C-130 Operation Thunderbolt
On 27 June 1976, four pro-Palestinian terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 139, an Airbus A300, during a flight from Ben-Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, Israel, to Paris. After first landing in Benghazi, Libya, the airliner was flown to Entebbe, Uganda. After the arrival of an additional four extremists, the group demanded the release of fifty-three convicted terrorists held in Israel and Germany by Thursday, 1 July.
Threatened with the execution of the hostages and having little choice, the Israeli government announced that it would enter into negotiations with the terrorists. The hijackers released the non-Jewish passengers on 1 July, while retaining 104 Israelis and non-Israeli Jews. The terrorists issued a new ultimatum with a deadline of 2:00 p.m. local time on Sunday, 4 July.
Meanwhile, by the third day of the crisis, planning for a rescue mission had begun in earnest. Named Operation Thunderbolt, the plan called for Israeli Air Force, or IAF, aircrews to fly four C-130Hs more than 2,500 miles from Israel to Uganda in complete secrecy.
Once on the ground, Israeli Special Forces on board the aircraft, utilizing Land Rovers and a Mercedes limousine similar to those used by the Ugandan Army and Ugandan dictator Ida Amin, would rescue the hostages held at the unused old international passenger terminal at Entebbe International Airport. Separately, other Israeli ground forces in armored vehicles would destroy Ugandan MiG fighters on the ground, primarily to prevent any attempted intercepts once the C-130 crews took off.
Lt. Col. Joshua Shani, commander of the Yellow Birds, as 131 Squadron is known, served as the lead C‑130 pilot on the mission. Forty years later, he sat down with </i>Code One <i>editor Jeff Rhodes. These are Shani’s recollections of one of the most audacious Special Operations missions in history. Parts of his account been edited for length or clarity
A Surprise Phone Call
I was at a wedding, and I got an urgent call from the commander of the Air Force [Maj. Gen. Benny Peled]. The chief of the air force calling a squadron commander directly was not a normal thing. He asked, ‘Can you rescue the hostages?’ This was before mobile phones and I’ve always wondered how he found me.
Right after the hijacking, the squadron had done some initial planning – how much fuel would be needed, how much payload we could carry, and what kind of radar coverage would we have to avoid. I was very happy I had those answers for him.
The C-130 was new to the IAF, but it was the only reasonable aircraft to use. It was strong, fast, flexible, and reliable. But range was an issue. The C-130 didn’t carry enough fuel to fly from Tel Aviv to Entebbe and back. We looked at using a KC-130 tanker with the fuselage fuel tank installed and that just about got us the range we needed.
The first plan was to airdrop a Special Forces team in Lake Victoria, and for them to come ashore at the airport, which is on the lake’s edge, and let them free the hostages. They would have to find their own way out of Uganda.
But with the fuselage fuel tank installed in the KC-130, there wasn’t room to carry the rubber boats that would be needed to cross the lake and get to the airport. The Special Forces commander wasn’t happy there were crocodiles in the lake. Then it became known that Amin was helping the terrorists, so the presence of the Ugandan army was another factor.
We had wasted a day working on the commando airdrop operation and it was obviously not going to work. The second idea was to fly in with twelve aircraft with troops aboard and conquer the place.
Then it occurred to me. We have an aircraft; we have an airport. This isn’t anything unusual. Why don’t we land, pick up the passengers, and take off? The element of surprise was the biggest thing. Who would dare do anything like that?
Ready To Go
There was an enormous amount of activity going on behind the scenes. I wasn’t involved in the bigger picture. For me, it was a case of what do I have to do to prepare. Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, the leader of the ground forces, did his prep work and I did mine. We came together on Friday and planned out exactly what needed to happen.
I went to the maintenance chief at the base, who actually worked for El Al [the Israeli state airline] and asked him which aircraft were performing the best. We chose five aircraft – four mission aircraft and a backup – that were flying well. There was no special equipment added to them.
[Peled] was a fighter pilot. He had little knowledge of the C-130 world. We had to convince him that this mission could be done. On Friday night, we flew a demonstration. The Chief of the Israeli Air Force and the Chief of the Israeli Defense Force [Lt. Gen. Mordechai Gur] were both on the flight deck.
The main problem I saw was if the runway lights at Entebbe were turned off. I told [Peled] that I would find the runway using the aircraft’s radar and land whether the lights were on or off. And using just the aircraft’s radar, we found the test runway [at Sharm el-Sheikh, then an Israeli base on southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula] with the lights off and landed. Of course, I had taken the aircraft out beforehand to practice. But [the flight] had convinced the leaders it could be done. They then briefed [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin.
Later that night, Rabin came into my office and looked me in the eye and asked, ‘Can you do it?’ I was confident we could. I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, you can go home now. We’ll deliver the hostages to you tomorrow morning.’ He thought I was boasting and he reminded me of this many times.
