The First UAV Squadron

UAV: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. The aircraft is operated remotely, from a ground station. The operators can see a picture from the UAV's camera, its location and all its data.

Location: Palmahim Airbase

• Teledyne Ryan Firebee (Known in Hebrew as the "Mabat", meaning "Glance")
• Northrop Chukar (Known in Hebrew as the "Telem", meaning "Furrow")
• Teledyne Ryan Firebee II (Known in Hebrew as the "Shadamit", meaning "Pratincole")
• IAI Scout (Known in Hebrew as the "Zahavan", meaning "Oriole")
• IAI Searcher (Known in Hebrew as the "Hugla", meaning "Partridge")
• IAI Searcher II (known in Hebrew as the "Kohav Lavan", meaning "White Star")
• IAI Heron (Known in Hebrew as the "Shoval", a biblical name)

• ‎External UAV Operator (responsible for safe take-off and landing)
• Internal UAV Operator (responsible for flying the mission itself)
• UAV training

UAV Training School

In light of the growing number of UAVs and their increasingly varied roles, the decision was taken to establish a school for training UAV operators, both external and internal, on Palmahim Airbase. UAV training took place in Ain Shemer until the construction of a purpose built facility on Palmahim was completed.

On 11th June 2001 the order to establish the flight school on Palmahim Airbase was formally given. Beyond its role training UAV operators, the school was also given the right to train its operators as officers, to train UAV instructors and to maintain its own UAVs and ground stations. At first the school flew the IAI Scout.

On 1st April 2004 the school transferred from Ain Shemer to Palmahim, and moved into the new facility in the north of the base. After the transfer the school received additional roles, such as providing training services. With the transfer the school ceased to train on the IAI Scout, instead flying the models of UAV in current operational use. The UAV operator training course lasts six months. The other services the school provides include basic training for UAV operators and their on-going training, a training center, and training for UAV instructors.


During the War of Attrition Egypt began to deploy the SA-2 and SA-3 antiaircraft systems. The appearance of the batteries led to a number of IAF losses, and harmed the Air Force's ability to gather intelligence from the frontlines. During the search for a method of intelligence gathering that would not put the lives of air crew at risk, the possibility of acquiring UAVs was explored. In late July 1970, after a number of possibilities were considered, a contract was signed with Teledyne Ryan to develop a new improved long range UAV that could take photographs at both high and low altitudes. This new model was based on a model then in use by the USAF. The first twelve of these new UAVs, the Firebee, reached Israel in July 1971.

On 1st August 1971 the UAV unit was established on Palmahim airbase. Its main missions were photography in areas defended by Surface-to-Air (SAM) missiles and acting as aerial decoys. Soon afterwards, the unit was deployed on Refidim Airbase in Sinai, owing to its proximity to the Egyptian front.

The squadron's first operational flight was carried out almost immediately after it was opened, in September 1971 in the area of the Suez Canal following the downing of an IAF plane by Egyptian SAM fire. In light of the missile threat facing manned aircraft, the Firebee was scrambled for a number of photography sorties.

The test flights ended in December, and the squadron was declared operational.

The Chukar
During June 1971 another IAF delegation was sent to the US, to investigate a UAV to act as an aerial decoy for enemy antiaircraft systems. On this visit the Northrop Chukar, a small and simple UAV that could meet the operational needs, was found. The delegation signed a contract for the purchase of 27 of the small aircraft, which reached Israel in December 1971 and received the Hebrew name “Telem”, meaning “Furrow”.

The Chukar's main aim was to draw enemy antiaircraft fire, making it easier for combat planes to locate and destroy the missile batteries. The Chukar received its baptism by fire during the Yom Kippur War.

The Yom Kippur War

During the Yom Kippur War the Chukar was used to mislead enemy antiaircraft batteries. On 7th October 1973 the Chukars were launched in the north for the first time, towards the Golan Heights, and fooled the Syrians into thinking that a massive combat plane strike had begun against their AA positions.

