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 cost 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 dedicated plane that would serve both the prime minister and president on overseas trips. The contract was awarded to Israel Aerospace Industries, which purchased a used Boeing 767-300ER. After three years in storage in California after being retired by its owner, Qantas, it was 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. Buying a dedicated plane was criticized – especially after it vastly exceeded the original budget – and its inauguration was postponed several times. Currently, it had been reported that the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the plane be grounded, fearing it would draw criticism during a major economic crisis with mounting unemployment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It has since resumed conducting test flights, ahead of its delivery to Israel Air Force.
The new plane made its first test flight in November 2019, sporting a new blue-and-white livery. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given it the name “Knaf Zion” (“Wing of Zion”), though as it made its initial test flights, Netanyahu was struggling to form a government after a string of elections and it looked like he may never fly in it
The Boeing 767-300ER first flew in 2000 and had served Australian airline Qantas – where it was called Swan Hill – for 13 years until it was retired in 2013. After it was bought by IAI, it was retrofitted to meet the needs of the prime minister
As yet there have been no photographs from inside the new plane, but this is what the interior apparently includes:
A rest area with a bed and a shower cubicle for the prime minister, aft of the cockpit
Then a kitchen and office/meeting room with video-conferencing facilities
There are also sections for the prime minister’s staff and traveling press
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.
One of them is a “bump” on the Boeing’s back. This is a radome for advanced communication antennae, allowing the prime minister and his team to use encrypted communication channels. (On civilian airliners, the radome enables inflight Wi-Fi)
Another visible upgrade is the Sky Shield missile defense system. Developed by Elbit, Sky Shield uses infra-red sensors to detect shoulder-launched missiles fired from the ground
Once a missile is detected, the system generates a laser beam that deflects it away from the aircraft
The prime minister usually takes off from Ben-Gurion Airport. When not in use, the plane will be stored and maintained at the Israel Air Force’s Nevatim base in the Negev
Wing of Zion will be under the command of Squadron 120, which operates the Boeing 707 aerial-refueling tankers. Squadron 120 is expected to acquire the KC-46 tanker, which is also based on the Boeing 767, over the next few years
With a full load, the Boeing 767-300ER is capable of flying up to 11,000 kilometers (5,940 nautical miles). Since the prime minister’s plane will be flying with fewer passengers and less cargo, it could reach destinations further away
The aircraft allows nonstop flights to all but the furthest destinations to which it might be expected to fly
From a WWII cargo plane to civilian charters
From the mid-1970s onward, heads of state flew in Boeing 707 airliners converted by Israel Aerospace Industries to VIP configuration. These planes were used Boeings purchased from commercial airlines or foreign heads of state. Most of them remained in service only a few years, as they were either too old or the IAF had other operational needs of them.The most famous of these aircraft, called Re’em (Oryx), was No. 118 – originally an Air France plane. It flew Menachem Begin on his historic 1979 visit to Egypt, as well as to the United States the preceding year for the Camp David talks, which resulted in the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The last of these Boeings, No. 272, served Benjamin Netanyahu in his first term, and also Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. The plane was later converted to an aerial tanker for IAF fighter jets, a role it still fulfills today.
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.