Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War in a coordinated attack which confronted the IAF with its harshest challenge to date. Denied permission for a pre-emptive strike, IAF fighters scrambled off the runways in defense of Israel’s skies. They dumped their bombs into the sea – bombs which might have been able to change the course of the war even before it began.
The desperate situation on both fronts did not leave the IAF with the time required to neutralize the enemy’s surface-to-air missile (SAM) threats. Indeed, the majority of the IAF’s war losses occurred above the heavily defended front lines, while supporting ground forces during the first few days of fighting.
Marshaling its forces, the IAF struck back at its ground-based adversary. Israeli fighters and Arab missile sites engaged in mutual bloodletting, like prize fighters slugging it out toe-to-toe. In one operation alone, the IAF lost 6 planes while destroying only one Syrian SAM. On the Western front the IAF destroyed 32 Egyptian SAM sites and damaged 11 more.
Phantoms brought the war home to the Syrian capital, striking Damascus and other strategic targets. Israel fighters clawed their way towards air superiority, bombing Syrian and Egyptian airfields which, unlike in ’67, were now hardened against attack. Most enemy aircraft survived these attacks but IAF fighters still destroyed over 450 enemy planes, mostly in dogfights. In fact, the IAF’s air combat (won-loss) record for 1973 was twice as good as it had been during the 1967 Six Day War. As a result, the enemy had to concentrate his sorties in defense of his own backyard. Of the few enemy planes which attacked inside Israel, not one succeeded in striking and returning!
Aircraft also gave continuous support to the counter-offensive as tanks rolled into “Africa” on the western side of the Suez Canal. Fighters also pounded Syrian positions, giving the IDF the top cover it needed to advance to within 30 km of Damascus. Following several unsuccessful infantry assaults, CH-53 helicopters enabled Golani troops to retake the outpost on Mt. Hermon by landing them on a summit above the site.
Helicopters played many other vital roles: evacuating wounded, rescuing pilots under fire and transporting assault troops far behind enemy lines. Transports provided strategic and tactical logistic support, C-130’s operated out of the captured Egyptian airfield at Fayid on the western side of the Bitter Lake. Anti-aircraft forces did their share by downing many enemy aircraft.
While the IAF’s 1973 achievements are impressive, the cost was also high: roughly 100 planes were lost and 60 pilots and navigators gave their lives in the brutal war which began on Israel’s holiest day.