68 years after Operation “Velvetta”, in which three Spitfire fighter aircraft were brought to Israel in the midst of the struggle for independence and under an American arms embargo, we went back to those days
September 1948, the War of Independence was in full swing and a burning issue was on the agenda – the young IAF was at a significant disadvantage in relation to its enemies. The IAF consisted mainly of Avia S-199 Messerschmitt aircraft which were purchased from Czechoslovakia, but they were small in numbers and quite damaged, so the IAF had to procure additional, higher quality aircraft. At the time, the most suitable and available aircraft was the Spitfire. In the midst of an American arms embargo and difficulty cooperating with other countries, during the war’s second temporary cease fire, a deal was signed with Czechoslovakia, which outlined the purchase of 50 Spitfires which were left by the USAF in Czechoslovakia for 2,3000 dollars for each aircraft.
The head of the logistic operation of transporting the aircraft to Israel was Lt. Col. Samuel Pomerantz, a Jewish pilot and engineer who served in the US Navy in WWII and who left his business in New-York upon the beginning of the Israeli War of Independence and set out to assist Israel. “Sam was involved in every detail of the project”, testified Col. (Res.) Danny Shapira, one of the IAF’s first pilots, in his book “Born to Fly”. “He observed the assembly, examination and preparation of the aircraft for operational service. In addition, he made sure to personally fly every aircraft after renovation and test it in the air”.
“The main problem our acquisition people faced was to transport the aircraft to Israel. The aerial situation in Israel was critical. The cease fire was about to end and there was a concern that the Syrian, Egyptian and Iraqi fighters and bombers would bomb civilians targets and military bases, as they did before. It was essential to put an end to the situation and obtain aerial supremacy in the skies of Israel, in order to protect the civilians”.
Instead of transporting the parts to Israel as earlier agreed, as a result of the urgency, it was decided to fly some of the aircraft from Czechoslovakia to Israel. Israel reached an agreement with Yugoslavia to use the Podgorica airfield, near the Albanian border. All Czechoslovakian identifying markings were removed and the equipment and arms that were removed from the aircraft in order to make them light enough to make the trip were sent to Israel on board of another aircraft. It was decided that in the first stage, six aircraft will fly from Czechoslovakia to Israel. Because the aircraft lacked navigation systems, it was decided that they would be led by a Douglas Skymaster that if required would also parachute lifeboats and emergency equipment for the ejecting pilots. In addition, the Israeli Navy sent out two patrol ships.
Operation Is Go
On September 24, 1948 the Skymaster was sent to Podgorica and the six spitfires took off. After an hour and a half long flight, with no incidents, the pilots began landing one after the other. But one of the pilots landed without deploying his landing gear. The pilot was not harmed, but the aircraft was seriously damaged. After repairing a number of technical malfunctions, the five spitfires led by the Skymaster, took off on September 27.
The flight went according to plan and three and half hours later, the Skymaster was already south of the Island of Rhodes. Suddenly, the pilots heard Col. Boris Senior and Lt. Col. Modi Alon on the radio. They said that their fuel gauges were pointing to empty, they feared that the fuel transfer was faulty and had to perform an emergency landing in Rhodes. The remaining three pilots stayed on course for Israel and landed in Ramat-David AFB.
The Black Spit, arrived in Israel in 1949 | Archive Photo