|IAF - Avia S-199|
THE ROLE OF THE CZECHOSLOVAKIAN AVIA-S199
THE ISRAEL AIR FORCE’S FIRST COMBAT AIRCRAFT
By Smoky Simon
During World War ll, Czechoslovakian factories produced many types of armaments for Germany. The Avia factory, a subsidiary company of the well-known Skoda Works, built aircraft for the Luftwaffe. When the Germans pulled out of Czechoslovakia, they left much manufacturing capacity intact, and Avia continued to build aircraft – the Avia S-199 – for Czechoslovakia’s new air force. The aircraft’s maiden flight took place on 24th April, 1947, but the performance and handling of the aircraft left much to be desired.
In its advance towards independence, the Yishuv in Israel was very concerned about the power of the Royal Egyptian Air Force. In April 1948, the Haganah bought ten S-199s, including ammunition and relevant equipment and training, for $1.8 million per aircraft, and shortly afterwards a further fifteen aircraft were purchased.
The Avia S-199 was indeed a very poor version of the iconic Me-109 which was one of the Luftwasser’s most formidable aircraft in World War II. As no other combat aircraft could be acquired by Israel at that time, a most ironic situation arose. Israel had no option but to purchase the Czech-made Me-109 which would be flown by pilots of the Israel Air Force who had fought against the Luftwasser’s Me-109. The British Spitfire was one of the most prominent aircraft in the Allied Forces to fight against the Me-109, and now we had a situation where pilots in the Israel Air Force flying the Czech-made Me-109 against Spitfires of the Royal Egyptian and Royal Jordanian Air Forces. Indeed an irony of ironies!
In order to transport the Avia S-199s from Czechoslovakia to Israel, it was decided to dismantle and crate the Avia S-199s, and to transport them to Israel in C-46 Commando aircraft and C-54 Skymasters. This air bridge between Zatek in Czechoslovakia and Palestine/Israel became known as “Operation Balak.” All the transport aircraft landed at Aqir, later known as Tel Nof, in Israel. The C-54s carried a complete S-199 aircraft, whilst two C-46s were required to transport one S-199 - the fuselage and propeller in one C-46, and the wings and ammunition in a second C-46. The C-46 Commandos were owned by a Panamanian company which was really a front company owned by the Yishuv. The C-54s were leased from American companies and were subsequently purchased by Israel. The first load of arms from Czechoslovakia to Palestine was shipped under Operation Balak on 31st March 1948, prior to the establishment of the State.
On 6th May 1948, three Machal pilots and eight Israeli pilots left for Ceske Budejovice to begin training for conversion on the S-199. All the instructors were Czech veterans of the Royal Air Force (RAF). Five of the Israeli pilots, who till then had only flown light aircraft, could not cope with this difficult high-performance S-199, and were washed out of the conversion course.
On 18th May 1948, the conversion course pilots who had not yet undergone air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery training, heard that C-47s of the Royal Egyptian Air Force had been bombing Tel Aviv’s central bus station and other targets and that dozens of people had been killed. Ezer Weizman and Modi Alon, together with five Czech mechanics, made their way back to Israel on a Balak flight. These flights were timed to arrive at Aqir (Tel Nof) at night to avoid anti-aircraft fire and Egyptian fighter interception. As the Avia S-199s were re-assembled in Israel, they were assigned to a new unit – 101 Fighter Squadron. Command of the squadron was shared between Modi Alon on the ground, and Lou Lenart – an experienced Machal combat pilot – in the air. On the night of 23rd May, a C-46 aircraft containing the fuselage and engine of an S-199 was due to land at Aqir which was covered-in by fog. Because of the weather, Captain Norman Moonitz tried to land at Sde Dov air field in Tel Aviv, but as no inbound flights were expected at Sde Dov, the airfield gunners started to fire through the fog. Captain Moonitz then diverted his aircraft to land at Aqir, but due to the bad weather he flew into a slope which resulted in the navigator, Moshe Rosenbaum, being killed. Carrying Ed Syrack, the injured radio operator on his back, Moonitz and his co-pilot Sheldon Eichel walked to the Aqir base. Both the aircraft and its cargo were destroyed. Thus, the first S-199 was lost even before flying under its own power.
