“Wherever He Went, He Raised The Bar For Others” – Famous Israeli Fighter Pilot Asher Snir

Asher Snir (top row, fourth from right) as a flight-school cadet circa 1962. (Courtesy Israel Air Force Magazine)
Asher Snir (top row, fourth from right) as a flight-school cadet circa 1962. (Courtesy Israel Air Force Magazine)

War History Online presents this article by Lawrence Rifkin, a columnist at The Jerusalem Post, where it first appeared.

And unlike the prevailing image of airborne knights, Snir was not flamboyant.

Not like Ezer Weizman, who became air force chief in 1958 and, even after he went into politics in 1969, had the pull – and sheer ego – to retain his own flyable Spitfire. Nor like Ran Ronen, an ace and highly respected commander who made himself something of a household name by dint of an autobiography and well-oiled PR machine.

But when you speak to veteran pilots who knew Snir well, you almost always hear a sigh when his name comes up, for within the ranks of the air force, he remains a legend whose chances were excellent that he’d end up commander of the IAF.

WHEN SNIR died of illness at age 44 on October 5, 1986, the second day of Rosh Hashana, he was second in command of the air force and still fully operational as a combat aviator. It was a time when operational pilots, no matter how high up (save for the air force commander), lived in the shadows. Their identities were hidden behind a rank and an initial, and their faces were blurred in photos because their work often took them behind enemy lines. They also tended to know a lot of secrets. Unfortunately for Snir, he died just before the censors began loosening up on the exploits of pilots, even those long retired.

So no, his name probably doesn’t ring any bells around here, yet he was a fighter pilot’s fighter pilot. He took his missions so seriously that he actually “preflew” them, which is to say that before heading out to the flight line, he’d find a quiet place to sit, close his eyes and imagine every step of what could come.

And he was a born leader, exuding confidence and, most important, inspiration.

Because of this, he rose through the ranks, coming to lead the squadron in which he served the longest, the 119th (known as the Bat Squadron for its insignia). Afterwards, he was appointed head of the IAF’s flight academy and then, with the rank of brigadier general, commander of the air base at Hatzerim, chief of IAF operations and, finally, deputy air force commander.

In his 1989 book The Ace Factor, the respected military aviation writer Mike Spick placed Snir among the world’s eight best fighter pilots and air combat leaders of all time, alongside such illustrious names as von Richthofen and Bader. That is certainly rarified company, as was the air these men flew in.

But Snir was also profoundly cerebral.

He turned briefings and debriefings into sessions that would satisfy the most rigorous demands of academia. He sought out the works of great authors, poets and composers. And he was a gifted writer, as I discovered when translating the 1987 book G-Suit: Combat Reports from Israel’s Air War, in which one of his two essays, “Requiem for an Enemy,” is the prologue.

ON INDEPENDENCE Day in 1970, the War of Attrition around the Suez Canal spilled over, as it sometimes did, to the Golan Heights. Snir found himself deep in craggy, zigzagging wadis, chasing a MiG-17 at treetop height in the company of the Bat Squadron’s commander.

“You can almost see the Syrian throw the book out the window, remaining alone with his machine, without his rules and regulations or the things they had taught him, things better suited for people less talented and for situations less difficult,” Snir wrote. “Alone, man and machine.”

The Syrian pilot was able to evade the cannon fire of two Mirages flown by “a squadron commander and his deputy who, between them, had already closed down a squadron of MiGs and more,” Snir continued.

“He heated me up and I boiled over.

He fought us with no holds barred,” Snir went on, “and I fought him the same way. Something told me with absolute certainty that on this day and with this man, this was the way it had to be, and there was no way he could return home and tell everyone at the officer’s club how he was jumped by two Mirages yet got away safely because he flew too low for the frightened Jews.”

A heat-seeking missile launched by Snir finally brought the Syrian down after a close-in chase lasting more than eight minutes – an eternity in air-to-air combat.

“Snir’s family told me that one of the last things he did before he died was go over the material he had submitted for the book,” Aharon Lapidot, co-editor of G-Suit, former longtime editor of Israel Air Force Magazine and today deputy editor of the Israel Hayom daily, tells The Jerusalem Post.

“He truly was an exceptional personality.

I respected him very much, and I admired him very much,” Lapidot says.

FOR ALL of Snir’s reputation as a fearless and aggressive warrior, he was quiet and even shy. And he was unafraid to let his softer side show.