Twenty-four hours after the dry run, we were flying to Entebbe.
We took off from Lod, the military base at Ben-Gurion, around noon on Saturday [July 3]. People would have noticed five C-130s taking off and all heading in the same direction at the same time, so we took off at separate times, on separate headings, from separate runways.
We got to Base 8 [also called Ofira AB, located at Sharm el Sheikh], topped off the fuel tanks, and loaded the Special Forces team. While we were there, we received new air-to-ground images taken by a Mossad [Israeli Secret Service] agent who had rented a private aircraft at Entebbe the day before.
We had two full flight crews and three navigators. We also had an El Al captain on board. If the runway lights were off, he had a prepared text he would use to declare an emergency. There is no flight controller in the world who would not turn on the runway lights after an airline pilot had declared an emergency.
Before takeoff, each of the aircraft commanders received an envelope filled with American currency. It was a stack of $100 bills about an inch thick. It was to be used to try and buy our way out of trouble, if necessary. Israeli shekels wouldn’t have done us much good in Uganda. The only extra equipment I had was two guns, a bulletproof vest, and a helmet.
The aircraft was very heavy. Way overloaded. I really didn’t know how much it weighed when we took off. We were probably between 175,000 and 185,000 pounds. Max gross takeoff weight of a C-130 is 168,000 pounds.
Airplane engines produce less power when it’s hot and it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit that day. With high temperatures and an unknown weight, you set the throttles on max power and you pray. We accelerated at such a slow rate, it was scary.
We were about five knots over stall speed at rotation and stayed in ground effect for what seemed like forever. For every knot we gained, the crew cheered. We couldn’t turn. We came very close to entering Saudi airspace, but we were finally able to bank and head out over the Red Sea.
We took off, even though we did not have the government’s permission. The radio was on, but I wasn’t listening very closely – I didn’t want to hear a recall order. We never officially heard someone say we had a green light. Nobody said ‘no,’ so we pressed on.
We didn’t want radar to pick us up, so we flew in an open formation at about 100 feet over the water. We were looking for ships and flew way around them. All this required intense concentration, so we turned the autopilot on and monitored it. Once we got over Eritrea, we climbed to 20,000 feet.
In the C-130, the pilot can’t see behind. We weren’t talking on the radio, so one of the other three aircraft would fly alongside us periodically and let me see them, and then they would drop back.
It was about an eight hour flight. I honestly don’t remember how we spent the time. I’m sure we had sandwiches and drinks, but I don’t remember eating anything. I do remember that I was not afraid of being hurt or killed, but I was afraid of failing. That responsibility would fall on my shoulders.
We wanted to ensure maximum surprise, so the plan was that we would land first and the other three would follow. So, we said goodbye to the other three aircraft at the Kenyan border.
About that time, we saw a thunderstorm in the distance and a bolt of lightning crashed through the clouds. Considering what this operation was called, we took it as a lucky sign.
It was also just about then we got a radio call from the 707 command plane and they said the “Nairobi option is open.” We knew we wouldn’t have to find fuel at Entebbe. The secret arrangement between governments for us to fly to Kenya after we got out happened in just about real time.
We concentrated on finding that runway. We saw it twenty miles out and the lights were on. The navigator never lifted his head from his radar scope and treated the landing like there weren’t any lights. Another navigator lay on the flight deck floor and looked out the window at the ground for landmarks.
It was raining and total darkness. We landed cleanly and stopped about halfway down the runway. One of the navigators radioed the code word “Shoshana” back to the command aircraft to indicate that we were on the ground. Some of the ground force team jumped out of the paratroop door with portable lights to mark the runway for the other aircraft in case they turned out the lights.
We continued down the taxiway beyond the tower of the old terminal. We stopped about one kilometer away and opened the ramp and door. The drivers of the two Land Rovers and the Mercedes took off down the ramp, turned sharply, and barely avoided the propeller. But that maneuver was something the commandos had practiced. We listened in on the Special Forces radio frequency and waited there a few minutes and turned back to see if we could find a fuel connection.
Hercules Two landed about seven minutes later, but before Hercules Three could land, they turned off the main runway lights. Using just the portable lights, Hercules Three made a hard landing, but got down safely. Hercules Four, which was to carry the hostages back, had a difficult landing, too. But we were all on the ground waiting.
We heard on the radio that the number-two commando was taking over. [Netanyahu had been mortally wounded by a Ugandan sniper in the initial assault on the terminal]. I was sitting there with engines running and asking myself if I should take the time to refuel the aircraft there or not. We were seeing gunfire everywhere. It’s not a comfortable feeling to have tracers going over your head.
