It Won't Fly

Forty years after the ambitious Arava project began, three airplanes sit abandoned at Sde Dov airport, while attempts to sell them have ended in an embarrassing lawsuit.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

He is impatient. When his secretary transfers our call, he exhales into the receiver with demonstrative reluctance. "Why should we go back to a plane that we produced 40 years ago?" asks Doron Suslik, deputy corporate vice president for communications at Israel Aerospace Industries (formerly Israel Aircraft Industries). A few hours before his departure for the Farnborough International Airshow in England, he sounds like he is trying to evade a burden that is being imposed on him. After a brief silence, he truncates the conversation about the veteran plane by changing the subject entirely. "Did you know that IAI employees are teaching mathematics to youth in distress in Be'er Yaakov?" he asks enthusiastically. "Does that interest you?"

This summer, the first Hebrew aircraft is marking a sad 40th birthday. Even the deputy corporate vice president for communications at IAI isn't really excited about marking the anniversary. In June 1968, when Levi Eshkol's government gave the green light for the ambitious project, there was in fact a great deal of excitement. Today, the historic planes that opened the first chapter in the history of Israeli aviation are covered in dust and look like wretched heaps of metal. Three Arava aircraft, representing the waning of a pioneering dream, are cast away at the edges of the air force base at Sde Dov in Tel Aviv. They stand there side by side, silent and abandoned.

No one takes any interest in their birthday, and even after all the years that have gone by, it is hard for Suslik to speak of the first fruit of the aircraft industry in Israel. Something shuts down in him, is extinguished and bitter, when he is asked to remember. And he has good reason. Could it be because in the test flight and in a demonstration flight at an air show, five crew members were killed? Or perhaps because the ambitious plans for marketing hundreds of planes led only to huge losses and the production of just 103 aircraft, which had a hard time finding buyers?

At a time when IAI's new Conformal Airborne Early Warning & Control (CAEW) Aircraft is making its international debut at the Farnborough Airshow, the question of opening the forgotten biography of the Arava plane looks to Suslik like a fundamentally bad idea. After a month of attempts to persuade him, for example, he is still not prepared to allow the former manager of the Arava project, Dov Sa'ar, and the test pilot, Hagai Koren, to be interviewed about the Arava. Both of them are no longer employees of IAI, but rather likable pensioners full of love for the plane they created, but Suslik forbids them to talk. "Listen," he says as the noon hour approaches, "we have nothing to hide, but we don't have anything to say about it."

The glory days

But there are other people who are happy to reminisce. "A short while after the Six-Day War, the development of the Arava began at Israel Aircraft Industries," relates aviation researcher and journalist Danny Shalom, who was a member of the team of engineers who took part in the innovative project. "The aim was to put planes [that could perform] short takeoffs and landings on the market," he says in one of the newsrooms of the Hatzofeh newspaper. "In those days there was the idea that planes of this sort would serve cities like New York, London and Tel Aviv. That is, not only would planes transport passengers long distances, they would also take them on short hops, within cities. There was a need to develop an entire generation of planes that would suit this mission and could take off and land on runways only 400 meters long."

Those were the glory days of the aviation industry. At the end of the 1960s the young Israeli company, which had been established in 1953, was in the midst of technological and industrial activity: It had begun to develop the Westwind executive aircraft, the Nesher (a copy of the French Mirage 5 fighter plane), the Gabriel missile and the Kfir fighter. At that time the first generations of aviation engineers were also emerging from the classrooms at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. The intention was to create, together with them, a unique Israeli project: no more copies of American and French production lines, but rather a whole new aircraft.

"This idea generated a lot of excitement," recalls Shalom. "I worked in the 'weight and balance' group. Anyone who engineered a system would send us the drawings and we would estimate the weight of the component. The entire process of development was accompanied by a huge sense of pioneering. I remember that there were all kinds of configurations for the plane. In the end they decided to go with a shape that resembles the French Nord: a round body, a rear door that opens, high wings and two booms, which are the pipes that connect the tail to the motor. It turned out that the plane looked like a flying egg."

On November 27, 1969, the maiden flight took place. All the employees of the plant came out of the workshops to stand alongside the runway. Dozens of aerodynamics and hydraulics experts came to watch excitedly as something they had made with their own hands rose into the air. But the chief test pilot, Avraham Hacohen, had reservations in the midst of the tumult surrounding him. Minutes after the successful landing, the pilot from Kibbutz Beit Alfa got out of the plane and summed up dryly: "The flight went okay, with no special problems. I can agree that this is an historic event, but it is important to remember that this is a first flight that doesn't say anything yet. There is still a long way to go, and it could be that we have surprises in store for us."

