Shot Out of the Sky

If another fire like last year's Carmel blaze breaks out, and the crop-duster pilots who were deployed then are not brought back, the new aerial firefighting force will have its work cut out for it.

In his home in Shikun Bavli in Tel Aviv sits Uri Yaffe, 81. Since the launch of the new air force firefighting squadron, he has been having a difficult time. He has 38,000 flight hours to his credit, having spent more than 44 years piloting the Harvard, the Stearman, the Spitfire, the Mosquito, the Dakota, various Boeings - mainly the 747 - and the Catalina seaplane, which he tested dozens of times in landings and takeoffs on Lake Kinneret. Nearly two decades ago, he began promoting the idea of an aerial firefighting system. Nobody listened to him, until the large fire on the Carmel late last year - and then they ignored him.

"There's a hole in my bucket," sings Yaffe's wife, actress and vocalist Yona Atari, together with Yossi Banai in the Hebrew version of the song. And there is a big hole in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's flying bucket, and because of that, in the reputation of the Israel Air Force as well.

Plane - Alon Ron - 08072011
Alon Ron

Yaffe was one of a quartet of aerial firefighting enthusiasts. With him were paratrooper and former firefighter Aharon "Arol" Eshel who parachuted from Yaffe's plane while serving in Battalion 890 at the Mitla Pass in the Sinai Campaign; retired military secretary Brig. Gen. Efraim "Freuke" Poran; and entrepreneur Freddy Fink.

In the many-branched Yaffe family, there are many Avrahams, two Uris and two Dovs. The most famous member of the tribe was the late Maj. Gen. Avraham Yaffe, a veteran of the British Army and the Golani Brigade, a former GOC of the Northern and Southern Commands, director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and a Likud MK. His brothers Uri and Shaul were also top combat officers.

Uri the pilot's father, Avraham, worked at the same agricultural cooperative as his relative Dov Yaffe. Dov's son, who was also called Avraham, was known as "Little Avraham" to distinguish him from his older relative.

Of the two representatives of the Yaffe family in the air force, Avraham was the senior and more outstanding pilot: commander of the elite special forces unit 101, and of the Tel Nof base during the Sinai Campaign - a colonel who competed for the top air force post after Ezer Weizman's eight years. Uri was an instructor in the first nine pilots training courses. Among his pupils were air battle genius Yaakov "Yak" Nevo and cargo plane pilot Yael Finkelstein (Rom ). From training he went over to Dakotas, as deputy squadron commander, and participated in the fighting at the Mitla. In 1957 he was demobilized and went to work for El Al.

In the air force, fighter pilots are more respected than cargo pilots. Uri Yaffe - who often took risks and had adventures, such as piloting the last El Al flight out of Tehran as it was falling into the hands of Ayatollah Khomeini - was a cargo pilot. Avraham Yaffe, who died before his time, had been a fighter pilot, as was the son of "Little Avraham" Yaffe, Dubi.

Dubi, who is married to Michal Weizman, daughter of Ezer, was one of the F-16 pilots who bombed the nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981. Civilian Dubi Yaffe's businesses include representing a manufacturer of motors, which happen to be installed in AirTractor planes, designed solely for firefighting. Seven of these planes are supposed to constitute the aerial firefighting squadron whose establishment was ordered by Netanyahu in December. In the State Comptroller's report on the flaws in the preparedness for the Carmel fire, a draft of which will be distributed within a few weeks to those investigated in it, a separate volume will be devoted to aerial firefighting.

Treetop to treetop

The fire on the Carmel was not extinguished just after it started - before it had a chance to leap from treetop to treetop and to exact fatalities - because there was no adequate system on the ground (forest clearing, pipeline network, positioning of fire engines, fire spotting and alarms ) and because an alert of the light planes that fight blazes from the air was canceled prematurely. The practical solution would have been improving the state of readiness of those planes, whose pilots are experienced and skilled in firefighting. Various alternative reinforcements were also proposed, among them acquiring firefighting equipment for the C-130 Hercules plane (the "Karnaf" ).

