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A fleet of air force transport aircraft, jet-powered Boeing 707s and propeller-driven C-130 Hercules took off from their base alongside Ben Gurion International Airport for the last time yesterday, en route to their new home in the Negev. The flight was led by Air Force chief, Major General Ido Nehushtan, who flew a Boeing 707 for the hour-long flight to the expanded base of Nevatim. The flight was accompanied by fighter aircraft and passed over the Negev cities of Sderot, Ofakim and Be'er Sheva.

The transfer of the air force transport wing to Nevatim was the culmination of preparations that began several years ago and centered on expanding the base and constructing the longest runway in the Middle East - at 4 kilometers length.

For years, the air force's transport wing served as Israel's "long arm." In 1991, the aircraft participated in Operation Solomon, when air force pilots airlifted some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews within 36 hours.

Some of the reservist pilots still active in the ranks participated in numerous operations, including the bombing of the PLO headquarters near Tunis in 1985. The unit also flew Israeli VIPs on secret missions abroad, and trained in air-to-air refueling for long-range operations.

Col. (res.) Yair Tzadik is a veteran navigator in the air transport wing. During the late 1970s, as a 23-year-old navigator, he participated in a historic mission: ferrying Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Cairo on the first visit to the Egyptian capital by an Israeli leader following the peace accords.

"It was one of my first flights abroad," he recalled earlier this week. "It was an amazing experience. I could feel history happening. Begin himself came into the cockpit and shook our hands. When we landed in Cairo, we were warmly received."

Since that day, Tzadik and the air transport wing have flown many times to distant destinations. One of these was Guatemala, when Israel sent supplies to help the population stricken by an earthquake. "We were taking humanitarian aid that included blankets," Tzadik recalled. "We landed in Canada to refuel, but the weather was so poor that the blankets got soaked. In the morning, when we tried to take off, we used up the runway, not knowning whether we would be able to take off because of the enormous added weight of the wet blankets."

The air transport wing's move south will ease the safety pressures on Ben Gurion International Airport, and lessen complaints of breaches to the noise limits set on takeoffs. During June, for example, air force transport aircraft violated the noise pollution limits 26 times, more than six times that of civilian aircraft during the same period.

Moreover, experts say that the chance of mid-air accidents will be diminished, while the permanent friction that exists over the air space between civil and military aviation will also ease.

However, the transfer of the air transport wing to the Negev is expected to have other implications. The unit's commander, Colonel Ilan, expressed concern that the move to Nevatim will cause many of the reservists to arrive less frequently for training. "For now, everyone is moving with a big smile on their faces, but we will need to follow closely the issue of attendance because we are situated in a relatively faraway place compared to our previous base," Col. Ilan warned.