I spent my childhood in Tel-Aviv going to the movies two or three times a week and learning English by reading novels on the seashore. Down near the sea was a cafe frequented by Machalniks (foreign volunteers) where I admired the pilots and sometimes talked to them. I grew up on Nevil Shute’s books of adventures in planes in the skies and romantic stories of WWII; they fired my imagination,. The events of WWII were very close to my family and I followed them with great interest. My mother’s family came from Beseravia and my father’s from White Russia. In general my education was good, but I practically knew nothing about airplanes.
In the War of Independence in 1948, I was 15 years old and too young to fight. Israeli-born expatriates in the States were instructed to learn to fly in the States and come home to serve in the air force. Two girls who had learned to fly came to Israel and I met them. I was impressed by the fact that girls could become pilots.
I became a physical educator in the Gadna Avir, the Israeli Youth Corps for the Air Force (Israel government youth movement for training 13- to 18-year-olds in defense and national service) that was established in 1948).
An agreement with the Air Force at the time allowed Gadna youths to be transferred to the Air Force. The first thirty volunteers who were entered in the air-cadet course were to study ground school and learn to fly for the first part of the flying course (the Rishoni). Those who qualified would come back to Gadna Avir and become flying instructors on Piper Cubs to teach other Gadna members.
I volunteered to the Israeli Defense Forces in August 1950 as soon as I completed high school; I was only seventeen and a half. While waiting to be called up, I worked in the Gadna dining hall as a waitress. At that time the Yemenite immigrant groups started to arrive in Israel so I also helped settle the Yemenites in the tent camps.
There were three Gadna instructors flying on the Piper Cub light airplanes. They were well-dressed and had wings on their shirts. They used to engage me in conversation in the dining room where I worked as a waitress. They told me that an air-cadet course in the air force was starting up and I could join if I applied. But I wanted to know more about what I was joining up for.
Another friend who was a civilian pilot invited me to come and fly with him. He took me to the small airport just north of Tel-Aviv and we took off in a Piper Cub. He performed aerobatics and complicated maneuvers to impress me, but when we landed I threw up everything I had in my stomach.
He suggested I go with the bus taking the air-cadet volunteers for medical exams. Afterward I could take the psychological and technical exams. I did not know exactly what would be demanded of me and whether I could meet those demands. If somebody had asked me then if I wanted to become a fighter pilot, I could not have given a definite answer. I just wanted to do something different and more exciting than instructing in the Gadna.
I had not told my Gadna commander that I was going for the medical examinations. I was supposed to have been on duty that same evening in Rosh Ha-Ayin, but I had not known that the exams would take two days. When I came back to the Rosh Ha-Ayin Gadna camp after two days, they told me at the gate that a lot of trouble was in store for me and that I was considered to be a deserter. As I was going up to the offices I saw my commander watching me from the window of his office. He shouted at me so hard he was heard all over the base. I explained to him that I could volunteer for the air cadet course if I wanted to. After taking the medical exams and becoming an official candidate, he could not stop me anymore. The Air Force had ordered me to undergo the psychological and technical exams. During the tests I was asked: “What is radar?” I said that it was used in the WWII to confuse enemy planes. The examiner looked at me strangely; he had meant ‘rudder’, the flying control on the tail of a plane. This misunderstanding would haunt me for the rest of my life.
After two weeks I was informed that I had been accepted to the air-cadet course. [During the interview, Yael said that she now thinks that the Air Force did not know how to evaluate cadets that were capable of being pilots, therefore they took in all candidates that qualified physically and mentally and then threw out those that were not suitable to be pilots. This process wasted a lot of time and resources.]
In the autumn of 1950, all of the Gadna Avir members went through the entrance tests for the flying course; the coordination and manual ability tests, the math and psychological tests, and the interviews with a psychologist. These tests, as well as the medical tests, were identical to those given to all other cadets.
