Brig. Gen. (res.) Joshua Shani was the lead pilot in Operation Entebbe, flying the first C-130 Hercules cargo plane with the entire rescue force on board. This week, for the 36th anniversary of the rescue operation on July 4th, he agreed to answer a few questions.
The flight to Entebbe is about 2,500 miles (4,000 km). How’d you do it?
We had to fly very close to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, over the Gulf of Suez. We weren’t afraid of violating anyone’s air space — it’s an international air route. The problem was that they might pick us up on radar. We flew really low — 100 feet above the water, a formation of four planes. The main element was surprise. All it takes is one truck to block a runway, and that’s all. The operation would be over. Therefore, secrecy was critical. At some places that were particularly dangerous, we flew at an altitude of 35 feet. I recall the altimeter reading. Trust me, this is scary! In this situation, you cannot fly close formation. As flight leader, I didn’t know if I still had planes 2, 3 and 4 behind me because there was total radio silence. You can’t see behind you in a C-130. Luckily, they were smart, so from time to time they would show themselves to me and then go back to their place in the formation, so I still knew I had my formation with me.
How were you greeted in Israel?
The plane with the hostages landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, where they were reunited with their families. The other three planes remained for a debrief. Here comes Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, walking up to me. I had been in my flight suit for 24 hours straight, in temperatures over 100 degrees in the airplane, sweating and smelly, and here walks the prime minister with big open arms. I’m thinking — please don’t hug me — he may die from this! He hugged me for what felt like a full minute, and said only “Thanks.”
What was it like returning to Israel as a hero?
After my father’s death, I found his letters from Bergen-Belsen that he sent to Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek. The letters describe his experiences during the Holocaust, what happened to his family, etc. I won’t discuss it here. One of his letters said, “My only comfort is Joshua. He gives me reason to continue.”
The reason I mention this letter is because, 30 years later, when I returned from Entebbe, my father hosted a party for me. Family and friends were all there to celebrate the success of my mission. My father was in a great mood. I know what he was thinking, a Holocaust survivor. His son at the time was a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Air Force and had just flown thousands of miles in order to save Jews. It probably added ten years to his life.
Read the whole thing.
(h/t David G)