission supported by helicopters. Rotary assets, too, are part of the IAF’s ‘long arm’, demonstrated by S-70A Yanshuf helicopters that have provision for in-flight refuelling probes and AH-64D Saraf gunships updated with satcom data link radomes.
Offensive air power was demonstrated by a pair of F-15I Ra’am jets that dropped 14 inert bombs close to the crowd. An F-35 Adir then had the privilege of closing the flying display, arriving directly from its home at nearby Nevatim AB.
“Dangers are all around…”
The air base in the Negev desert hosts, amongst others, squadrons of frontline F-16I Sufa and F-15I Ra’am long range strike fighters. Hatzerim is located not far from the Gaza Strip, and the prime minister’s speech highlighted the IAF’s fundamental role in real-world operations as the long arm of Israel’s foreign policy.
“Dangers are all around us – and the air force has a central role in thwarting them, “said Netanyahu, while standing in front of the cadets. “We will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons,” he added. “We will continue to take strong action against Iran’s plan to turn Syria into a deadly missile base against us.” The IAF would, said Netanyahu, “continue to operate at close and longer ranges, both openly and in secret”. Regarding Gaza, the prime minister’s words were more ambiguous, but he was clear when he stated that: “whoever drags us into conflict will very much regret it. Here, also, the air force has a central role to play.”
Of course the Israeli Air Force Aerobatic Team perform formation display during the Graduation Ceremony, flying formation aerobatics with the Raytheon T-6A Efroni. These aircraft are based at Hatzerim and serve as the first flying training platform for future Israeli Air Force pilots.
It is always a pleasure to see the flying warbirds of Hatzerim during the Graduation Ceremony. Unfortunately the Supermarine Spitfire had a technical problem and could not perfom its display. This was particularly unfortunate as it would have culmulated in a formation fly-by of the Spitfire and the F-35 ‘Adir’, uniting Israel’s oldest and most modern fighter aircraft in the sky. Therefore the Boeing Stearman flew only in formation with the North American T-6 Harvard.
The actual flying display starts in the late afternoon. Before that there is time to stroll around a small static display. It includes some aircraft from the nearby Israel Air Force museum, but also features many of the Air Force’s in service aircraft and helicopters. Regularly many helicopters types are presented side-by-side with the F-16I Sufa, F-15C Baz or the F-15I Ra’am.
Before concluding with a final photo gallery of the Graduation Ceremony for Flight Course 176, please note that this is not a public event and access is by invitation only.