In the first international drill of its kind, the Israeli Air Force hosted six foreign air forces for an helicopter combat search-and-rescue drill in November.

The two-week exercise took place against the backdrop of a security escalation between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israel, though the IAF worked hard to ensure that recent combat would not affect the drill, organizers said.

“This was an excellent exercise, despite the fact that in the background, there was an escalation in Gaza and the operational reality. [The IAF’s search-and-rescue] Unit 669 and the air force managed to conduct the drill like a protected flower. It met all of its objectives and created an appetite for the future drills,” said Brig.-Gen. Nir Nin-Nun, IAF Air Support and Helicopter Division Commander.

The exercise, dubbed “Sky Angels,” attracted air force search-and-rescue teams from the United States, Canada, Croatia, Italy, Holland and the Czech Republic. Teams drilled a range of challenging simulated combat rescue scenarios that can occur suddenly in routine times or during full-scale conflicts.

The Israeli Air Force “Sky Angels” patch. Credit: IDF Spokesperson.

In one scenario, joint teams had to reach a pilot that was forced to ditch his aircraft in hostile enemy territory. Another training mission saw crews enter a ‘shopping center’ for a rescue operation.

Israeli pilots transported multi-national rescue teams to their mission locations. Three countries sent personnel to act as observers on-board the aircraft.

“Each rescue squad was made up of three countries,” said Nin-Nun, a former commander of Apache combat helicopter squadrons.

“We prepared for this exercise for a long time. We’ve never had a drill like this in the air force,” he added.

Nin-Nun is also responsible for the air force’s cooperation with the IDF’s ground forces and its navy.

The ground rescue teams maneuvered through a range of Israeli terrain, said Nin-Nun. “Although Israel is small, it has wide variety of terrains for rescuers to train on.”

Israeli Blackhawk and Sea Stallion transport helicopters were involved in the training missions.

Nin-Nun said it was interesting to see how pilots and rescue teams from the Israel Air Force were more intimately acquainted with one another in comparison with their counterparts from the much larger U.S. Air Force.

Teams drilled a range of challenging simulated combat rescue scenarios that can occur suddenly in routine times or during full-scale conflicts.

‘The essence is saving lives’

At the end of the drill, footage from cameras that were attached to pilots, mechanics, rescue personnel and aircraft cargo areas were fused together to create a single picture, which was played back for the military participants. Teams sat in a joint inquiry room drawing lessons from the material.

This allowed the personnel to revisit what they saw and experienced, providing “a very effective learning ability,” said Nin Nun. “It was a big step forward for us, too.”

The IAF learned from NATO’s search-and-rescue methods, which differ greatly from its own since NATO teams must operate far from their home countries, while Unit 669 is mostly active in and around Israel.

“Unit 669 is a unique and excellent unit, yet it has no sister units [in the IDF] to learn from or compete with in a constructive manner,” Nin Nun said, explaining the advantages of such an exercise.

The visiting air forces expressed a keen interest in holding more such events, he said. “Before this drill, I thought that if it will be successful, we’ll do it once every three years … but this drill was so successful, and everyone got behind it. I think the next drill is not far off and could happen within two years. Then, we could create an [international cooperation] platform that we can use to move forward,” he said. “The essence of this is saving lives, so everyone is interested in taking part.”