During the war 23 of the Chukars were launched, 18 returned and 5 fell. Each group of between two and four of the UAVs drew 20-25 Egyptian rockets, demonstrating the effectiveness of the system. Throughout the war more Chukars arrived from the US.

On the southern front a Firebee squadron was deployed on the frontlines, but following an Egyptian MiG-17 attack they returned to an airbase.

The Firebees operated intensively throughout the 12 days of fighting, carrying out 19 flights during which 10 Firebees were lost. At the end of the war only 2 Firebees remained in the squadron.

After the war it was decided to increase the number of Firebees in the squadron, and 24 more were ordered.


On 1st May 1974 the funds were allocated to reorganize the squadron. Its aim was redefined: to operate all kinds of UAV for photography, deception, decoy and test flights. The squadron was also tasked with maintaining the UAVs and training UAV technicians as operators.

During the restructure the squadron was reorganized into two bodies which were independent of each other in terms of their operations, management and maintenance – the Firebee flight and the Chukar flight. The Chukar flight was made up of four platoons, each of which would be deployed at a predetermined site.

The nature of the squadron's mission required a high level of mobility from the teams on the ground, similar to the IAF's antiaircraft systems, coupled with a high level of technology and maintenance, similar to the aircraft squadrons.

Acquiring the Firebee II

The Firebee II was purchased as a practice target for weapons systems trials. The Firebee II is operated from the same ground stations as the original Firebee and is launched from a similar launcher. However, the Firebee II is much more maneuverable and has completely different flight characteristics.

The first IAF launch of the Firebee II took place on 10th June 1975. Some of the Firebee IIs maintained by the IAF were purchased by Rafael.

Intelligence at the Moment of Truth

The operational need for real time intelligence on the front lines led to the idea of a UAV carrying a stabilized camera that could broadcast pictures. In September 1974 a delegation was sent abroad to try and find a UAV that could meet these requirements. At the same time Tadiran began work on a similar project independently.

The delegation returned with two suggestions:

A UAV produced by Philco-Ford. The UAVs were ready, and the company signed to deliver them immediately.

A UAV produced by RT, an American company. The UAV was in its development stages and the IAF decided to invest. The funds that were allocated for development were all used before operational testing began, and the Air Force decided to pull out of the project. On 15th January 1977 the squadron's unit operating Philco-Ford's UAV was also disbanded.

Another Restructure

On 1st February 1979 funds were given to again restructure the squadron into three flights: UAV operation (regular and reservist), maintenance (regular and reservist) and the Chukar flight (reservist).

IAI Scout

The growing use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to gather real time intelligence on the front lines led the IAI to develop its own UAV capable of broadcasting pictures from a stabilized camera, the IAI Scout which became known in Hebrew as the "Zahavan", meaning "Oriole". During June 1979 the squadron received 20 of these UAVs in a specially established flight on Hatzor Airbase.

The first version of the Scout was a short-winged aircraft launched with rocket assistance. Following improvements and changes its wingspan was extend by 2 meters, and it was given the ability to be launched independently under the control of an external UAV operator.

On 21st June 1981 the Scout flight was declared operational and from then on the Scout carried out most of the squadron's operations.

The commander of the Chukar flight was appointed head of the Operation flight, carrying out the two roles simultaneously. The Scout flight became a full flight (staffed by regular soldiers), alongside the already standing Firebee and Chukar flights.

The Scout's first operational activity was carried out during the Lebanon missile crisis of 1981, when one of the UAVs was sent over the northern border and successfully broadcast real-time pictures of the Syrian antiaircraft systems deployed in the area.
Bringing Down a MiG

Despite focusing on intelligence gathering work, the squadron has also achieved the downing of enemy aircraft. At the start of 1981 the Syrians began establishing an antiaircraft array in the Lebanon Valley in order to restrict the IAF's ability to fly over Lebanon. At the same time the Air Force carried out intelligence and photography flights to keep track of the construction and on Syrian forces in Lebanon.

