Joyriding Egyptian Pilots Helped to Provoke the Six-Day War With Israel
MiG-21s flew over a sensitive nuclear site
by TOM COOPER
On May 17, 1967, an Egyptian aircraft departed air space over the Sinai Peninsula and flew over the port of Eilat in southern Israel at an altitude of more than 59,000 feet. The jet continued toward Jordan, then turned around and made another pass over Israel — this time flying directly above the Dimona nuclear complex.
This and subsequent overflights may have helped to start a war. But for all their import, the flights remain something of a mystery. Many historians claim the planes in question were Mach-3-capable MiG-25s.
But those historians are wrong. The intruders were MiG-21s. And their flights were totally unauthorized.
A number of additional high-altitude overflights of Israel occurred over the next few days. While most of the intruders only briefly skirted Israeli air space, one passed high over Dimona, repeating the May 17 provocation.
A battery of U.S.-made MIM-23A HAWK surface-to-air missiles defending Dimona failed to shoot down the mystery plane.
The overflights inspired immense anxiety within the highest ranks of the Israeli military and government. They might have been a factor in Israel’s decision to launch the preemptive attacks that opened the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war — the Six-Day War, which ended in a catastrophic defeat for Israel’s Arab neighbors.
Considering the high altitudes involved — up to 70,000 feet in some cases — and the near-simultaneous decoration of a Soviet test pilot, many historians have concluded that the airborne intruders were Soviet MiG-25s secretly deployed in Egypt.
If true, that means the USSR was partially responsible for the 1967 war.
In truth, in 1967 the MiG-25 was still in the prototype stage. The development of the reconnaissance variant began in 1969. The resulting MiG-25R finally entered service in 1970, three years after the Dimona overflights.
So if the planes streaking over Israel in 1967 weren’t MiG-25s, what were they? First, recall that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, air forces were obsessed with high-flying, supersonic fighters.
When the Egyptian air force brought the then-brand-new MiG-21F-13 single-engine fighter into service in 1962, Egyptian pilots pushed their new jet to its limits — and beyond. They found out that the small, delta-wing fighter could actually fly much higher than its purported maximum altitude of 59,000 feet.
Of course, flying any aircraft in the thin air above 50,000 feet is exceptionally dangerous and requires plenty of skill. Several Egyptian MiGs disintegrated while flying that high, scattering wreckage over scores of miles. Nevertheless, a number of Egyptian MiG-21F-13-pilots mastered the art of super-high flight.
One of them was Qadri Abd El Hamid, then serving with № 45 Squadron at Meliz Air Base. Abd El Hamid was the pilot of the MiG-21F-13 that passed high over Dimona on May 17, 1967. His overflight came three days after Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the country’s military to deploy on the Sinai Peninsula.
“None of us thought we would really have to fight with Israel, but we felt we were very good,” Adb El Hamid said. “We flew above Israel … at a flight level of 18 kilometer. They shot at us with their HAWK missiles, but because of our height they didn’t hit us. We were flying over Israel territory but stayed over it just a short time, so [the Israeli air force’s] Mirages couldn’t reach us.”
Egyptian planes also made several low-altitude incursions. Fuad Kamal recalled the mission he flew on May 27, 1967. “I made a low-level flight over Tel Aviv in late May 1967. Then I passed over what I thought was a training airfield, as there were training aircraft in the circuit at the time.”
Theoretically, the reason for all the overflights should be obvious. The Israelis knew that the Dimona nuclear complex was no secret. They knew that four Egyptian Il-28R reconnaissance bombers flew a highly successful nocturnal reconnaissance sortie over the complex — which the Israeli air force failed to intercept — on Sept. 21, 1961, and that a pair of Egyptian MiG-17Fs overflew the complex again in 1965.
Furthermore, they knew the MiG-21F-13 could be equipped with the AFA-39 reconnaissance camera installed inside the starboard undercarriage bay, with a control panel on the right lower panel of the cockpit.
The Israelis’ conclusion was logical. Sorties flown by Egyptian MiG-21s over Israel in late May and early June 1967 must have served the purpose of reconnaissance for an attack on Israel — and especially for an attack on the Dimona complex.
In reality, however, none of the MiG-21s that flew over Israel in May 1967 was equipped with such cameras. Even if one had been so-equipped, the AFA-39 produced photographs of such poor quality that any image taken from a MiG-21 underway at 59,000 feet over Dimona would have provided only a general plan of the facility, and no details.
Foremost, what the Israelis did not know was that except for the reconnaissance mission by the Il-28Rs in September 1961, all the subsequent overflights were neither ordered nor authorized by the Egyptian high command.
The 1965 incursion by two MiG-17s led by Capt. Salah Mansour plus all the missions flown by MiG-21s from late May to early June 1967 were actually undertaken unofficially, with the purpose of raising the confidence of the pilots and their comrades.
The pilots had witnessed dozens of Israeli reconnaissance overflights of Egypt and Egyptian air bases, nearly all of which remained entirely unchallenged as the Israeli pilots exploited gaps in Egyptian radar coverage.
Proud Egyptian aircrews considered the Israeli operations brazen and provocative, and looked for opportunities to return the favor. That is why they began violating Israeli air space at their own discretion — and actually in violation of standing orders not to do so.
What mattered to them was nicely summarized by Abd El Hamid. “On 29 May 1967, we had seen [Israeli foreign minister Levi] Eshkol [on T.V.] with President Johnson in the USA. He was begging for U.S. support ‘because the Egyptians were flying over them every day, but only stayed a short time.’”
Obviously, the Israelis took the situation far more seriously than any Egyptian considered possible at the time. The overflights and other Egyptian military moves prompted the Israelis to completely change their intelligence assessments about Egyptian intentions.
From that moment onward, the Six-Day War became unavoidable — and every additional overflight by Egyptian MiG-21F-13s only reinforced the new Israeli posture.