At the beginning of Course #5, there were close to 100 air-cadets, including thirty from the Gadna with three girls: Shifra, Yokhebet and myself. During the Rishoni phase (flying the Stearman), only five of the Gadna were left, including myself. Two of the five later failed their solo. There were many discussions going on about accepting girls as fighter pilots. Many of the high-ranking officers were against. Finally, they decided to accept me, but every time I asked what was to happen to me later on, they told me to finish the course and then they would decide. In those days, in the 1950’s, girls were considered more equal than today. The kibbutzim treated men and women equally; women did their jobs side by side with men.
I had two elder brothers, but at first, not wanting them to be worried, I did not tell them nor my parents that I had joined the air-cadet course. The Gadna members did not see anything unusual about my being in a flying course, since I was doing everything else they did in the Gadna; I was an instructor, expert in firing light weapons and performed the same physical exercises. I did not make a big thing about my flying, so my family did not take it as unusual when they eventually found out.
In boot camp August 1950 I realized that what the rookies were being taught was what I had been teaching members of the Gadna prior to my arrival. I approached the woman base commander and told her that I had already done these exercises for three years and had taught them in the Gadna, and that I had been a commander in the Gadna who had taught them how to use semaphore flags. I would take the kids out to the seashore at six thirty in the morning and showed them how to send messages with semaphore flags. Their hands were frozen from the cold. The commander asked me if I knew how to handle light weapons. I said yes, and that I was prepared to teach others. So they gave me tests which I passed. What I really wanted was to get out of the job of cleaning pots in the kitchen that were almost my size. My girl friend Ora had had more experience; she had instructed in first-aid, so she was given an instructor job in first-aid and light weapons. I was given the job of physical instructor and an instructor in light weapons. Together, we happily completed boot camp as instructors without having to do kitchen duty.
I had no definite plans for the future, living day by day. When the flying part of the course started, I felt the tensions and the fears, but as I gained confidence in my flying ability, I started doing aerobatics. I liked skimming the clouds and chasing other planes. It was then that I started feeling the real excitement and love of flying, being in control of the plane. I knew the country intimately from my frequent hiking trips with the Gadna members, and I did well in cross country navigation, but I obeyed the rules and did not do low flying without permission. Once in training, a cadet from a later course, pulled back the stick too hard in a steep turn, and both instructor and cadet were killed when the plane flipped over and crashed. I was aware of the importance of checking the flying controls (ailerons, flaps and rudders) every time before flying. A pilot was killed when he took off with a newly overhauled plane where the flying controls were connected exactly opposite of what they were supposed to function, that is if you pushed the joy stick left, the plane would turn to the right.
When night-flying was on, the cadets would get up on the roofs of the barracks and watched the cadets of the previous course do night flying on the Stearmans. I would sit with the boys, and they would not even notice me. Usually, it was hard to know how a cadet was doing in the course. Each one went around as if he was the best pilot in the world. They kept on boasting how they did the most fantastic aerobatics, and how they did all the maneuvers that were forbidden. I sat by listening without saying a word.
One cadet told how he got a girl pregnant and they all collected enough money for an abortion. Then one cadet said that he had slept with a girl for the first time. Everybody jumped on him wanting to know all the details. Almost all of them were virgins or without much experience, but each boasted about their exploits. I felt isolated and left out, but I could not talk about my feelings. During flying hours I was with the cadets, but I dined and slept with the other girls in the base who did not know anything about flying. Curfew was a ten o’clock and at about 21.30 the cadets from Course 4 accompanied me to my barracks in the dark. I then realized how socializing between cadets was an important factor in a flying course.
[Years later when I was interviewed by the media, I was asked why some girls succeeded in the air force doing ground work, such as technicians, and why some did not. I said that the girls who had the most self-confidence succeeded. I myself had joined the flying course fully aware that the risk of failure was high, but I wanted the challenge, and I felt that I had the ability, as much as anybody else, to meet it. Even if I failed, I would accept going on to something else.]
Turquoise Blue Overalls
When I was in a group of three girls in the cadet course of 100 boys I did not stand out as much and draw attention. In the Gadna I was also within a small group of girls in a larger group of boys, and my best friends were the Gadna instructors, with whom, for three years, I had gone on trips, hikes and courses. I felt comfortable with boys and did not feel at a disadvantage because of my sex. In high school, there were five girls and fifteen boys. I played basketball on a girls’ team. In light athletics I competed against girls and most of the time I came out first. Physically I could compete with the boys; I was even head of a boys’ group.
