“There was a popular phrase going around the Arab world in 1947,” Capt. H tells us. “They said: When Israel has an air force, camels will fly. Needless to say that when the first IAF squadron was founded in that same year, it was nicknamed the Flying Camel Squadron.”
The Flying Camel Squadron’s motto is: “The eye in the sky at the heart of the action.” The squadron has participated in every single one of Israel’s wars since the 1948 War of Independence, and is responsible for providing visual intelligence that has made the Israel Air Forces’ strike capabilities legendary.
Capt. H, 24, is a pilot in the squadron. He was born in New York, moved back and forth to Israel, and finally made aliyah when he was 18 to serve in the army. “I was thinking about going to college in America, but then my best friend died in a car crash,” Capt H. says. “It got me thinking about life and about what’s truly important.”
Painstaking intelligence gathering
Over the course of eight days during Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF targeted more than 1,500 terror sites across the Gaza Strip. These targets, which included high-level command centers, weapons factories and underground rocket launchers, were acquired through hours, days and weeks of slow and painstaking intelligence work, from the air, by the Flying Camel Squadron.
“We receive the potential targets from IDF Intelligence, but we are the ones who finalize the circle of intelligence,” Capt. H. says. “We verify the target, taking something that exists only on paper and making sure that it is correct and is indeed the target that we are looking for.”
In this footage, the Flying Camel Squadron films a Hamas terror squad burying missiles underground. “We see the digging and this creates a target, but we then have to get more information,” Capt. H. says. “This involves continuous observation over a long period of time. We work around the clock and that’s how we are able to gather so many targets at once.”
A clean target
Once the target has been acquired and the mission is underway, it’s the Flying Camel Squadron’s job to guide the pilot who is going to make the strike. “We guide the pilot to the target, but that still doesn’t mean we can hit it,” Capt. H says. “We don’t just rely on the information we collected earlier – we provide real-time intelligence to make sure the target is clean.”
The Flying Camel Squadron plays a crucial role in every IAF strike. “We can tell the pilot to abort an attack even when a missile is in the air and speeding its way to the target,” says Capt. H. “This is a crucial part of our job. I feel that my mission is still complete even when we don’t hit the target.”
Israel Air Force calls off an airstrike when civilians are seen near the target:
This task is made all the more difficult because Israel’s surrounding enemies, namely Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, use civilians as human shields, firing at Israel from within densely-populated civilian areas, and hiding weapons under mosques, schools and playgrounds. “The enemy is fighting within civilian lines. That makes our jobs a lot harder but that’s what we have to deal with,” Capt. H. says.
Precision strike on Ahmed Jabari
During the opening salvo of Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF targeted Ahmed Jabari, then head of Hamas’ military wing, in the Gaza Strip. Jabari was a senior Hamas operative who was directly responsible for executing terror attacks against the State of Israel.
The strike on Jabari was an exact hit on a moving target. “We waited to strike until there were no civilians around,” says Capt. H. Thanks to our live visual intelligence, we were able to avoid harming innocent bystanders. Exact intelligence means exact strikes. It’s pretty amazing as someone experiencing it from the sky.”
Escorting and protecting land operations
The Flying Camel Squadron is also tasked with protecting ground forces by providing them with detailed intelligence of the surrounding battlefield. “This is an immensely fulfilling part of our job,” Capt. H says. “We can tell them what’s waiting around the corner, and minimize casualties. We are the eye in the sky – it feels good to know that nothing surprises us.”
Capt. H. and his team work around the clock. “We are an integral part of the attack circle. We have numerous unscheduled flights – things can change here all the time,” he says. “Every time I go overseas I have my phone on me, and I’m ready to fly back if the Air Force needs me.” The Flying Camel Squadron clocks up thousands of flying hours a year, and is the largest manned squadron in the Air Force.
From binoculars to the best cameras in the world
The Flying Camel Squadron’s camera equipment is some of the most advanced in the world, but it wasn’t always like that. “In 1947 we started out with binoculars and old Cessna aeroplanes,” Capt. H. tells us. “We’ve come a long way since then.” Today, the squadron uses a variety of aircraft to carry out its missions. The B200 ‘Tzufit’ (Beechcraft Super King) is a twin-turboprop aircraft that can be used in all weather and at high altitudes. These are the planes that the Flying Camel Squadron uses for live visuals. The 200S Bonanza is used for aerial scouting and still images.
Protecting Israel from the sky
Their work is hardly glamorous – the Flying Camel Squadron soldiers spend most of their time in the air waiting for something to happen. But their work is crucial to the security of the State of Israel, and their professionalism means that civilians who would otherwise get caught in the crossfire stay safe.
“We don’t go into a mission saying we’ll give a 98 percent answer. We give a 100 percent answer,” says Capt. H. “If we have any doubt, that doubt is enough to prevent an attack, even if it costs millions of dollars and years of effort.”