“A famous hero or an unknown at the beginning of the road,” he wrote about the stubborn but talented Syrian pilot in G-Suit, “he deserved one thing, and to this day I hope he got it: that he was killed in the explosion of the missile and didn’t live through the last second before the crash, and thus didn’t know he had lost the battle.”

Snir was so in touch with his emotions that during the Six Day War, he drew a reprimand from Ronen, his squadron commander at the time, for breaking into tears upon hearing that his best friend from flight school had been killed. And during the War of Attrition, just after a sortie over the Nile Delta, Ronen saw Snir standing on the tarmac near his Mirage, eyes skyward looking for a sign of his wingman – who, it turns out, had been shot down and taken captive after they became separated.

“The results of the mission were thrust aside,” Ronen wrote in a lengthy article that appeared in Yediot Aharonot’s weekend magazine a couple of weeks after Snir’s death. “Wrinkles at the sides of his eyes, lips pursed and drawn downward, face pale, even greenish-yellow.

This man could not face up to losing friends. We all hurt, but for Asher, it was too much to bear.”

As flight academy commandant, Snir could not hide his sensitive side even from the cadets. They regularly told of being assigned to him for a critical check ride and how he’d calm their nerves by pointing out a beautiful landmark or remarking on the grace of a hawk sharing their air space.

“As a cadet, I flew a nighttime navigation flight with him down south,” Mark Bergman, a former F-16 pilot and today an El Al captain, tells the Post.

Flying at night means keeping your head inside the cockpit and relying on your instruments. The idea is to avoid vertigo, a potentially deadly sense of disorientation that is common when there are no clear visual reference points outside.

“I’m working hard in there – maps, instruments, compass coordinates, elapsed times, winds, speeds, everything else – and Snir says to me, ‘Mark, I’m taking the controls. Leave everything and look around for a moment. Look how breathtaking it is,’” Bergman recalls.

“I look up,” he continues. “There’s moonlight dancing. It’s brilliant and I didn’t even see it. And Snir says, ‘Just sit back and enjoy it a bit.’” ON SEVERAL occasions as a cadet, I, too, found myself interacting with Snir (though not in an airplane). It was always a pleasant, positive and enlightening experience. He wanted to know how you were doing, what you were doing and what you were thinking. He cared about you, and you could feel it.

Deep into the course, I was diagnosed with hypertension. When nothing short of medication had any effect – not meditation, not biofeedback, not even hypnosis – my instructors suggested I voluntarily move to one of the less physically rigorous tracks involving helicopters or cargo planes. An obstinate young buck, I wanted only fighters. So I resigned.

My immediate commanders understood.

But Snir did not. In fact, he seemed genuinely hurt, and he told me to return my gear, finish my paperwork and leave the base as quickly as possible.

Back in the day, many – perhaps most – IAF combat pilots, even among the top brass, were hot dogs. They were full of testosterone, piss and raging self-esteem. But Snir stood out as something else entirely. He was someone who could walk by unobtrusively yet exude a quality so unique and powerful, you knew that if you got your wings, you’d follow this man anywhere, no matter how complex the mission, no matter how slim the chances of coming back.

And now I had let him down, this slight man who stood head and shoulders above everyone else and in a class absolutely his own – someone nobody wanted to let down.

But for those who knew him far better, those who appreciated what he had to offer and what he might have been – meaning those who had never let him down – his death seven years later was a complete and utter loss.

“He was a young pilot, quiet and thoughtful,” Ronen, now 80, tells the Post, recounting the day Snir joined the Bat Squadron. “He didn’t have much to say, but he listened and learned, and what he had to say, he said with his flying.

He turned into one of the IAF’s finest and most unique warriors owing not just to his ability to fly and fight, but to his character and values.”

Perhaps Ronen said it best in the article he penned for Yediot Aharonot shortly after Snir’s death.

“As far as I was concerned,” he wrote of the day in 1965 when Snir showed up, “he started off with a clean slate. What was to be written on that slate would be up to him. Today, after 21 years, that clean slate is a thick volume, all of it a song of glory to a fearless man, a man of ethics and conscience, a true Zionist who loved his homeland and was willing to sacrifice himself on its behalf.”

Even in Ronen’s writing, you can hear the sigh.

“Wherever he went,” he wrote of Snir, “he raised the bar for others.”

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