Brigadier General Iftach Spector is an Israel Air Force (IAF) ace with 12 kills to his credit, and an award-winning author of novels and memoirs. Until recently, though he had effectively retired from active duty, he continued to instruct flight students for the IAF. His latest book, Loud and Clear (Zenith, 2009), is both a memoir and a discussion of his views of how the Israel Defense Force, especially the Israel Air Force, fights wars. Aviation historian and author Peter B. Mersky interviewed Spector last May. Mersky’s Israeli Fighter Aces (Specialty Press, 1997) was the first book-length history of this unique group of combat aviators.
Air & Space: You have flown combat missions in three wars and have gained kills in two distinctly different aircraft, eight in the French Mirage III and four in the American F-4 Phantom. Can you compare the two types?
Spector: The Mirage was a lightweight, agile fighter with performance almost identical to the MiG-21. The F-4, on the other hand, was a large behemoth of an aircraft, fast and strong but not very maneuverable. We called the Phantom the Kurnass, or Sledgehammer, while we named the Mirage Shahak, or Skyblazer. When the F-4 arrived in 1969, it was a very hot airplane. It was difficult to reach in our Mirages. The Phantom was a more sophisticated aircraft. It was not easy to fly but it gave you a special feeling when you succeeded. In comparison, the Mirage was a very easy aircraft, a real beauty.
A & S: How did the MiG-21 stack up against the Mirage and F-4?
Spector: The MiG-21 was a good match for both the Mirage and F-4 in air-to-air combat. Our high rate of success came from our appropriate tactics and training at that time, and from the good weapons that the MiGs didn’t have, namely the Mirage’s two 30mm cannons that ensured destruction if they hit, and the Israeli Shafrir and American Sidewinder IR-seeking missiles.
A & S: You also flew the F-16 in the attack in 1981 on the Iraqi Osiris nuclear reactor at Tuwaitha. Although you did not fly the F-16 that much, compared to the Mirage and Phantom, this was still another major combat type for your logbook. One of your compatriots, Yoram Agmon—also an ace with six kills—said when he first saw the F-16, “Here comes the Mirage for the ‘90s.” Did you agree?
Spector: Absolutely. The F-16 and the F-15, brought the IAF into a next generation with superior performance and weapon systems. But in comparison, again, between those two, the F-16 was like the Mirage: small, agile and fun to fly. Of course, the new F-15 and F-16, with their greater range, made the destruction of the Iraqi reactor in 1981 easier. If we hadn’t had these aircraft, we would have to do it in other, more difficult ways, and perhaps suffered and caused more damage.
A & S: Israeli flight training is generally acknowledged to be among the very best in the world. Attrition is high, with barely 10 percent of the original class achieving wings. Have you seen any major changes—besides the obvious progress in equipment—in the curriculum and methods from the time you were a student aviator some 50 years ago?
Spector: Yes. The training developed and changed the basic approach from discipline and incessant testing (this is how I was taught to fly) to the instructor giving the student a helping hand. I have been asked many times what makes a good pilot. We were on a higher level than our adversaries because of much better training. But they flew their planes well. It was sometimes very hard to catch them. Often, we were in a lot of danger. They had superior numbers and we were always short of fuel, while they were always close to their bases. But we had the training to manage these problems. We had a saying in the IAF: In every fight, believe that your adversary is the best pilot in the world; prove that he is not!
A & S: How are successful fighter pilots different today physically and mentally from the time of the Mirage III and the Phantom? Or are they?
Spector: As aircraft become more sophisticated, so do the pilots. The importance of sharp eyesight and manual flight skills is reduced by the introduction of radars and other sensors, and with flight computerized systems. On the other side, the human capacity to take and manipulate information became the crucial point. Clearly, with modern data communication, the taking in and manipulation of information can be done better and cheaper out of the cockpit, in more and more situations. Thus, in my view, besides the changes in the meaning of the term “fighter pilot,” the time of this profession is nearing its end.
A & S: Where the 1967 Six Day War was a non-stop Israeli victory, the 1973 Yom Kippur War saw a near-decimation of IAF squadrons—mainly by surface-to-air missiles and flak—particularly in the F-4 and A-4 communities. Yet within two weeks the IAF had gotten back on its feet and emerged victorious. As an F-4 squadron commander during those terrible days, please comment on how you kept your squadron in the fight.
Spector: This, in fact, is what my new book is about. In the Six Day War, strategy won the battle (the results of that strategy surpassed even the hopes of its planners). In the Yom Kippur War we had no strategy for winning, just plans for defense (that were crushed in the first night of the Egyptian and Syrian attack). Then, the field commanders had to take over and save the day, each one in his place, until after about ten days the government and staff had sufficiently recovered from the shock. In those ten days, the courage, wit and leadership of military units and their commanders were put to the test.
I was fortunate to be one of those field commanders at that time, and if I were to sum it all up in one sentence, then it is that the meaning of “good command” is the molding of good men into a good team that can fly and fight when needed.
A & S: Your writing has an autobiographical slant. Indeed, your novel A Dream in Blue and Black, concerns the hectic days of the first week of the 1973 war as seen by an F-4 squadron commander. Your new book, Loud and Clear, is told in the first person and has a lot of your military and political views, some of which are not always in tune with official viewpoints. Do you think your personal, outspoken opinions have served you well as a successful fighter pilot?
Spector: My opinions, like everybody else’s, developed and changed throughout my life. One thing I am proud of is that I never hesitated to speak out. I think this helped the IAF more than any puppet could.