In 1954 journalist Tikvah Weinstock covered one of Israel's historic moments for the daily Maariv newspaper. "Batya – a tiny 20-year-old girl – receives pilot wings," said the subhead of the report featuring Batya Yehezkeli, the first Israeli Air Force navigator, who later became Batya Varonsky-Orny.
Her entry into the history books was not easy. At first she was told she had not passed the pilots' aptitude test. Later, however, she received a surprising message from a woman who was on the committee deciding who to pass on to the next stage. “The decision was arbitrary, you should submit an appeal,” the message read. Batya did as she was advised. This time she was informed that she qualified to begin the military's pilot training course but not for the role of a pilot, but of a navigator, with the reason being her height – 1.53 meters (barely 5 feet).
“Come on, couldn’t the committee have found a better excuse? As if there were no male pilots my height back then,” Batya said years later. “Despite the disapproval of many of the ‘big guys’ who claimed there is no place for a girl in such roles,” as Batya put it, she began the prestigious course.
“Throughout the entire course 'they hoped’ she would drop out,” Weinstock said in her report, adding that no one bothered to tailor a uniform to fit her. “And so, the petite, slim girl flew in men's windbreaker as big as a sack, in pilots’ boots her feet dragged and almost slipped out of, wearing a big pilot helmet that covered half her tiny face. It was almost impossible to see who this strange figure was, tugging herself to the plane bent under the burden of all the files and calculating instruments,” the journalist reported.
But Batya never gave up. “I saw the men complaining about how difficult the course was, so I gritted my teeth and tried harder,” she said.
Then-IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan pinned the pilot insignia on her uniform at the ceremony marking the completion of the 13th Air Force pilot training course. Her disappointment at not being allowed to become a pilot was replaced by her joy with becoming a navigator. “It’s amazing, in a certain way, it's even better than flying,” Batya said. Another disappointment awaited her after she finished the course and sought to become a combat navigator.
“That would lead to an emergency landing,” one of the Air Force commanders told her dismissively and assigned her to Squadron 103 (also known as the Elephant Squadron), where she served as a transport navigator under the command of Paul Kedar.
- No White Shirts, Separate Smoking Areas for Female Soldiers: Israeli Army Beefs Up 'Modesty' Rules
- Israeli General Warns Against Imposing Modesty Restrictions on Female Soldiers
- Flooded Fighter Jets Were Bad for Israeli Air Force, the Cover-up Was Worse
Kedar was very impressed by the abilities Batya demonstrated in the final test for the pilot training course. After they had flown together for three hours, she was ordered to return to base. “After doing all the required calculations, I handed Paul a note with the direction and arrival time. We arrived at the base exactly on time and Paul was so excited," Batya recalled, adding that Paul told her he wants her in his squadron.
Avi Moshe Segal, the curator of the IAF Museum and a researcher of the history of flight, notes that there were two other women in the squadron at the time – pilot Yael Finkelstein (later Rom) and wireless communications operator Ohalia Segal.
In the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Batya again took part in one of Israel's historic moments. She was the navigator of one of the fighter jets from which paratroopers jumped into the battle at the Mitla Pass and later the navigator of one of the aircraft that evacuated the wounded.
Batya was born in 1933 in Tel Aviv to Zila and Itzik Yehezkeli. In high school she joined a flight club, where she built airplane models. During the War of Independence, she gazed enviously at pilots from abroad who volunteered with the Israeli Air Force. “We saw them doing things we could only dream of,” she said. Later she joined two of her friends from her Nahal pre-military pioneering youth group, Zurik Lev and Ehud Dolinski, and took the compatibility tests for the pilot training course. The rest was history. Dolinksi was killed in a plane accident in 1954, and Lev, who commanded the Ramat David air base in the north, was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Her first husband, Yaakov Varonsky, who died of an illness at a young age, was a pilot. She later married Reuven Orny. When the couple had children, Batya was discharged from reserve service against her will. “That made me very angry – I wanted to continue like everyone else,” she said. “Did they also discharge men who had children?” In civilian life she worked at Bank Leumi and as a travel agent.
Shortly thereafter the Air Force officially closed the pilot training course to women, until the High Court of Justice granted Alice Miller’s petition to reopen it in 1995. “Alice had balls,” Batya said. Her husband Reuven died some three years ago. She passed away this week, leaving behind four children, 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She once joked that in her next incarnation she would like to be an astronaut, later saying she would like to be an Andean condor so she could hover over the mountains.