Members of ESRA Modiin at the Ramon Air Force base
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) of the 21st century is radically different from the one that was created on the eve of the War of Independence in 1948. The IAF began as Sherut Avir, or Air Service, with a small group of pilots operating a handful of outdated planes. Today's IAF has evolved into a highly-skilled, vastly experienced, and war-hardened air force, whose operations during wartime and peacetime, in dogfights and strategic attacks, in extrication under fire and rescue missions, have earned it a place of honor as one of the finest air forces in the world.
The Ramon Air Force Base (AFB), also known colloquially as Kanaf 25 (kanaf means “wing” in Hebrew), was established south of Beersheba in the central Negev in March 1979. It was one of three bases constructed by the United States following the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Training is key to the IAF’s secret weapon: the superb skill of its pilots who remain on alert 24/7. Israeli pilots are held in such high regard that American pilots receive training from their Israeli counterparts as part of their cadet course.
So I knew I had a winner activity when I arranged a visit to the Ramon AFB for ESRA Modiin members. During my years as Projects Coordinator in the American Department at Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (JNF) in Jerusalem, I had visited the base several times to check out various proposed projects. Now, some decades later, my connection with the base is through the preparation of periodic grant proposals for projects to enrich the lives of our pilots, back-up crews and their families who live on the base.
In order to accomplish a visit to an operational base not open to the public, I was assisted by my close colleague and friend from my KKL days, Avraham Kalman. Kalman (no one calls him Avraham except his family) is a mover and shaker par excellence. As a volunteer fundraiser, Kalman maintains excellent relationships with the officers on the base and visits there regularly. He also happens to be a top-class guide with a phenomenal range of knowledge. Happily, Kalman agreed to set up the visit and serve as our guide for the full day’s tour that would also include the Mitzpe Ramon Visitors’ Center and Ilan Ramon memorial.
Reach for the sky ...Jackie Klein in the cockpit
It took eight months to obtain the necessary approvals and clearances, but the day finally dawned, and on December 1, 2016, our 52-seater bus was filled with enthusiastic and excited ESRA Modiin members including our special guests, ESRA’s chairman, Baruch Tanaman and his wife Mimi. The tour had been booked out two months in advance, indicating the high level of interest in this unique endeavor.
Upon arrival at Ramon, we were warmly welcomed by our gracious hosts including top brass, offered refreshments, and then hustled into the situation room, where pilots review and discuss their pre-and post missions and flights with super-advanced technological machinery. What a thrill this was. What an injection of Jewish and Israeli pride. After a short video about the base and daily routines, the Deputy Squadron Commander gave an impressive overview of activities. Questions and answers followed, which further deepened our admiration for the IAF’s incredible accomplishments and capabilities. Patriotism and allegiance were running high.
The next stop was the F-16 fighter jet, up close and personal. Another young pilot – everyone’s son and grandson – patiently explained the aircraft to us, and answered more questions. Then we were all treated to an exhilarating and unforgettable experience – no other way to describe it actually – to climb the ladder and sit in the cockpit. Despite the fact that the cockpit is designed for the young and agile, many of us were able to accomplish this feat (getting in was easier than getting out), and also have a photograph for posterity. I truly felt like Amelia Earhart.
We subsequently saw the impressive new gym that was recently completed and fitted out with the latest exercise equipment. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to see more, but we certainly had seen and heard enough to understand why such a large portion of our taxes must be invested in the military and in our air force in particular. We all left with a huge sense of gratitude: gratitude for our top-class pilots whose expertise is nothing short of miraculous; gratitude for our “Yiddishe kopf” and brainpower; gratitude that our country is defended by the finest and the bravest; and gratitude that Israel is our home.
We arrived in Mitzpe Ramon for our picnic lunch which was met with gales of sand whizzing around us. Grit irrespective, our spirits were undampened and we trudged through the pea-soup-visibility-wind to the Visitors’ Center. The Center had been redesigned and underwent expansion to accommodate an appropriate memorial to the late Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. It is impressive and moving to the core, - well worth a visit. Although a sad juxtaposition with the morning’s activity, the memorial was a worthy testimony to Ramon’s monumental courage, acumen and spirit of adventure.
This tour was, without doubt, a highlight in ESRA Modiin’s busy calendar of annual events. Everyone had a terrific time, new members were recruited and funds were raised to benefit the children of Neve ESRA, our afternoon care center for children at risk. A win-win situation all round.
We would once again like to express our sincere appreciation to our fantastic guide and tour organizer, Avraham Kalman, without whose assistance we could not have had such a successful event. Thank you Kalman. We look forward to our next trip soon.