A mortal blow

The bitter surprise was not long in coming. On November 19, 1970, during Test Flight 92, the plane came apart in the air over the hills of Samaria. Pieces of the only flight-ready prototype scattered and fell to earth in a chilling scene. The bodies of the mechanic, Eitan Spiegel, father of a 9-year-old son, and of the experimental engineer Aharon Ozeri, the father of a 3-year-old daughter, were found sprawled on the ground with their parachutes still folded on their backs. Avraham Hacohen, the chief pilot and a father of four, was hit on the head, lost consciousness and was killed when he was flung to the ground with parts of the aircraft. Co-pilot Dave Levin survived after his parachute opened during his fall.

On that cursed flight, an attempt was made to check how the plane behaved in extreme conditions. To that end, the speed of the plane was increased from one sortie to the next. When on the third sortie it reached a speed of 215 knots, one of the wing supports broke, both wings folded and the plane came apart. "What caused it in fact was the force of the air," explained Yehuda Trau, the project engineer, in the air force journal. "The force of the air is in fact what keeps the plane in the air, but at high speeds it can also damage the wings. The higher the speed, the greater the force on the wing. It begins to wiggle and the danger that it will break is greater. This phenomenon is known and the truth is that they calculate the wing [design] so that it will not get into this situation and then they have to prove this in test flights. If the Arava had been planned for a maximum speed of 170 knots, we would have had to prove that the plane would fall apart at a speed 25 percent higher than the maximum speed. That is, at a speed of about 215 knots, which is a speed that no pilot would reach on an ordinary flight on the Arava. And precisely at this point, at the maximum point, the plane crashed."

No one was blamed. "In the engineering system they don't point a gun at an engineer's head. It doesn't work that way," explained a former IAI engineer who asked not to be mentioned by name. "The system in which the hitch was found had been approved from every direction - in development, in production, approval from dozens of engineers. This problem came up in discussions. I remember that people warned about this, saying that the support wouldn't hold up. However, there were also people who thought it would hold up. Therefore they checked it. This was not a simple process. A small model of the plane was built, and it went through a wind tunnel. They checked how the plane behaved. Experts came from abroad who also advised. The model was also sent to a wind tunnel in Holland. In all of those checks there was no problem. The ones who had sounded an alarm were proved wrong, and everyone came to the conclusion that there was no risk."

After the crash, the plane was grounded for a year. In the meantime test pilot Avraham Hacohen was replaced by air force pilot Danny Shapira. In the kitchen of his home in Haifa, he reconstructs the days after the accident.

"I came into IAI as the test pilot for the French Mirage 5 fighter plane. After the crash of the Arava, I took upon myself the management of the Arava test pilot team as well. I remember that I came to a place that was in shock. A very difficult situation had developed at IAI. Morale was on the floor, pilots were afraid to get into the plane. Getting into a plane that had been in such a horrible accident is accompanied by a lot of fears."

Despite the crisis, the assessment at IAI then was that the civilian aircraft market was in need of 2,000 short takeoff and landing planes. The aspiration was to bite off at least 20 percent of the market, that is to say between 400 and 600 planes. In fact only 103 planes were produced, and even these were sold with great difficulty.

"The accident didn't have only an internal effect," says Shapira. "The moment a plane falls apart in the air, all the potential purchasers start to think twice. In this sense the accident was a mortal blow to the project. It is no simple matter to enter the market with a plane after it has crashed. It is completely understandable that there was a lot of suspicion toward us."

Men of faith

However, IAI did not give up. The test flights continued until March 7, 1972, when the Arava received civil licensing from the U.S. and Israeli aviation agencies. The marketing began at that moment, and four new Arava planes came off the production line every month. However, it soon turned out that the plan for selling the first Hebrew airplane to civilian markets didn't stand a chance. There was no demand for a plane on which two jet engines promised a maximum speed of only 316 miles per hour and had a flight range of about 1,300 kilometers (compared to the 440 kilometers per hour and range of 2,500 kilometers on the old Nord, which the air force took out of service in 1978). Once IAI accepted the harsh fact that the civil aviation market was closed to the plane, they turned to the military market. From the civilian Arava 101 model, intended for 20 passengers, they developed the 202, which was built for military missions and carried 24 soldiers or 2.5 tons of cargo. However, this didn't work either.