I called [Gen.] Dan Shomron [the Israeli chief of Infantry and Parachute command who was in the airborne 707 command post] on the radio and told him we were going to Nairobi. We had taken the refueling pump off the aircraft. It was heavy – and expensive – but it was the only piece of equipment we left behind.
The news came over the radio that the hostages were out of the terminal. Unfortunately, two of them got killed in the assault, but of the 103 people who were there, we got 101 of them out. [One hostage had been taken to a local hospital.] We counted the people three times to make sure we had everyone.
I called the other aircraft and told them whoever is ready, take off. Hercules Four had been on the ground a little more than thirty minutes when it took off. Two took off next, then us, then Hercules Three. We were on the ground in Uganda for about fifty-five minutes.
Nairobi And Home
We landed in Nairobi and parked in a secluded part of the airport. Another Israeli 707 with a medical team on board was already there to take care of any injuries. I walked over to Hercules Four and walked the full length of the cargo floor. There were the dead bodies. Among the former hostages, I saw hysteria, crying, smiling, and some people were just totally out of it.
The fuel technician came up to me and asked, ‘Who’s paying for this?’ I said I would and signed the paperwork. Years later, I was giving a presentation at the US Air Force Air War College and was presented the “bill” for that gas.
We flew back separately at high altitude. We heard the Voice of Israel on the HF radio. It was 4:00 in the morning and [Shimon] Peres [Israeli Minister of Defense] had done an interview with Agence France-Presse [the French news agency] and he said there was a rescue and they are on their way back. We were over the Red Sea far away from Israel at this point. It really was not what we wanted to hear.
After the Peres interview the radio stations in Israel couldn’t believe what they were reading. Everything started snowballing. As we were approaching Israel, we were met by an escort of four F-4 Phantoms. By then everybody knew what had happened. We landed at Base 8, while Hercules Four flew on to Ben-Gurion and it was a mob scene there.
When we landed, I had been in my flight suit for more than twenty hours at that point and I was sweaty and smelly. I got off the aircraft and saw the Prime Minister coming up to me. I did not want him to hug me, mostly for his sake. He hugs me for about thirty seconds and all he says is ‘Thank you.’
I hadn’t slept for three days and three nights at that point, so when I got home, I went in and took a nap. Meanwhile, my father, a former refugee, hosted the literally hundreds of people who stopped by the house.
The next day, there was a full debriefing and it was basically back to work. After the fact, I found out that nearly everybody on the mission had told their wife before they left what they were doing despite the need for secrecy. I didn’t tell mine; I didn’t want her to worry. She figured it out, though.
The crews never received any medals for the operation. The Chief of the Air Force basically said that what we did was what we were trained to do. He [Peled] did send the squadron a gallon bottle of Scotch with the inscription “To Fighter Squadron 131.” It was a compliment. He thought the C-130 had been a fighter in a transport’s body. That bottle is still in the squadron commander’s office.
The Hercules is a special plane. I know it sounds a little crazy, but I think aircraft have feelings. We put eighty hours of flight time on the four aircraft and there were no problems; no issues; no squawks on any of them. I truly believe those aircraft knew they were doing something important. And today they have upgraded cockpits and are still in service.
I love the Hercules. I was fortunate enough to be the first pilot to fly the C-130 into Israel and I have more than 4,000 flight hours in it. It was a major step up in capability for the Israeli Air Force. The designer of this aircraft was a genius. It’s forgiving, it lands everywhere, and you can’t break it. The C-130 is so successful, there was no need to change it radically over its history. The J model looks basically the same, but it’s just much better.
Looking back on Entebbe, I didn’t realize then how powerful this operation was. I do now. This is something that belongs to history. And there are no photos, no proof it happened.
There’s a man in my neighborhood who is French and was a doctor. We were at a party once and he was complaining non-stop about how his medical practice and the hospital conditions in Israel weren’t like they were in France. I asked him why he didn’t go back. He said he was aboard Air France Flight 139 and was held prisoner and the Israeli Defense Force rescued him. He said, ‘If Israel was willing to do that for me, then that’s a country where I want to live.” He didn’t know I was the pilot. I didn’t know he was a passenger. We had never talked about it.
What we did is natural for those who answer the calling. It’s internal to me. It’s how I grew up. I wanted to do it. I was prepared to do it. We needed to protect our people and our country.
Joshua Shani was born in Siberia in 1945 and lived in the former concentration camp-turned-refugee camp at Bergen-Belsen, Germany, after World War II. He immigrated to Israel in 1947. He and his family lived in a tent in Caesarea, Israel, not far from his current home, which, he notes, has a swimming pool. Over his career in the Israeli Air Force, he flew tankers, trainers, and, of course, the Hercules, and retired as a brigadier general. He later went to work for Martin Marietta in Israel, and today is a Lockheed Martin vice president there. He and his wife have four children and four grandchildren.