According to a report by Yediot Aharonot, the plane was flying at a height of 10,000 feet when the Syrian anti-aircraft missile exploded near the plane. Shrapnel penetrated the cockpit and caused serious injury to the pilot who, nonetheless, almost immediately initiated the evacuation procedure with his navigator.
A direct hit on the plane – which was in Israeli airspace at the time of the impact and not close to the Syrian border – would have likely caused the death of the two crew members.
The jet was part of a two four-plane formation that was taking part in retaliatory air strikes following the infiltration of an advanced Iranian drone into Israeli airspace early Saturday morning.
During the operation, around 20 Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were fired at Israeli jets, and one locked onto a second plane in the formation but unlike the first jet that was hit, the second plane was able to evade the missile.
Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin visited the injured pilot at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center on Sunday.
“From the moment you understood that you needed to abandon the plane, you made the right decision and saved the life of the navigator and of yourself,” Norkin told the pilot.
In leaked transcripts of their debriefing, Hadashot news agency quoted the pilots as saying they had no time to report on their radio that they were bailing out of the plane.
“We were very focused on the mission,” read the transcript. “Then there was an explosion, and we understood we were hit. It is a very uncomfortable feeling, the loss of control. There is no long process, and also there is no time. A few seconds. The
understanding [was] that we need to quickly abandon the plane, as a result of the physical damage to us and also as a result of the damage to the plane that ceased to function."
“We were extremely lucky. The missile exploded close to the plane, and the force of the explosion could have killed us. The missile exploded at a certain distance from the plane, and its shrapnel did enough damage to the plane,” the transcript continued.
The pilot, who was severely injured from the crash, has since been moved from the intensive care unit to a regular ward following a marked improvement in his condition. The navigator was released from the hospital on Sunday.
Following the crash of the F-16I near Kibbutz Harduf in the lower Galilee, Israeli jets carried out the largest air strike against Syrian air defenses in some 30 years.
The jets were once again met with massive anti-aircraft fire by the Syrian regime, but no jets were hit.
Haaretz reported that according to the military, the air strikes were able to take out nearly half of Syria’s air defenses, which are largely Russian, with SA-2s, SA-5s, and SA-6s as well as the more sophisticated tactical surface-to-air missiles such as the SA-17s and SA-22 systems. And while the majority of it has been neglected during the country’s civil war, Russia has deployed the advanced mobile S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft batteries capable of engaging multiple aircraft and ballistic missiles at a distance of up to 380 km.
During a March operation to strike a Hezbollah arms convoy in Syria, the regime’s air defense fired three surface-to-air missiles towards IAF jets. Following the incident, Liberman warned against any further launching of missiles by the Syrian regime, threatening to destroy all Syrian air defenses.
While Israel rarely comments on foreign reports of military activity in Syria, IAF Air Division Brig.-Gen. Amnon Ein Dar admitted on Sunday that the IAF has carried out thousands of missions over the war-torn country in the past year alone.