"The Israel Air Force wasn't interested in the Arava," says Danny Shalom. "There was a paradox here: The IAI offered the Israeli Air Force an Israeli plane, but the air force didn't want it. When they asked the commander of the air force at the time, Motti Hod, why he wasn't buying Arava planes, he replied: 'What's the Arava?'"

That's a bit humiliating, isn't it?

"This very much annoyed the IAI people. You have to remember that the air force was, and still is, an excellent sales promotion. If you've sold a product to the Israeli Air Force, you increase your chances of selling to other countries. It's a kind of seal of quality. But the air force wasn't buying," says Shalom. "I remember that at the Arava project office, they prepared brochures. There was no alternative but to fire in all directions. We presented it as a plane that could carry out any mission. We presented it as an aerial ambulance, as a rescue plane, as a military plane, as a civilian plane, as a personnel carrier, as a vehicle carrier. Everything. Over the years it became clear that despite all the effort, the market didn't like it."

Pressure on the flagship project of Israel Aviation Industries increased. In January 1973, under the headlines "The Arava Refuses to Take Off" and "Planes Seek Buyers," journalist Shimshon Ehrlich wrote two sharp critiques of the project: "Although competition was expected from a similar plane, produced by the Canadian de Havilland company, this thought did not deter men of faith, imagination and daring like the men of IAI," he wrote with a dash of cynicism. "Not so optimistic were economists and experts from outside the aircraft industry. The latter believed, and also expressed their opinion, that the chances of marketing an Israeli plane were small, even on the assumption that its quality would be excellent. Thus far about 200 million liras [equal to 3 percent of the defense budget at that time] had been invested in developing the plane. Chances that the money invested in the Arava will be covered seem quite small. Meanwhile, two years have already gone by without sales, during which the investments and the cumulative interest have grown."

The state comptroller at the time, Yitzhak Ernst Nebenzahl, also related to the failed project. At the center of a harshly critical report on IAI, the comptroller wrote in 1976 that the company had received funding from the Finance Ministry on the basis of an erroneous sales forecast. The comptroller blamed the heads of the company for "millions of liras having gone down the drain in the production of the civilian aircraft." In his opinion, forecasts were not checked; during the course of production they emerged as incorrect. Nevertheless, the executives continued to sink millions of liras into the production of planes whose sales potential was unclear.

Under attack from the media and the state comptroller, test pilots set out for the Americas in a nearly desperate attempt to rescue the heads of the company from disgrace. "The burden of proof for the plane's capabilities was to a large extent on us," says Shapira. "The first country we went to was Mexico, and after that we went to countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay. In all those countries we did demonstration flights for generals and heads of state. Anyone who isn't familiar with these stories would be incredulous - these were tales from '1,001 Nights.'"

Kamikaze flight

The marketing of the Arava wasn't done in suits. The salespeople for the plane in Latin America had thrilling adventures. "Bringing the planes all the way to South America was a nightmare," recalls Shapira. "From Israel we flew to Greece, then to Europe and from there to Greenland, then to Canada and from there to the United States on the way to South America. This took nearly a week, 12 hours of flying time each day, without an autopilot. When I flew over Greenland I was blue with cold and the grease in the screws of the steering system froze on me."

And that was only the beginning. "I remember, for example, that in Panama we encountered a rainstorm. I was flying a plane and I thought I was in a submarine," relates Shapiro. "Every drop was a barrel." In Ecuador, Shapiro, who was 40 at the time, encountered one of the most dangerous demonstration flights of his life. "The navy people in Ecuador asked me to fly into the depths of the jungle. That was a kamikaze flight. Because of the clouds I had no alternative but to fly in the canyons. I had doubts as to whether this was possible. When I called the CEO of IAI, Al Schwimmer, to tell him that I couldn't do it, he said to me: 'If you don't do it, no one is going to do it and we won't be able to sell planes.'"

So you set out on the flight?

"Yes. In Quito I picked up six officers and a local pilot - he was called Apollo and he was killed in an Arava plane several years later. At least three pilots have crashed there with Aravas."

Where did you fly that day?

"They wanted to reach a mountain, which reminded me of Masada, north of Quito. This was a very short hop. I remember that when I landed there I stopped 40 meters before an abyss of 2,000 meters. When we got ready to fly back, the situation was no easier. Our marketing man started to distribute sandwiches to the officers, and I asked him: 'What are you handing out food for? In another minute we are going to be killed.'"

Were you serious?

