The chief pilot for the mission, Brig. Gen. (res.) Joshua Shani, was interviewed recently and it occurred to me while reading it that many today have probably never heard of what took place 36 years ago.
On June 27, 1976, a Paris-bound Air France flight from Tel Aviv, via Athens, was hijacked and diverted to Entebbe, Uganda. Two of the hijackers were members of the German Baader-Meinhof Gang, and two were from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They demanded the release of 53 jailed terrorists in Israel.
On the third day of the crisis, the terrorists separated Israeli and Jewish passengers from the others. The captors freed the non-Jews and sent them to France the next day. Quietly, while the rest of the world talked but did nothing, the Israel Defense Forces planned a rescue mission.
How did you first find out that you would be asked to help rescue the hostages?
I was at a wedding when the commander of the Israel Air Force, Maj. Gen. Benny Peled, approached me and began asking questions about the capabilities of the C-130. It was a strange situation — the commander of the IAF, a major general, asking a lieutenant colonel questions about an airplane. But the C-130 was a new plane, and the IAF top brass were always focused on fighter jets, not transport planes. Peled asked me if it was possible to fly to Entebbe, how long it would take and what it could carry. I left him with the impression that a rescue would be possible.
How did the operation begin?
We began our journey from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which at the time was under Israeli control. The takeoff from Sharm was one of the heaviest ever in the history of this airplane. I didn’t have a clue what would happen. The aircraft was crowded. I was carrying the Sayeret Matkal assault team, led by Yonatan Netanyahu. I was also carrying a Mercedes, which was supposed to confuse Ugandan soldiers at the airport, because Idi Amin, the country’s dictator, had the same car. And I also found room to pack Land Rovers and a paratrooper force.
I gave the plane maximum power, and it was just taxiing, not accelerating. At the very end of the runway, I was probably two knots over the stall speed, and I had to lift off. I took off to the north, but had to turn south where our destination was. I couldn’t make the turn until I gained more speed. Just making that turn, I was struggling to keep control, but you know, airplanes have feelings, and all turned out well.
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.
What was going through your head as you approached the runway in Uganda?
My biggest fear was not being shot at from the ground, but making a mistake as a pilot. All I could think the entire time was “Don’t screw this up!” True, the risks to my life were real, but I was more worried about botching the landing and endangering the success of the entire operation. Think about it — how many people would have died at Entebbe if I had made a mistake?
In case something did go wrong, though, I was prepared for the worst. I was wearing a helmet, a bullet-proof vest, and I had an Uzi. I was also given a thick wad of cash in case I needed to use it to escape Uganda. Luckily, I never had to use it. I returned the cash after returning to Israel.
What happened after you landed?
I stopped in the middle of the runway, and a group of paratroopers jumped out from the side doors and marked the runway with electric lights, so that the other planes behind me could have an easier time landing. The paratroopers went on to take the control tower. The Mercedes and Land Rovers drove out from the back cargo door of my airplane, and the commandos stormed the old terminal building where the hostages were. While coordinating the assault, Yonatan Netanyahu, Sayeret Matkal’s commander, was fatally shot by a Ugandan soldier.
There’s more and it’s historically enlightening.
Read it all and pass it on.