In the early stage of the fighting in the War of Independence, the IDF was under great pressure from the Egyptian Army. Thousands of Egyptian infantrymen, hundreds of vehicles, and ten tanks, had already advanced to Isdud (Ashdod), 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of Tel Aviv, and only 15 kilometres (9 miles) south-west of Tel Nof airfield itself. On 29th May, a formation of four S-199s led by Lou Lenart with Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman, and Eddy Cohen, each aircraft carrying two x 70kg bombs, cannons and machine guns, attacked the Egyptians from multiple directions. Each aircraft made three passes in the teeth of withering 37 mm. anti-aircraft fire. Lenart, Alon, and Weizman returned to their base. Eye witnesses saw Eddy Cohen’s plane on fire, and crashing into the ground. Upon touchdown at base, Alon discovered that his left wheel brake did not work and his aircraft ground-looped. The right wing struck the ground and the right tire burst. This mission had cost the squadron one pilot and two aircraft. Whilst the eight 70 kilo bombs and strafing did only limited damage to the Egyptians, the revelation that Israel could now field true fighter aircraft came as a shock to the Egyptians. This daytime attack was followed-up by a night attack by a C-46 and by light aircraft of the Tel Aviv squadron, and the Egyptian columns never advanced any further.
Early the next morning, Ezer Weizman and Rubenfeld attacked an Iraqi column advancing towards Kfar Yona, just west of Tulkarm. In this battle, Rubenfeld landed hits on an enemy aircraft, but his own aircraft was also hit, and he bailed-out over the sea near Kfar Vitkin, whose residents fired at him as he descended in his parachute. Fortunately they missed, and in order to identify himself as a Jew, Rubenfeld ran towards the advancing moshavniks with his hands raised above his head, and as he knew no Hebrew at all, he kept yelling “Shabbes, Gefilte Fish”, “Shabbes, Gefilte Fish”. Having established his identity, the moshavniks took Rubenfeld to hospital in Netanya.
Meanwhile, Weizman launched his attack on the Iraqi column, and machine- gun bullets hit his wings. This was followed by a loud bang which shattered his windshield, filling his cockpit with glass, wind and gore. Upon his return to Tel Nof, the ground crew discovered that a bird had shattered his windscreen. To celebrate Rubenfeld’s rescue, the squadron held a drinking party in the Yarden Hotel in Tel Aviv. On his way back to the base on a motorcycle, Ezer Weizman hit a crater in the road, and in the fall broke his left hand.
With Ezer non-operational due to his broken hand, and Rubenfeld having left the squadron on 1st May 1948, the squadron was down to two operational pilots – Lou Lenart and Modi Alon, and only one S-199 was serviceable. As Tel Nof Air Base was coming under attack from Egyptian Air Force Spitfires, Ezer Weizman was tasked to find a site on which to build a new secret air strip.
On 3rd June, Alon was on a twilight patrol over Tel Aviv, when he spotted four Egyptian aircraft approaching the city, two Spitfires escorting two C-47 bombers. Alon swung out to sea to get the sun behind him, and then swept in on the bombers. The Spitfire escort fled, and the citizens of Tel Aviv watched as Alon made two close passes at one bomber as it fled south, and then saw the bomber crash into the sand dunes south of Bat Yam. Alon caught the second bomber near Rehovot and hit its engines, and this bomber crashed just south of Tel Nof. Tel Aviv was ecstatic. This was the first evidence that the country had a real Air Force, and Alon was showered with goodies despite the wartime austerity. Egyptian bombers never attacked Tel Aviv again, although Spitfires continued to harass the city.
In the first week of June, seven new Avia S-199 conversion pilots joined the squadron. One of the new pilots then damaged the only serviceable S-199, so the squadron was left with no serviceable aircraft. Fortunately, shortly thereafter, three more S-199s were delivered as part of the first batch of ten aircraft, and two damaged aircraft were repaired. On his first flight, Giddy Lichtman downed an Egyptian Spitfire. Around that time, the pilots of 101 Squadron decided that the squadron needed a logo. Lenart suggested the “Angel of Death,” which in the Passover story helped save the Jews from the Egyptians. Andrews and Vickman, who had been art students in Los Angeles, designed the famous logo of the “winged skull in a flight helmet.”
For security reasons, the squadron took advantage of the 11th June truce to move to a new dirt strip near Kfar Shmaryahu, to be called Herzlia. A 2,000 meter unpaved runway was bulldozed amidst orange groves, banana plantations and woods. Weizman decided that the dirt strip would handle the unbalanced S-199 better than a concrete one. A water tower served as a control tower, and an agricultural warehouse was converted into offices and conference rooms. The pilots were billeted in Kfar Shmaryahu at the Falk Pension. At the Herzlia strip, the squadron hid the aircraft in camouflaged pens cut out of the trees. This airfield was never attacked by Arab aircraft.
