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Fighter pilot ‘Smoky’ Simon takes to the skies at 100

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South African born but long-time Israeli aviation legend Harold “Smoky” Simon may be 100 years old, but that didn’t stop him from taking to the skies again for the first time in 70 years.

In celebration of his centenary in April this year, this flying legend and former chief of air operations of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) took off in a Tiger Moth biplane from a small airstrip in the Israeli Negev on 14 September.

“It was absolutely magical to be in the air again,” Simon told the SA Jewish Report this week. “Apart from being a passenger in civil aircraft, I haven’t been in the air since the War of Independence.

“I got the most memorable birthday present imaginable.”

Dan and Saul, Simon’s sons, also participated in the flight, joining their father in the sky in separate aircrafts as friends and family – including Simon’s wife, Myra – gathered below and cheered them on. The event even featured on YouTube, showing a grinning Simon clad in a flying helmet being pulled from the hangar by a team sporting face masks before taking off into the blue.

“My sons are both ex-air force pilots, and they had spoken to some flying colleagues about my reaching the 100-year landmark,” Simon says. “They decided to turn the celebration into an air force event, bringing together a flying club of former Israeli pilots and mechanics who had mostly retired from service and who spend their time looking after vintage aircraft like parents look after children. It created a wonderful spirit that took me back to 1948.”

Born in the Orange Free State, Simon displayed true South African mettle in the founding years of the IAF. After being discharged from the South African Air Force in November 1945, Simon opened an accounting and auditing business. He and his wife made their way to Israel to volunteer in the War of Independence shortly after marrying in 1948.

“I had the privilege of being on the first flight of the IAF in the war on the very day Ben Gurion declared the state. When we took off from Tel Aviv, it was Palestine, and when we landed, it was Israel. The state was declared during that flight.

“The situation at the time was desperate. Israel didn’t have a single fighter aircraft, while Egypt had 62. We started off with a tremendous imbalance and to this day, I believe we pulled off an absolute miracle.

“As Ben Gurion put it, the Machal forces were really the diaspora’s greatest contribution to the survival of the state.”

The air force really got started in the heat of battle in 1948, Simon says.

“On 29 May, the IAF really saved the state,” he says. “The only country which came to Israel’s aid was Czechoslovakia. Guys in the United States smuggled aircraft out of the US, flew them to Czechoslovakia, and prepared them for action.

“Crafts were ferried between the two countries, a dangerous and thrilling experience because we depended entirely them. It was a sheer joy to get those planes – they were our lifeline.”

Smuggled craft included B17s and Spitfires, supplementing the Tiger Moths which had become the first Israeli planes in the late 1930s and were used to train pilots who would go on to become the first pilots of the Palmach flying unit.

During the war, Simon was appointed chief of air operations at IAF headquarters. In addition, he participated in 18 missions in a diverse range of aircraft. At the war’s end, he accepted an offer from his commanders to serve another two years in the air force. Although the Simons returned to South Africa after the war, they made aliyah in 1962.

Simon’s centenary celebration flight closed a circle that brought him back to those early days.

“Today, the IAF is recognised as one of the foremost in the world. My flight reconnected me with history and allowed me to share it with my family. My family has really been closely identified with the air force, and this flight was the culmination of a special relationship with the IAF.

“It was wonderful to be back in the sky again, having both my sons together with me in the air and the family on the ground cheering along the way. It was really a celebratory event.”

Looking back on Israel’s development, Simon says that the progress the Jewish state has made is beyond incredible. However, he also warned that the threats to its safety are far from over.

“We are still faced with enormous difficulty. Right now, our main issue is Iran, and the present Israeli government is determined to prevent it from getting a nuclear bomb. We also have to deal with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. The stakes are very high.

“The world is divided, and Israel is right in the centre, geographically and historically. We are facing enormous problems, but we have surmounted so many before that I’m sure we will emerge strong.

“We need to be confident and keep our faith,” he says. “Israel is the only Jewish country, and we’ll do everything humanly possible to preserve this land of ours. Peace will take time and effort, but I remain confident that it will come.”

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