Key point: This operation changed the course of world history.
At 7:10 a.m. Israeli time, sixteen Israeli Air Force Fouga Magister training jets took off and pretended to be what they were not. Flying routine flight paths and using routine radio frequencies, they looked to Arab radar operators like the normal morning Israeli combat air patrol.
At 7:15 a.m., another 183 aircraft—almost the entire Israeli combat fleet—roared into the air. They headed west over the Mediterranean before diving low, which dropped them from Arab radar screens. This was also nothing new: for two years, Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian radar had tracked Israeli aircraft—though never this many Israeli aircraft—taking off every morning on this same flight path, and then disappearing from their scopes before they returned to base. But that morning, instead of going home, the Israeli armada of French-made Mirage and Super Mystere jets turned south toward Egypt, flying under strict radio silence and just sixty feet above the waves.
It was June 5, 1967, and the Six-Day War was about to begin. The conflict, which would shape the Middle East as we know it today, had been simmering for months between Israel and its neighbors. Outnumbered by the combined Arab armies, and surrounded by enemies on three sides and the deep blue Mediterranean on the fourth, Israel had resolved to strike first and win quickly.
That meant controlling the skies. But the Israeli Air Force could pit only two hundred aircraft, almost all French models (the United States wouldn’t sell aircraft to the IAF until 1968), against six hundred Arab planes, including many Soviet-supplied MiG fighters. Israeli leaders also worried over Egypt’s thirty Soviet-made Tu-16 Badger bombers, each of which could drop ten tons of bombs on Israeli cities.
Thus was born Operation Moked (“Focus”), a preemptive strike aimed at destroying the Arab air forces on the ground—and one of the most brilliant aerial operations in history. The plan had been worked out and practiced for several years. IAF pilots flew repeated practice missions against mock Egyptian airfields in the Negev Desert, while Israeli intelligence collected information on Egyptian dispositions and defenses.
Would all the effort pay off? The answer would become clear minutes after the Israeli aerial armada banked over the Mediterranean and arrived over Egypt.