Giddy Lichtman was the first pilot to test the new field on 11th June. As he sped down the runway, the left wheel dug into a soft spot and the S-199 flipped onto its back. Local Yemenite farmers rushed to help rescue the pilot. Although Lichtman suffered only minor bruising, the aircraft was a complete write-off.
In mid-June, a second group of seven pilots arrived from the conversion course in Czechoslovakia. On a C-46 refueling stop in Italy, the authorities found an armed shipment on board, and these seven pilots and the flight crew were jailed for three days. At the end of June, a second batch of seven new conversion pilots also joined 101 Squadron.
Despite inherent problems in the design of the S-199, Israel bought a further batch of 15 S-199s, and the first two aircraft of this batch arrived on 1st July. On 8th July, after the truce, 101 Squadron had six serviceable S-199s. Weizman’s hand had healed, and he was flying again.
On 10th July, Maurice Mann and Leslie Bloch scrambled to protect Kibbutz Mishmar Hayarden which was being bombed by Syrian AT-6s. Mann downed one AT-6, and Bloch chased the other across the Golan Heights, but Bloch was killed as his aircraft crashed. As there was no ground fire, it was assumed that Bloch (as well as Bob Vickman in another incident) might have shot and damaged their own propellers which caused them to crash. During the so-called 10-day war from 8th to 18th July, Modi Alon shot down a Spitfire which gave him his third kill, but during this period, Andrews and Antin wrecked two S-199s, and Syd Cohen damaged his own propeller when firing his guns.
On 26th July, 101 Squadron moved to Ma’abarot so that the Herzlia base could undergo renovations. On 5th August, the squadron received its first Spitfire which had been reconstructed out of junk, as well as from parts which were salvaged from Egyptian Spitfires which had been downed. At that stage, twelve S-199s were either active or in maintenance. 17th August was a great day when Ben-Gurion visited 101 Squadron. Following two accidents as a result of pilot error, Mike Flint left the Squadron and transferred to 35 Flight.
On 26th August, 101 Squadron moved back to Herzlia. During this period, Giddy Lichtman shot down an Arab Airways airliner that had invaded Israeli airspace and had refused to obey instructions to land. 101 Squadron resumed attacking Egyptian trucks and infantry, and the squadron received its first Mustang. By 9th October the squadron received three Velveta Spitfires, as well as a second home-built Spitfire and another Mustang, and four new pilots joined the squadron.
On 15th October, Israel launched “Operation Yoav” to clear the south of the Egyptian Army’s presence. The squadron had seven S-199s and four Spitfires. On one of the flights, Leon Frankel’s oil pressure dropped to zero and he forced-landed in a minefield, which caused him to suffer traumatic shock. Israeli forces had now started to close in on the Egyptian forces that had been holed-up near Isdud (Ashdod) since the 29th May attack, and the Egyptians began to pull out. On his way home from an operation, Modi Alon’s landing gear got stuck. He tried to release the gear by violent maneuvers, but then his engine started streaming white smoke, and at the airfield his S-199 flew straight into the ground at a 30º angle and burst into flames. It was assumed that Alon had passed out from glycol fumes in the cockpit. His wife, Mina, 3-months pregnant at the time, witnessed the crash, as did Syd Cohen and Morrie Mann. At the Falk Pension, pilots watched the pillar of black smoke crawl skyward. Modi, who was a strict squadron commander, was universally respected. His death took the heart out of 101 Squadron, and took away the hammer that had forged a wide range of varied characters into a fighting force. On the same day, Morrie Mann returning from a patrol, crashed and tore a wing off the S-199. The loss of Modi and Mann’s injuries left the squadron without a commander or an executive officer. Syd Cohen moved into the breach as Squadron Commander, and needed big shoes to fill the gap. At the start of his tenure, Syd had five S-199s, and two Spitfires to work with. In an attack on the enemy near Iraq Suweidan, Giddy Lichtman’s S-199 was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, and with his engine on fire, he had to do a belly landing, so the squadron was left with four S-199s and three Spitfires: the balance in the mixture of aircraft had started to change.
The squadron then acquired two Mustangs, and the S-199s were relegated to escort and patrol duties. With the capture of Beersheba on 21st October and of Iraq Suweidan on 9th November, Operation Yoav wound down. The end of October also saw Israel conquer the entire Galilee.
