The Israeli Air Force is now considered the best in the Middle East. But its beginnings were very precarious and humble. Its first wartime fighter missions were flown by an eclectic mix of foreign and Israeli pilots in the Czechoslovakian-made Avia S-199. This plane was a copy of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, or commonly known as the Me 109. Yes, barely after the Holocaust, the new state of Israel was fighting for its very survival, during the First Arab-Israeli War, in Nazi-designed fighter aircraft. How ironic that must have been. 

This unlikely story is shown in Above and Beyond a 2014 documentary by Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg, the younger sister of the famous director.

Above and Beyond follows the compelling story of the handful of Israeli and foreign-born Jewish pilots who flew the copycat Me 109 against Arab armies during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.


The Israeli Air Force’s Entrepreneurial Beginnings

Modi Alon Israeli pilot
Modi Alon became the first Israeli pilot to shoot down an aircraft when he downed an Egyptian C-47 bombing Tel Aviv. (Wikipedia)

Following the end of the British mandate in Palestine, the land was to be partitioned into Jewish and Arab. Nevertheless, all of the surrounding Arab countries had made it clear that they would mobilize to drive the Jews into the sea. The Israelis had only a few heavy weapons. Making matters more difficult, they had no air force to transport supplies or protect their troops and citizens on the ground. 

At the time, the U.S. Neutrality Act prevented the sale of equipment to either side. Al Schwimmer, an American, found an ingenious way to circumvent this and help Israel. He purchased transport aircraft from the WWII boneyards in the western U.S. and created a front airline in Panama. Schwimmer got the Israelis C-46 Commando and Constellation cargo aircraft.

The next step was finding the pilots.

The Israelis began trying to find American aircrews, with combat experience in WWII, who had Jewish-sounding names.