The Rocket That Disrupted Ben-Gurion Flights: An Israel Air Force Mistake

In memo to foreign carriers and aviation regulators, director general of Israeli civil aviation authority says danger from rockets to airliners is negligible.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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An El Al jet at Ben-Gurion Airport.
An El Al jet at Ben-Gurion Airport. Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The Hamas rocket which hit Yehud and brought international flights to Ben-Gurion Airport to a partial halt was preceded by a decision not to intercept the rocket. The decision, made by the Iron Dome battery officer, ranking no higher than a captain and without the intervention of a more senior officer, is per the aerial defense policy drawn out by the Air Force command.

But after the FAA forbade American carriers to land or take off from Ben-Gurion Airport for 36 hours, the Air Force changed the Iron Dome interception orders to prevent future disruptions in the airport's activities.

American, British and other sources responded positively over the weekend to data supplied to foreign carriers and aviation regulation bodies in a memo by the Civil Aviation Authority in Israel, meant to convince them flying to Ben-Gurion Airport is safe.

"The July 22nd rocket attack impacted at a distance of approximately one mile from the airport's outer perimeter fence," Giora Romm, director general of the CAAI, wrote in the memo. "The Israeli Air force, responsible for intercepting the rocket via the Iron Dome system, was aware of the projected impact point almost three minutes beforehand, and realized that it would hit outside Ben-Gurion's borders. In this particular case, the Air force chose not to intercept the rocket, for calculated reasons completely unrelated to Ben-Gurion."

In the memo, Romm said that according to an Air Force study, the chances of a random rocket hit to an airplane parked on the tarmac is "negligible," and estimated at one in a hundred million. The chances of an aircraft flying through Israeli airspace being hit by a rocket are even lower, and estimated as one in a billion, Romm said.

According to Romm, "the Civil Aviation authority, in close coordination with The Israeli Airport Authority and the Israeli Air Force, has been working for the last two years on preparing a plan for Ben-Gurion's continued operation in the event of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel's central region, where the airport is located. The foundation of this contingency plan was the deployment of "Iron Dome" anti-rocket defense systems throughout Israel's center, in order to provide this central region's population (numbering over one million citizens), and Ben-Gurion Airport in particular, with protection against rocket attacks."

The plan, Romm added, has three tiers: First, "Re-routing incoming and outgoing traffic into corridors separated from the Iron Dome interceptors, and a complete ban of civil aviation traffic into areas that are covered by the Iron dome interceptors.

Romm, a reserve Major General and a fighter pilot who has manned several senior posts in the Israel Air Force - including commanding the Ramon and Tel Nof bases and heading the IAF staff – added that "The Iron dome launch batteries covering Ben-Gurion Airport operate under a specific set of procedures which I cannot go into in detail due to security reasons. I would like to note, however, that out of over 2,250 rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli territory (a portion of which have been directed at Israel's center), not a single one has landed in Ben-Gurion Airport."

The Iron Dome system's remarkable ability to predict an incoming rocket's trajectory," he added, "pinpoint its projected point of impact; and if necessary, launch two anti-rocket missiles (achieving a 99% intercept chance) at the incoming rocket, - all within the 3.5 minutes it takes a rocket to reach Israel's Center from Gaza." This capability, he said, guarantees Ben-Gurion's "continued normal operation" even under fire: "In the last two weeks, Ben-Gurion has facilitated over 6000 movements with no interruption, while maintaining the usual high levels of safety, in accordance with international standards."

Ben-Gurion Airport's administration published clear directives for ground operations, the memo added, "under six identified possible threat cases. These instructions have been circulated and drilled, and are known to anyone operating in Ben-Gurion Israel's Government has no doubt whatsoever regarding its ability to safely operate Ben-Gurion even in this unstable period." Therefore, the memo adds, even as U.S. airline companies suspended their flights, followed by some European companies, "Israeli aviation, along with 20 or so foreign airlines, are still operating on schedule to and from the airport, and will continue to do so around the clock."

Romm dismissed concerns of threats to incoming flights, which were raised following the downing of the Malaysian jet over Ukraine. "Malaysian Airlines flight MH117 was shot down by a Surface-to-Air missile battery (designed expressly for the purpose of shooting airplanes out of the sky), whose crew actively guided the missile to hit its chosen target. None of these factors apply to the kind of threat Israel, and Ben-Gurion in particular, are facing today from unguided rockets, which are entirely different from missiles."

In conclusion, wrote Romm, "Aviation is an exercise in calculated risk management. I wish to emphasize that the CAAI, after carefully and thoroughly examining all specifications and risk management analysis studies prepared for the Iron Dome defense plan, has approved the continued operation of Ben-Gurion under the current situation. The plan was presented to and approved by the Israeli cabinet of ministers We welcome any further queries and call upon all foreign international air carriers to resume operations to Israel."

The data and explanations in the memo have had an influence, and helped convince aviation authorities and airline companies around the world to resume flights to Ben-Gurion. A safety and security manager at one of the big airline companies which did not suspend its flights told one of his colleagues: "It's good that the Israelis published the letter – it helps us explain, especially to our air crews, why we never stopped flying to Tel Aviv."

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