In Israel’s wet winter conditions, the dirt airfield at Herzlia was not reliable, so 101 Squadron moved to Qastina (Hatzor). Five S-199s were the first to make the transfer. Syd Cohen, OC 101 Squadron, also had to manage the pilots, quite a collection of characters. These men volunteered to fly for Israel out of a sense of religious duty, or a sense of justice, or for a bit of excitement, or for a bit of cash. They were strong and diverse personalities, and maintaining discipline was not an easy task. They frequented and wrecked bars in Tel Aviv, and they were also notorious for stealing cars and trucks for the squadron. In fact, the airfield became known as “Syd’s Used Car Lot.”
The last S-199 finally reached the squadron on 26th November. It had remained in Rome inside an impounded C-46 aircraft since 18th July. One of the newer pilots, Wayne Peake, crashed an S-199 on take-off. Peake was unconscious and trapped in the cockpit. The squadron doctor had frozen-up, and Syd Cohen, who had been a medical student in South Africa, performed CPR on Peake until he regained consciousness.
The next operational missions started with Operation Horev on 22nd December, 1948. The intention was to drive the Egyptians out of Israel and back into Sinai. Whilst escorting a flight of AT-6s to Khan Unis, Slick Goodlin shot and damaged two of his own propeller blades and had to land quickly. The last mission by an S-199 was when Rudy Augarten performed a reconnaissance mission.
With the arrival of four Velveta II Spitfires on 23rd December, and another six on 26th December, there was no further need to fly the dangerous S-199s. Nevertheless, considering the S-199s considerable drawbacks, it performed far beyond any reasonable expectations. Every pilot despised this aircraft. Syd Antin summarized its deficiencies in regard to its very narrow landing gear, which caused it to ground-loop very easily. Another deficiency was the fact that the pilot could not open the canopy in flight. The canopy either had to be closed and locked, or jettisoned completely when the pilot had to bail-out. The aircraft also had a very difficult hydraulic system. Rudy Augarten explained that there were no proper manuals for the aircraft; the cannons did not work at the same time, which caused the plane to slip and skid, and no one really understood the hydraulic and electrical systems fully. The pilots had to be exceptionally cautious when landing the aircraft. When multiple types of aircraft operated at the same time (Spitfires, Mustangs, and S-199s), the S-199 would always take off and land last, so that if it crashed it would not block the runway for the Spitfires and Mustangs. However, it can be said that
101 Squadron succeeded to quite some degree despite the deficiencies of the
When Syd Cohen returned to South Africa in March 1949 to resume his medical studies, Ezer Weizman was appointed Squadron Commander. In May 1949, Ezer wrote to Air Force HQ about his squadron’s plans to move from Chatzor to Ramat David. He mentioned that the squadron still possessed five S-199s, four of which were serviceable, but none had been flown over the previous four months. He suggested that the S-199s should be disassembled and mothballed. In his letter, Weizman listed all the weaknesses of the S-199, point by point. The aircraft was hard to control on take-off, or in a dive, or in a climb, or when landing. It’s top speed of 330 km/h was low, and its maneuverability was far inferior to that of the Spitfire. The 20 mm. cannons jammed so often that the pilots decided to fire only with the 13 mm. machine guns, despite the risk of damaging their propeller blades. The radios of the S-199s had very limited range, and there were many problems with the hydraulics and landing gear. Weizman emphasized the stress this caused the pilots. So much went wrong with the aircraft that it was nerve-wracking to have to climb into one. The S-199s were left at Chatzor, and in 1950 the head of engineering wrote that the planes should be scrapped. Only one S-199 was preserved. It was shipped to 101 Squadron’s home at Ramat David, where it served as a relic of earlier times. It was subsequently transferred to the Israel Air Force Museum at Chatzerim.
Footnote – Machalniks mentioned in the above “Avia S-199 Story”:
Lou Lenart (USA); Norman Moonitz (USA); Moshe Rosenbaum (USA); Eddy Cohen (South Africa); Ed Styrack (USA – Non-Jewish); Sheldon Eichel (USA); Milton Rubenfeld (USA); Giddy Lichtman (USA); Stanley Andrews (USA); Maurice Mann (U.K); Leslie Bloch (South Africa); Bob Vickman (USA); Syd Antin (USA); Mike Flint (USA); Syd Cohen (South Africa); Wayne Peake (USA – Non-Jewish); Chalmers (Slick) Goodlin (USA – Non-Jewish); Rudy Augarten (USA);
Author: Smoky Simon
Acknowledgement: A very special tribute and appreciation to Alex Yoffe, Lawrence Nyveen, and White Crow Publications for the invaluable information extracted from the publication “Avia S-199 in the Israeli Air Force”.