Israeli Ace: How Ran Ronen became the pride of Israel’s Air Force
While fighter pilots are a special breed of people in their own right, the very best among them stand out even more vividly.
Somewhere at the top of that list of “aces,” there is Ran Ronen.
Born in 1936, Ran Ronen-Pekker was born in a Jewish settlement of what would later become central Israel, with his parents being founding members of the settlement.
In March of 1954, Ronen would enlist in the Israeli Air Force, starting out in the venerable Supermarine Spitfire.
Ronen would later become an instructor, and in 1962, would become the deputy commander of the 101st Squadron.
One year later, while flying a (then) brand-new Mirage III, Ronen lost power over a densely-populated village. Knowing he could not land the plane safely but unwilling to crash the Mirage III into the village, he guided the aircraft into an empty field and ejected at 500 feet- a dangerous height to “punch out” at the time. Miraculously, the aircraft would land itself in a field, and would later be repaired and re-flown by Ronen.
Hearing of the feat, IAF Commander Ezer Weizman sent Ronen a bottle of whiskey and a poem.
Just before the Six-Day War, Israel was fighting alone against four air forces at once- the Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis and Jordanians, who were predominantly armed with Russian and British aircraft.
In the middle of the conflict, Ronen was ordered to partake in a secret mission, one that he wasn’t even fully briefed on before he took off. Little did he know that the Israeli Mossad -though the contacts of an Iraqi-born Jew- had enlisted the help of a Christian Iraqi MiG-21 pilot in getting the then-high-tech Soviet aircraft into Israeli and Western hands. At the time of the incident, the MiG-21 had been keeping American pilots busy in Southeast Asia, and any intelligence of the plane was much-needed.
The Iraqi pilot, Captain Munir Redfa, was frequently mistreated and distrusted by his fellow airmen, often given only short-range fuel tanks due to his faith in Christianity. Promised a new life and $1 million by the Mossad, he took his family’s fate into his own hands and made the flight to freedom.
Ronen and his wingman were unaware of the secret mission until, as they streaked towards enemy territory, IAF Commander Mordechai “Mottie” Hod’s voice filled his headset.
“Ran,” Hod said, “In a few minutes, you will see something that you are not authorized to shoot down.”
Flying less than thirty feet from the MiG, Ronen made visual contact with Redfa, who nodded and gestured that he was on the same team. Flying abreast of Redfa, Ronen led the way while his wingman stayed behind the MiG with their fingers on the trigger, just in case.
The acquisition of the MiG-21 was a massive score for the West, and the U.S. brokered a deal with Israel to borrow the plane, an arrangement that earned Israel the privilege of purchasing the F-4 Phantom II.
The escort mission of 1966, however, would not be the highlight of Ronen’s year- only a few months later, he would engage in the fight of his life.
During Operation Shredder in November of 1966, Ronen, who was a respected pilot but had yet to shoot down an enemy plane, got his chance when he engaged Muwaffaq Salti, a seasoned commander of a Jordanian Hawker Hunter squadron.
Embroiled in an insane dogfight, Ronen twisted and turned as Salti led him into a canyon, a deadly cat and mouse game through the ravine at 500 knots, leaving dust and fumes in their wake.
For Ronen, he had never flown so fast at such a low altitude, and the mental strain of trying to shoot down the enemy (while simultaneously avoiding becoming a stain on the canyon floor) was immense.
Less than 250 meters behind Salti, Ronen pursued the Jordanian through every twist, turn and bank. Despite being hot on Salti’s tail, Ronen can’t put himself at the correct angle to fire his 30mm cannons.
Suddenly, a microscopically small window opened, allowing Ronen to fire, peppering the Hunter with 21 30mm rounds- less than one second’s worth of firing.
The Hunter erupted in a fireball, and to Ronen’s horror, Salti ejected as his plane rolled, sending the pilot rocketing into the side of a cliff. Ronen’s first kill, a worthy opponent, would stick with him forever. The dogfight lasted eight minutes- the longest in IAF history.
Ronen would become an ace the following year, shooting down four additional aircraft. By 1969, he had seven kills, four of them being MiG-21s. All but two of his kills were obtained with 30mm cannons from his beloved Mirage III. He would eventually retire as a brigadier general, having flown over 350 combat sorties.
After retiring from the IAF, he worked for an advertising firm, went to Harvard, and founded an at-risk youth rehabilitation program. He died at the age of 80 in 2016.
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