On 14th May 1981 an IAF Firebee was carrying out a photography flight above the Lebanon Valley. During the operation the Syrians launched a MiG-21 to bring down the 'photographer'. The MiG pilot approached the area of the UAV and suddenly stalled, spiraling to the ground. The pilot ejected successfully but his aircraft crashed near Quzeir.

The IAI Scout in the First Lebanon War
On 11th June 1982 the Scout flight was deployed in the north and carried out the following missions: Collection of intelligence (in particular on AA batteries), reporting the results of strikes, targeting of AA wagons and other armored vehicles, locating fallen aircraft and photographing trails so that they could be documented. During one of the operations an SA-8 AA battery was successfully identified and destroyed by a combat plane.

During the flights only one Scout was lost, after it was hit by machine gun fire. A number of the UAVs were damaged during take off and landing but were repaired in the field.

The Firebee in the First Lebanon War
The Firebee flew three sorties, during which 2 of the UAVs were brought down in Syrian territory. A third completed its mission as planned and returned safely.

The Chukar in the First Lebanon War
9 sorties were flown out of 11 launches. Two of the UAVs crashed after launch.

The Establishment of the UAV Flight
The squadron's activity increased significantly with the absorption of the IAI Scout. In light of this, and the expected future development of the squadron, the need to split the flight became apparent. Limited resources and funding prevented the split from taking place in '84 and '85.

On 14th May ‘85 the recommendations for a new structure for the squadron were made. The main suggestions were:
1. To establish a UAV flight under the supervision of a major, to which the reservist Chukar squadron would be attached.
2. To keep the central maintenance flight which would continue to carry out maintenance work on all of the squadron's aircraft.
3. To have the training officer report directly to the squadron commander.
4. To create a position as commander of the operations flight, with the rank of major.
5. To change the position of commander of the flight division to commander of the Scout flight, which would be made up of the two Scout companies.
6. To reduce the rank required of the commander of scout company A from major to captain, similar to the commander of scout company B.

After the restructure the squadron was made up of six flights (scout, UAV, operations, training, maintenance and management).

"Rosh Bakar 13"
On 7th April 1986 one of the squadron's Scouts carried out targeting and real time results reporting during a strike in Lebanon. It was the Scout's first operational sortie since the First Lebanon War.

A New Deployment

In November 1988 IAF Headquarters decided to acquire Pioneer UAVs and their ground stations. However, the acquisition was not carried out because of the later decision to purchase the Israeli manufactured Searcher.

In the early nineties the decision was made to establish an additional UAV division following the acquisition of the Searcher. The three UAV divisions were intended to operate out of forward deployment sites under the command of the operations division.

The Closure of the Chukar Flight
In January 1990 it was decided to dissolve the Chukar Flight, which at that point was a reservist flight.

The Gulf War
On 3rd August 1990 the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. Following the invasion a coalition of states formed, headed by the US, and gave then President of Iraqi Sadam Hussein an ultimatum, demanding he withdraw from Kuwait. Following his rejection of their demand, they began a war on Iraq on 17th January 1991, in an attempt to force him to withdraw. In retaliation he launched ground-to-ground missiles towards Israel. His intention was to force Israel to join the war, in the hope that this would disrupt the coalition. Saddam's missiles struck the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area, and as a result aircraft and other military resources, including the First UAV Squadron, were moved from central Israel to the periphery.

Night Time (16th February 1992)
On 16th February 1992 one of the squadron's Scouts participated in an attack on a convoy of Hizballah vehicles, in which Sheikh Abbas al-Musawi, the organization's secretary-general, was killed. The UAV was used to locate the vehicle, for targeting and to report the results of the strike.

Receiving the Searcher
During an official ceremony on 16th July 1992 attended by the Commander in Chief of the IAF the six first IAI Searchers were received by the UAV unit on the Palmahim airbase.

