Israeli pilots train over southern US, with focus on mountainous areas

Israeli pilots took to the skies over the southern United States over the past two weeks, flying alongside their American counterparts during the appropriately named “Southern Strike” exercise.

The exercise did not feature action-packed simulated dogfights or bombing runs, but rather the less glamorous, but no less important, transport and logistical missions involving the Israeli Air Forces’s C-130 Hercules airplanes — both the older “Karnaf” model, and the new “Shimshon” version which Israel received from Lockheed just last year.

This is the third year in a row that Israel has participated in the exercise at the Combat Readiness Training Center in Gulfport, Mississippi.

The drill aims to give IAF pilots practice in unfamiliar geographic areas, and to forge stronger connections between Israeli and American pilots, Brig. Gen. (res.) Eden, the IAF officer who led the Israeli delegation, told The Times of Israel.

The Israelis worked together with the Americans, who came from the US Army, Air Force and Navy, to plan and execute a variety of missions, including low-level flying scenarios, difficult take-offs and landings, paratrooper drops and cargo dumps, said Eden, whose last name is withheld for security reasons.

Three Hercules aircraft made the trip to the US — two of the older model and one of the new C-130J. The Hercules, a large transport plane, is used to carry troops and equipment, and is one of the oldest models of aircraft still in use by air forces around the world. It was used perhaps most famously by the IDF to transport commandos to Uganda during the 1976 operation to rescue Jewish hostages at Entebbe.

A humvee drives out the back of an Israeli 'Shimshon' C-130 transport aircraft during the 'Southern Strike' exercise in the United States on Oct. 31, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

A humvee drives out the back of an Israeli ‘Shimshon’ C-130 transport aircraft during the ‘Southern Strike’ exercise in the United States on Oct. 31, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The brigadier general would not describe many aspects of the missions due to security considerations, but explained that an emphasis was placed on training for flights in mountainous regions.

“Just yesterday we had a full day of flying in West Virginia, for practicing in the mountains,” Eden told The Times of Israeli by phone late Thursday night.

An Israeli 'Shimshon' C-130 transport aircraft rests on the runway during the 'Southern Strike' exercise in the southern United States on Oct. 29, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

An Israeli ‘Shimshon’ C-130 transport aircraft rests on the runway during the ‘Southern Strike’ exercise in the southern United States on Oct. 29, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

“For us, flying in mountains that are 5,000 or 6,000 feet high, it’s something that we don’t have on a daily basis back home. Landing in a short field between the mountains at high elevation, this is not something that we have in Israel,” Eden said.

“But this is something that we need to know because in our area of interest, this is the type of terrain,” he explained.

This could be seen as a reference to Iran, which contains several mountain ranges where some nuclear and military facilities are based, but the IAF officer would not reveal exactly what that “area of interest” was.

An Israeli team makes a cargo drop off the back of a 'Shimshon' C-130 transport aircraft during the 'Southern Strike' exercise in the United States on Oct. 30, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

An Israeli team makes a cargo drop off the back of a ‘Shimshon’ C-130 transport aircraft during the ‘Southern Strike’ exercise in the United States on Oct. 30, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

In addition to carrying out the missions alongside one another, American pilots at times even flew within the Israeli cockpits as observers, Eden said.

“If we some day need to work together, this will give us a better common ground,” he explained.

Coincidentally, while Israeli Hercules aircraft were soaring over the southern skies of the United States, a squadron of American F-15 fighters were flying over southern Israel during the “Blue Flag” exercise, which ended earlier this week.

The Israeli planes will set out for home from the United States over the weekend. They will have to make two refueling stops en route, and are expected to land back in Israel on Monday afternoon.

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