What was needed was an orderly, professional process for considering and examining the alternatives. Netanyahu, however, was in a hurry, and subsequently decided to establish a firefighting squadron. Reasonable ideas were cast aside and the chosen solution was the purchase of the AirTractors, from a single civilian company (Elbit Systems ); launching of operations by a second civilian company (Chim-Nir ), which already has pilots and a franchise for a flame retardant; and organization of a military framework including a ghost squadron in the air force and a lieutenant colonel at its head.

In the documents of the hasty tender issued by the Defense Ministry in February, the aim was defined thus: "Increasing the effectiveness in dealing with extensive fires in open territory and fires/incidents in national military or civil infrastructures."

Now, in July, it is clear that if another Carmel fire breaks out, and the crop-duster pilots who were sent into the air last year, for whom idleness has been decreed this year, are not brought back (there are talks regarding this but no contract has been signed yet ), the aerial firefighting force will be weaker. Of the seven planes ordered, two are of the unnecessary and expensive sea model (another $1 million, on top of $2.2 million each ), which is not suited to Israeli conditions. The planes' skis disqualify them for local use and their pilots need a special license. Thus, the usable inventory of planes goes down from seven to five, even before aircraft that have had problems or have been damaged have been grounded, and the total capacity will be far from what is needed.

The crop-duster pilots' many years of experience has been discarded, and flyers with an average age of 70 and with few hours of firefighting under their belts have been called up for refresher training. In an improvised format, thus far, only small fires have been put out, and not many. When called into "battle" to fight many and spreading fire loci, there will not be enough buckets without holes.

Uri Yaffe is happy with the choice of the AirTractor. Now his vision will be realized and the country will have a plane dedicated solely to firefighting. This plane is represented in Europe and in the Middle East, from his base in Spain, by agent Hugo Acero, whose contacts in Israel over the years have been Freddy Fink, Yaffe and their buddies. However, their contract with Acero expired on December 31 and has not yet been renewed. This is a bit like the readiness contract the firefighting services and the Jewish National Fund had with the crop-dusting and firefighting companies, which expired on December 1 - just prior to the fire.

In no hurry

Acero has been in no hurry to sign the contract for 2011. His procrastination was disconcerting, but Yaffe and his buddies arranged an invitation to him to visit Israel, where he had meetings at the Defense Ministry and at the Prime Minister's Bureau earlier this year. The invitation also included Acero's chief pilot, who will be delegated to qualify the first Israeli pilot able to train other pilots. As the group was eating dinner, Uri's relative Dubi appeared on the scene: He too had some business with Acero. Uri treated his kinsman with respect and affection. He did not see him as a competitor. Uri's plan to import the AirTractors and to join up with the crop-duster operator Telem was defeated by the crushing force of the defense industry giant Elbit, in tandem with Telem's competitor Chim-Nir, which also owns the franchise for flame retardant.

Hugo Acero decided to give a cold shoulder to Uri Yaffe, a veteran - perhaps too veteran - major in the air force, and to link up with Dubi Yaffe, Ezer Weizman's son-in-law and a friend of the air force generals who retired into Elbit and the Prime Minister's Bureau.

All of this is legal. Before the Spaniards told him, in free translation, "we will compensate you" (which they haven't yet ), Uri Yaffe met with the prime minister in his Tel Aviv bureau, and offered him an idea for the Independence Day flyover: six yellow planes along the Mediterranean shore from Rosh Hanikra to Ashkelon, alternately filling up with water and spraying it, to cheers from the assembled throngs. Why not eight? - asked Netanyahu, and walked him to the door.

Only afterward did it become known that the conditions of the tender had been changed and the winner would also have to train pilots. A commitment like that was beyond Uri Yaffe's capability. The Spaniards joined up with the competitors from Elbit.

By Independence Day the firefighting squadron was not yet ready to be shown off. It was launched two days later, at Sde Dov. In nearby Shikum Bavli, Uri Yaffe heard about this, swallowed his pride and went to the airfield, if not as the bridegroom at least as a celebrant from the side. The sentry at the entrance blocked his way. No entry; the honorable prime minister and his retinue are inside. Uri Yaffe pulled out his documents: air force major in the reserves, El Al pilot. The sentry did not budge. He had his orders. Yaffe turned on his heels and went home.