The tail numbers were: 701, 702, 703, 704, 705 and 710. With their arrival the third company was opened and the UAV flight was divided into two companies: the Scout and the Searcher. The new UAV received the Hebrew name "Huglah", meaning "Partridge".

Operation Accountability (25th-31st July 1993)
In the wake of Hizballah escalation along Israel's northern border in 1993, the IDF carried out strikes on terrorist targets in southern Lebanon. During Operation Accountability a number of terrorist organizations in Lebanon were hit, in particular Hizballah, and the squadron carried out 27 sorties.

The success of the operation led to an increase in the pace at which new weapons systems were absorbed and the squadron began to receive cameras capable of nighttime and color photography.

"Searcher" – Company 4
During June 1994 the squadron received a number of additional Searchers, which formed Company 4. In addition the Searchers of Company 3, whichhad been received in 1992, were declared partially operational.

Following the discovery of problems in the Searcher's engine, in 1995 it was decided that in the engines in the squadrons searchers would be replaced, and that the development of an entirely new engine built specifically for the Searcher would begin.

The Last Days of the Firebee
Towards the end of 1995 it was decided that the Firebee would end its service in the IAF. At that point only five Firebees remained, and they were not being flown operationally. By the end of the year three were used as aerial targets for air-to-air missiles. On 14th January 1996 the Firebee undertook its final operational flight, to test the readiness of an antiaircraft aircraft battery, which successfully struck the fourth remaining Firebee with a missile. The fifth Firebee was transferred to the IAF Museum on Hatzerim Airbase, following twenty five years of Air Force service.

Operation Grapes of Wrath 10th-27th April 1996
Following further Hizballah escalation along Israel's northern border during 1996, the IDF began another operation which struck terrorist targets in South Lebanon. During this operation the squadron proved that it was able to gather real time information from the front lines continuously, day and night, despite the harsh weather conditions.

"White Star" – Long Range Flight
During June 1999 the capability for long range UAV flights of hundreds of kilometers was developed.
On 20th July 1999, the squadron flew the IAI Searcher 2 for the first time.

UAV Operator Wings
In light of the increasing capabilities of UAV pilots, and the development of UAVs generally, it was decided to give UAV operators the right to wear UAV operator wings, symbolizing their unique role in the IDF. On 14th July 1999 a ceremony took place during which these wings were granted.

Searcher 2 – The First Operational Flight
On 5th April 2000 the Searcher 2 participated in its first operational flight in the skies of Lebanon. The sortie tested the abilities of the Searcher 2 which had been improved with the new engine.  The upgraded UAV took an important role in gathering information in Lebanon.

The Evacuation of South Lebanon
The IDF's entrance into Lebanon during the First Lebanon War in 1982 provoked a number of terrorist organizations to struggle to eject them. Over 18 years Israel fought a war of attrition against guerilla organizations in southern Lebanon, primarily Hizballah, with the aim of preventing terrorists from penetrating settlements in northern Israel, and to reduce their ability to deploy Katyusha rocket launchers in areas that could endanger those who lived in Israel's north.

At the start of 2000 Israel's Government decided to implement UN Security Council Resolution 425 and withdraw from the security strip in south Lebanon and return to the international border by the end of July. Israel's attempts to complete the process as part of a comprehensive peace treaty with Syria and Lebanon failed, and Israel was forced to carry out the withdrawal unilaterally.

On the night of 21st May 2000 the South Lebanon Army (SLA) began to abandon its western positions. The evacuation of Southern Lebanon continued until the morning of 24th May, during which Hizballah attempted to strike IDF and SLA forces, in order to appear to have achieved a military victory. In order to prevent IDF casualties the Air Force assisted by carrying out air strikes and demonstrating aerial supremacy above Lebanon throughout the withdrawal. The squadron took part in gathering real-time intelligence, results reporting and targeting.

