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A Journey in Italy Release date 24.04.2019
During the 1948 War of Independence, a number of young Israeli teens flew to Italy in order to undergo a civil flight course and become pilots in the newly established Israeli Air Force. They participated in the course with lawns for runways and villas for residences, and over 70 years later, they met up with an IAF Site reporter to tell the story behind the unique course
Yael Fuchs | Photos courtesy of Yael Radushkevitz

"The Israeli Air Force first spread its wings in a small airbase outside of Rome", wrote Victor Perry. "It was in Rome, 1948 – I was invited to be an instructor in the first organized flight course for Israeli pilots, with 25 cadets and a wide variety of instructors: Americans, South Africans and Canadians. Most of us were World War II veterans".

A Select Few
In order to reach the maximum amount of potential pilots, letters were sent to all IDF units: whoever wants to try to join the flight course, the commanders have to allow it. "We underwent basic physical examinations before seeing a psychiatrist – a volunteer from South Africa named Dr. Miller. I never heard of such a thing before", said Maj. (Res') Shaul Arlozorov, who was a cadet in the flight course in Italy, laughingly. "I quickly realized that anyone who bit his nails didn't get in, so I asked to delay my examination by two weeks seeing as I was a biter myself". Only a select few were chosen to continue onto the flight course itself.

Starting a School
The cadets began studying theory in Israel, and it was decided that they would train with Italian instructors while Israelis would manage the course. The aircraft models utilized were the AVIA FL.3, the Percival Proctor and the Ambrosini Grifo.

"The instructors were told that not everyone could undergo the same instructional process as a result of the differences in age, culture and language", said Massimo Garini, one of the Italian course commanders. "The instructional process was almost game-like, emphasizing professionalism, responsiveness and skillfulness".

Then, in August 1948, 25 Israeli cadets – joined by ten Holocaust survivors – began the flight course. "To keep our stay in Rome a secret, the students lived in a secluded mansion", wrote one of the course's instructors. The cadets split into two groups. In the mornings, one group would study aerial theory in the villa while the other would practice flight in the nearby airfield. After lunch, the two groups would trade places.

"Put your hand on the stick – see what I do"
"The ground training made up more than half of the seven-month-long course", wrote one course instructor. "The main problem with our students was that they were overconfident. They thought that they were able to learn faster than we taught them. There was only one way to take care of this: we had to make them fly and show them how little they knew. When we returned to the classroom they were more attentive than ever before".

How would the instructors and cadets communicate? "The instructor would tell me: 'put your hand on the stick, your feet on the pedals and feel what I do. Look outside and you'll understand'", recalled Arlozorov. "After several times I'd already learned how to take off and land. The instructor would even hold the stick with me in case I make a mistake". In spite of this unusual behavior, not a single accident occurred during the course.

No Hebrew
Every weekend, when they weren't training, the group would take trips throughout Italy escorted by their guides. However, there was one clear rule: no speaking Hebrew. At Christmas, Arlozorov and two of his friends decided to go visit the Vatican. "There weren't many people there. We saw a few people standing and waiting for something, so we waited with them". Suddenly, silence engulfed the Vatican as the Pope himself descended the stairs. Before the three managed to understand what was going on, the Pope approached them and asked who they were and what language they spoke.

"We said we spoke both English and Hebrew. He looked at us in amazement and asked: 'Hebrew? You speak the language of the savior?'. I said 'Yes, we speak Hebrew. Do you speak Hebrew as well?'. He said that obviously, the Pope speaks Hebrew, and asked what we were doing in Italy. We knew we couldn't lie to the Pope, so we told him we were learning how to be pilots. He quickly understood it had something to do with Israel, wished us luck and a bright future and went on his way". The day after, a photo of the three pilots and the Pope was published in the Italian press.

Learning to Fly Again
The cadets weren't in contact with their families during their stay in Italy so as not to raise suspicions. Only six months later, in January 1949, did they pack their bags and return to Israel.

When they came to enlist in the Israeli Air Force, they learned that the IAF had established a designated flight course, and the six months they spent in Italy will not count as part of their instruction. They were required to take the course in order to be considered IAF pilots. Some gave up on their dream of becoming pilots, while others tried to be recognized as pilots without any further instruction.