When the cadets went to get their uniforms and flying equipment from the stores just before starting to fly in the Rishoni (the first part of the air-cadet course), we stood in line at the counter. As each cadet stepped forward, the stores clerk looked at him, estimated his size and brought out a set of overalls, flying jacket and flying boots. There was no arguing; you just took it, and stepped back to make way for the next cadet. When I came up to the counter, the stores clerk looked at me, sizing me up. I was the only girl who had come up to the counter, and he smiled and said: “I have the perfect match for your small size. It is a beauty, only for you.” He went into the back and came out with an overall in blue, the color of a turquoise sky. He said: “Check if this one is your size.” I looked at the blue color, and at the rest of the cadets. They were all in khaki. Since they were the only overalls in my size, I took them.
Even before putting on the blue overalls, I stood out from the crowd because I was the only girl, and especially because of my tousled blonde hair and blue eyes. At the beginning of ground school the instructors were not acquainted with the cadets personally. First of all there were so many of them, and almost every day cadets were dropping out of the course. Every day after school, instructors got together with the head of the Rishoni school, Shaya, and discussed the day’s event. Each instructor was asked their opinion of their cadets. Since they did not know their names, and since the seating arrangements were more or less constant, they would say: “Well, the one behind Yael today answered questions well.” or “The one sitting two benches in front of Yael could not identify 50% of the planes shown on the wall.”
After I got the blue overalls, it was obvious that I attracted even more attention. One morning, the cadets were walking towards the planes. I was walking with the cadets in the lead. Shaya was watching from the control tower. A Harvard was taking off and a few minutes later was seen to be losing height and it crashed in a small valley close by. All the cadets started running towards the plane, jumping over the barbed wire fence of the base and running in the fields. I was in the lead. Shaya saw my blue overalls from the tower. When the cadets came to the plane they found the pilot, Tuvik, safe and sound with just a bump on his head. When asked what happened, he told them that the plane had ran out of fuel. They asked him how he could take off without fuel. “Well”, he said, “the fuel tanker was parked near my plane and I assumed it had filled up my fuel tanks.” Back in the base, it was found out that the tanker had been filling up the plane next to his. Tuvik was expelled from the course.
Shaya summoned me into his office, and said that he was tired of hearing my name in all the discussions with the instructors because of where I sat. Shaya asked me if I wanted to stay in the course. Surprised, I said: “Of course I want to stay in the course, why would I not want to stay in the course?” I became very nervous. A talk with the chief instructor was considered one step before washout. He told me that being conspicuous was not going to help my chances of making it to the end, and that I should get rid of the blue overalls, they made me stand out like a traffic light.
I felt that in spite of his fierce and formidable manner, he was thinking of my best interests and wanted me to succeed. I now know that he was instrumental in my eventually succeeding as a pilot. I immediately went to the stores and changed my overalls to khaki. It was at least four sizes too big and was draped like a curtain on me, but |I managed to fold it in a few places, and it did the job. With my helmet on I looked like any other cadet. Now I was able to merge with the group and keep in the background. I kept quiet when in the company of other cadets, and especially when there were instructors around; I just stopped talking.
In the Stearmans, I brought down a tent. The tent stood at the beginning of runway 28 before the touchdown line. The tent pole was higher than the tent by about two meters. I did not see it and hit it with the wing tip. I felt the hit and continued with the landing. The guard inside ran out scared.
During this time, an article was published in the local village newspaper about a girl cadet in the flying course. The other cadets thought it was me who had leaked the information. Up to that time nobody on the outside knew there was a girl in the course. The cadets were upset with me. Some cadets from Course #4 stuck a composed picture on the notice board that offended me so much that I cried in public. They cut out the picture of the three girl cadets and put my head in a cracked eggshell as if I was a fledgling chick just coming out of my shell. The boys who made up the picture felt so sorry about what they had done, that they came and apologized to me, something very seldom done by Sabras (native-born Israelis). I was so touched, I forgave them completely, and we all became very good friends, so good in fact that for years we kept in touch, until one by one they were killed in flying accidents.