Israel’s first fighter pilots used German planes and their flight suits

Miguel Ortiz Avatar
israeli air force Avia S-199

The Israeli Air Force is one of the best-equipped and most-skilled in the world. Flying aircraft like the F-15 Eagle and F-35 Lightning II, Israeli pilots scored the first air-to-air kills with both jet fighters. However, the IAF wasn’t always a dominant force in the sky. In fact, it started as a ragtag group flying whatever they could get their hands on.

israeli air force first fighter squadron
Many American WWII veterans joined the IAF’s First Fighter Squadron, later redesignated 101 Squadron (IAF)

The State of Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948. 12 days later, the Israeli Air Force was officially formed. However, an arms embargo blocked the sale of aircraft to the Jewish state. Surplus WWII transport planes were purchased privately and flown to Israel, but the IAF needed fighters to defend the new nation. Luckily, one country was willing to violate the embargo and sell fighter planes: Czechoslovakia.

During WWII, Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany. The nation’s factories were retooled to support the Axis war effort, including building the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane. To supply Israel, the manufacturer Avia used parts and plans leftover from Bf 109 production to build the S-199. Though it was based on the Bf 109G, the S-199 had a critical weakness. The Bf 109’s powerful Daimler-Benz engine that made it such a deadly fighter was unavailable and Avia only had the Junkers Jumo bomber engine to power the S-199. This put the hodgepodge fighter at a disadvantage against the modern British fighters flown by Israel’s Arab neighbors.

israeli air force plane with star of david
An Avia S-199 marked with the Star of David (IAF)

Israel ordered 25 S-199s from Avia. Pilots, many of whom flew for the U.S. during WWII, traveled to Czechoslovakia to train on the new fighter. Ironically, the only flight suits available at Avia still bore Luftwaffe wings and swastikas. Still, the pilots were able to log a few hours in the S-199 before the first four examples arrived in Israel to form the First Fighter Squadron on May 20, 1948. Eight days later, the IAF was formed.

On May 29, 1948, the IAF flew its first combat mission. The four S-199s attacked a large Egyptian ground force near Isdud. The airstrike was a tactical failure, inflicting minimal damage for the loss of two planes and one pilot. However, it was a strategic victory that halted the Egyptian advance. On June 3, 1948, the IAF recorded its first aerial kill when Modi Alon, a former RAF P-51 Mustang pilot, shot down two Royal Egyptian Air Force C-47s after they bombed Tel Aviv. The IAF’s first dogfight resulted in a victory for Gideon Lichtaman, a Jewish American who served in the Pacific during WWII, who shot down an Egyptian Spitfire on June 8.

israeli air force chasing down c-47
Modi Alon chases down an Egyptian C-47 in his S-199 to score the IAF’s first kill (IAF)

Despite some successes, the S-199 was not powerful or numerous enough for the IAF to make a significant impact on the battlefield. It, along with salvaged Spitfires left behind by the RAF, was phased out as Israel acquired additional aircraft including B-17 Flying Fortresse bombers and P-51 Mustang fighters. Although the IAF was unable to secure air supremacy during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the conflict demonstrated the resolve of Israel and its pilots to fight.