"Of course. He thought I was joking. I had serious difficulty taking off - during the takeoff I couldn't manage to accelerate enough. My problem was also that I couldn't stop. Had I tried to stop, we definitely would have been thrown from the mountain and fallen into the abyss. Luckily for me, I continued to accelerate and when we were thrown from the mountain I managed to lift the plane."

Are you sorry that the Arava has been forgotten?

"It's a fact that the Arava aircraft has been forgotten. I think that people aren't familiar with it because it wasn't a fighter plane and there was no special aura about it. But it was not possible to expect that it would be extraordinarily impressive. It was a workhorse, a practical plane - that was its purpose. Today people don't remember the Arava the way they remember the Uzi, but we believed in that plane. We loved it. The Arava brought IAI forward in the area of aircraft development and was the basis for its future achievements."

Bad luck

The Arava pilots' ambition rescued the project from burning failure. The difficult mission of selling the plane fell on the test pilots, who were expected to impress potential buyers who were not predisposed to like the clumsy Israeli plane. In the 1970s, after aggressive marketing campaigns, a decrease in prices and improved payment plans, IAI succeeded in selling about 70 Aravas in South America. But in 1980, the bad luck that had dogged the project struck again.

Pilot Dave Levin, the father of two who had survived the test flight, was killed in another Arava crash in the African country of Malawi. In that accident, another employee of IAI, Eli Mor, father of four, was also killed. Investigations into the accident concluded that Levin had exceeded the flight limits. Apparently, in that demonstration flight for buyers in Malawi, he turned the plane too sharply at an altitude lower than permitted.

Levin was one of the pilots who, in the Yom Kippur War, had for the first time put three Arava aircraft at the service of the Israel Defense Forces. The planes, which had been lent to the Israel Air Force, were operated by the air force transport flight wing (Flight Wing 122) on transport missions and to evacuate wounded soldiers from Sinai. In the wake of a combination deal, nine Arava planes joined the air force fleet at the end of 1983. The air force chose to purchase the Israeli aircraft with American aid money, and thus a deal was sewn up in which the plane was manufactured in Israel and flown to the U.S. to be fitted with electronic combat systems for intelligence operations. The air force bought, in effect, American Aravas.

The air force did not especially like the Arava. "The plane was built for short takeoff and landing capabilities, but the air force hardly used those capabilities," relates a former Arava pilot. "The plane flew at a low speed and its maneuverability wasn't especially high. It wasn't aerodynamic and it wasn't technologically advanced. It didn't even have an air conditioner. In fact it was an old, obsolete plane."

In 2004, Dan Halutz, then commander of the air force, decided to send the plane into retirement. After more than 20 years of service, the air force Arava planes shut down their motors and the first Israeli plane landed here for the last time. A few dozen of the planes are still flying abroad, most of them in South America and a few of them in Thailand. IAI continues to provide them with replacement parts.

Meanwhile, in its failed attempts to sell off the used air-force Aravas, the Defense Ministry became embroiled in an embarrassing NIS 4.7 million lawsuit, filed in Tel Aviv District Court on the grounds that the ministry had undertaken to sell two Arava planes with civil licenses, but one turned out to have been a military plane. Attorney Avner Yarkoni, who represented the plaintiffs, two American citizens, says that they "were planning to operate a civil aviation line in Hawaii. They signed a contract with the Defense Ministry for the purchase of two planes for $670,000 and paid an advance of $200,000. What happened is that the Defense Ministry didn't check what it had in hand, and it turned out that one of the planes could not be brought into the United States. It is as though they tried to sell a military Hummer and told us to drive it on the roads."

The Defense Ministry has submitted a defense brief in which, Yarkoni said, it was claimed that the American buyers were the ones who tried to deceive the Minister of Defense. The ministry said it was obvious that one of the planes was a military plane, and that the buyers had forged the planes' license plates in order to save themselves the expense of turning it into a civil aircraft. The first deliberations on the case have been set for the winter of 2009.

The Arava chapter is not yet closed, but its end will apparently be bitter. Attempts to sell the historic planes are still underway. In October 2007, for example, the Defense Ministry held a buyers' tour at the Sde Dov base to sell five Arava planes. Three weeks ago, former Arava test pilot Hagai Koren confirmed that he was about to try again. "I am leaving on Sunday for South America to try to sell the Arava," he said in a telephone conversation. At the last minute, Koren, who lives in Ramat Hasharon, canceled an interview that had been set; he had been forbidden to talk. "I can't talk about the plane if I don't have a representative of the Defense Ministry and an IAI spokesman beside me."

Not even to extend 40th birthday greetings?

"Not even that."W