The Second Intifada
Late on Friday 19th September 2000, following Friday prayers on the Temple Mount, the PLO began violent riots. The violence quickly spread to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and soon reached the Arab settlements near the green line, the Galilee, the Arab Triangle, Jaffa and the Negev. The primary activities were lead by the Tanzim, Fatah's military wing. In addition to the stone and bottle throwing aimed at Israeli vehicles, the Palestinians opened fire on IDF positions and targeted them with grenades and improvised explosives. As well as rioting, thousands of Arab Israelis blocked Israel's main roads.

The Palestinian violence initiated the Second Intifada. A few days later armed Palestinians besieged Kever Yosef in Shechem, fired on it and prevented the rescue of IDF soldiers trapped inside. At first the IDF forces responded with rubber bullets and tear gas, but when the very real risk to their lives became clear they began to shoot live rounds. During the exchange of fire dozens of Palestinians and a number of IDF soldiers were wounded. Combat helicopters were scrambled in an act of deterrence and in an attempt to assist the besieged forces. Quickly, the situation descended into one of regular conflict. Tanzim teams began to fire on Gilo in Jerusalem from the neighboring town of Beit Jala, and teams in Gaza began to launch Kassam rockets towards settlements in the northern Negev. In response combat helicopters were sent against Palestinian terrorist targets chosen in real time, including PLO institutions.

With time the violent acts aimed at the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians grew, in an attempt to achieve political ends. Shootings and other destructive acts gave way to a wave of suicide bombings in Israeli cities and towns, and took the lives of many Israeli civilians. The struggle against terrorists and their supporters was carried out in built up areas close to civilian populations and required extraordinary precautionary measures to avoid harming innocent bystanders. In this context controlled helicopter fire aimed at terrorist targets and operators was used. The UAV unit took an active role in gathering intelligence, continuous observation and joint operations with the security services.

One of the operations which the squadron took part in was carried out on 31st July 2001 and was known as Operation Doghouse. The squadron's UAVs took part in observation and targeting, in an operation in which Cobra Helicopters struck a building used by senior Hamas operatives.

The End of the Scout
In April 2004, the IAI Scout ended its IAF service after 25 years.

The Heron Replaces the Searcher 2
During the fourth year of attacks against terrorist targets in the West Bank and Gaza, a continual increase in the workload faced by the intelligence gathering and attack squadrons became apparent. An increase in the use of intelligence gathering equipment came about primarily because of the need to focus on preemptive strikes against terrorists and to minimize the harm to civilians.

The fleet of Searcher IIs operated by the squadron was beginning to age, and the demand for UAV intelligence gathering flights grew. In response the planning division recommended an increase in the force's UAV intelligence gathering capabilities.

A short time later General Headquarters began discussion with IAI on supplying the Heron. In January 2005 the acquisition of the Heron was approved, and it received the Hebrew name "Shoval", a biblical term of unclear meaning.

On 16th August 2005, control of a Heron was passed from the IAI control station in Ein Shemer to an IAF Advanced Ground Control station on Palmahim airbase, before being passed back again prior to landing. This flight represented the first handover of the Heron to the IAF.

The Heron took off for its first operation from Ein Shemer landing strip on Monday 22nd August 2005, at 08:25, on an intelligence collection operation as part of the disengagement from the Gaza strip. Despite the initial plan to end the operation after 15 hours of flights, a request for the UAV to stay in the air longer was received mid-flight, in light of its unique capabilities. The UAV returned to land in Ein Shemer the next day. Even on its first operational flight the UAV was used for successful intelligence gathering, locating and tracking a terrorist that the security forces had been following for a long period of time despite adverse weather conditions.

The first of the Heron's flights out of Palmahim Airbase took place on 28th January 2007.

On 7th March 2007 the IAF received its first Heron in an official ceremony attended by the Chief of Staff, General Eliezer Shkedi, Head of IAF Headquarters Brigadier Amir Eshel, Head of the Intelligence Group, Brigadier Ram Shmueli and representatives of the IAI and the Ministry of Defense.

The First UAV Squadron
The First UAV Squadron