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F-8E Crusader (“מָגֵן”)

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F-8E Crusader (“מָגֵן”)



As October of 1973 progressed, one thing was clear. While Israel did not lose the Yom Kippur War, nor were they winning it. New Soviet air defence systems delivered to the Arab nations had taken a heavy toll on the Israeli Air Force and desperate reinforcements were needed. The United States, eager to assist their new ally in the middle east began an air bridge to supply ammunition, ordinance, airframes and spare parts to replace the vast quantities of material lost in the battles.

On the 29th of October, the USS Hancock was given an unprecedented order - to proceed at once to the Red Sea where the entirety of Air Wing 21 - consisting of three Skyhawk Squadrons and two Crusader Squadrons - would be flown to Israel and the airframes loaned to the Israeli Air Force to replace losses. On the 1st of November, Air Wing took off from the Hancock, armed with ordinance for self-defence and began their journey towards Air Bases in Israel. The Air Forces of Egypt and Jordan interpreted this as an Alpha Strike, aimed at their Air Forces and scrambled several squadrons to intercept. However, direct US entry into the war was averted as radar monitors noticed the air group's heading was directly towards Israel Airspace and intercepting aircraft was recalled home.

At first, the Israeli Air Force met their new gift of Crusaders with some confusion and apprehension, having never operated the type before but U.S Navy pilots - now stranded in a country at war - was eager to provide expertise and assistance, serving as impromptu flight instructors and it is believed that up to a third of the airplanes was indeed crewed by volunteer US Navy Pilots. While this was never admitted by the United States, it was never denied either and in later years, many ex-Navy pilots have come forward and told of their experiences of flying in the war. The other two thirds was made up of older Israeli active reserve pilots, more used to flying Mysteres and Mirages. This experience proved to be beneficial transferring to the Crusader.

The Crusaders would not go to form any squadrons of their own in the Israeli Air Force, rather they were spread out to work together with Skyhawk Squadrons, acting as fighter escorts and decoy aircraft, using their speed and maneuverability to escape situations that would be tricky for the Skyhawks to handle. The pairing worked well and casualties in Skyhawk Squadrons were quickly reduced to manageable levels, earning the Crusaders their Israeli nickname of מָגֵן or “Guardian”.

In Israeli service, they would have a kill ratio of ten to one with pilots often preferring to fly the aircraft without any external ordinance, relying on the four 20mm guns to engage and destroy the target. While the guns in US Navy service was considered unreliable, there are oddly enough few such reports from the Israeli Air Force. Rather, the airframes quirks were spoken of fondly as something to work with rather than being a hindrance. The gun sights especially were praised and similar systems would be installed in both A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms after the war's end.

On the 28th of November, a Ceasefire agreement was put into place with the Israelis making moderate land gains, gains that would lead to the 1978 Camp David Accords that became the first peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. On the 15th of December, surviving aircraft of Air Wing 21 left Israel and were flown by their air crews to the USS Intrepid on what would be the last cruise of the Essex Class Carrier with the pilots that no longer had airframes to fly were flown to the ship by Israeli Navy Helicopters.

With the Crusaders showing wear and tear after both their Vietnam and Middle East adventures, the majority of them were destined to be scrapped. However, the Israeli Air Force intervened, purchasing ten airplanes with six being donated to military museums across the country and four others being positioned as Gate Guardians outside the Ramat David, Nevatim, Hatzerim and Hatzor Air Bases where they remain to this day.

Even with Skyhawks no longer flying from the bases, pilots of the Israeli Air Force have come to regard the Crusaders with a reverence and it is not uncommon to see groups of pilots stand in silent attention in front of them before embarking on a mission. Participating in the cleaning and maintenance of them is also considered mandatory and a way to create good unit cohesion. It does however also make the pilots fiercely protective of their good luck charms.

When the gate guardian of Ramat David Air Base was vandalised by a group of teenagers, the local air group intervened to provide a special punishment for the vandals; scrubbing hangars with tiny brushes with helpful suggestions of pilots and staff at the base. In the end, the מָגֵן of Ramat David seemed to be both forgiving and with a sense of humour as several years later, the teenagers would do their military service in the Israeli Air Force. All of the former vandals became aircraft mechanics at their own request, serving with skill and diligence at the Ramat David Air Base.

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