Haaretz - Israel News

Will it ever fly?
Inside Israel's
controversial $260 million
‘Air Force One’

Long delayed and over budget, a VIP-configured Boeing 767 is waiting to take Israeli leaders around the world – but they are not sure they want it ■ Netanyahu had grounded the jet out of fear of criticism during the coronavirus pandemic ■ Take an interactive tour

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14.12.2021

In Israel’s early years, official trips abroad by heads of state were rare. When they did take place, they were either on an Israel Air Force transport or a scheduled El Al flight. Over the years, Israel's leaders used military planes, and later chartered civilian flights. But the mounting costs and lack of encrypted communication systems on civilian airlines led to the need for a dedicated prime minister’s plane.

In 2014, a government panel authorized the purchase of a plane that would serve Israel's heads of state. The contract was awarded to Israel Aerospace Industries, which purchased a used Boeing 767-300ER, which was retired by its owner, Qantas. It spent three years in storage in California before being flown to Israel in July 2016 for conversion.

The original budget for its purchase, conversion and upgrade was 393 million shekels ($115 million), which by the time it first flew had grown by 50 percent to 580 million shekels. Operating the plane is expected to cost taxpayers 44.6 million shekels annually, or some 223 million shekels for five years. Buying a dedicated plane was criticized – especially after it vastly exceeded the original budget – and its inauguration was postponed several times. Initially, it had been reported that the office of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the plane be grounded during a major economic crisis with mounting unemployment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

On December 5, 2021, the Civil Aviation Authority finally gave the plane a license to fly, yet it was still unclear if the jet would ever serve the nation’s leaders. By then, Netanyahu was no longer in power, and while his successor, Naftali Bennett, had not expressed an opinion on the matter, his partner in power, alternate prime minister Yair Lapid, has called for the plane to be sold. Five and a half years since it first arrived in Israel, the jet is still parked in a secluded corner of Ben-Gurion Airport, without having made a single operational flight.

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While the Boeing 767-300ER can carry up to 290 passengers, the prime minister’s plane will at most carry around half that number. Upgrades made to the new plane are classified, but some changes can be easily spotted.

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From a WWII cargo plane to civilian charters

Assuming it eventually becomes operational, Wing of Zion will make its maiden flight with a prime minister on board over 20 years after the plane first flew and after 13 years of intensive airline service in Australia. Most aircraft of this type are normally being flown to their final resting place before being broken up for scrap in desert boneyards. 

After the complete overhaul, and since it will not be making more than a dozen flights a year, there’s no reason why the plane couldn’t go on flying Israeli heads of state for another 20 years before finally retiring.

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Top photo by Alon Ron
Second photo by Nir Keidar
Design by Maya Colodner
Programmed by Asi Oren
Illustrations by Nadav Gazit
Project editor Jonathan Gorodischer
Copy editor Adrian Hennigan
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