You know, you’re capable of unbelievable things. Yes, I mean you, watching this video
right this moment! And your full potential is unleashed when you’re in an extreme situation
or when you aren’t aware that the thing you’re doing is impossible. A great example
of both these conditions is the hero of my story today.
May 1, 1983. It was a regular training day for the Israeli Air Force over the NeGEV region.
Several combat jets were up in the air, simulating an aerial fight. One of those jets was an
F-15 Eagle that already had some history and even got a nickname — Markia Schakim, which
means “Sky Blazer” in Hebrew. Piloting the jet was a new member of the Air
Force, Zivi Nedivi, and behind him sat his instructor and navigator, Yehoar Gal, an experienced
pilot himself. The training exercise they were performing wasn’t anything out of the
ordinary drill: two F-15s were to get away from four A-4 Skyhawks in the open sky over
the desert. If everything went according to plan and instructions, no danger would come
to any pilots or aircraft. At least that’s what everyone believed.
Nedivi, being a member of the outnumbered team, wove through the skies, dodging enemy
attacks and looking out for an opening to issue his own. It was an impressive sight,
and the young pilot was doing spectacularly well. Now, it must be said that dogfights
(that’s how such combat trainings are called) have all kinds of limitations to ensure pilots’
safety. After all, it was just a drill, not a real-life situation, so losing a costly
aircraft or especially a priceless human life was out of the question.
But things tend to heat up when you’re doing your best to beat your opponent, even when
you’re playing tag. Imagine, then, what a thrill it was for fighter jet pilots! Long
story short, at some point the situation went out of hand. One of the Skyhawk pilots saw
an opportunity to attack an Eagle with a missile and tried to zero in on his target. What he
didn’t see was that the other F-15, piloted by Nedivi, was right above him. The young
pilot was aware that the opponent’s jet was on a collision course with him and attempted
a dodge, but it was too little too late. The left wing of the A-4 went up, tore through
the right wing of the Eagle above, and sheared it off. Nedivi was basically left with a single
wing to fly. At this point, both the pilot and his instructor
should have ejected, leaving the aircraft to fall but saving their lives. Neither did,
though. Through smoke and evaporating fuel leaking from their own jet, they saw the A-4
turn into an enormous fireball. The following radio transmission brought relief, though:
the Skyhawk’s pilot managed to quickly eject and save his life. He was lucky: a second
later, and he would’ve exploded with his machine.
Having made sure the other pilot was safe, Nedivi and Gal quickly returned to their own
concerns. And those were terrifying. The jet had lost control and was going down at a 30-degree
angle to the ground, making crazy twists and spirals. What’s more, it was losing fuel
profusely, and neither the pilot, nor his instructor could see clearly because the leaking
fuel was turning into a cloud of vapor. Zivi Nedivi knew his aircraft was badly damaged,
but he was pretty sure he could land it safely. Where did this confidence come from when he
was flying on a single wing, you ask? The answer is simple: he didn’t know that.
The trouble was in the cloud of fuel vapor I just mentioned. The pilot and his instructor
had very bad visuals and, looking around them, they couldn’t see that their right wing
was torn at the root. There were warning lights flashing all around, but none of them told
Nedivi just how dire his situation was. So, thinking that the Eagle could be saved, he
told his navigator to stay with him. Yehoar Gal disapproved of his trainee’s decision,
ordering him to eject as soon as he manages to level the aircraft. Nedivi refused and
insisted he could land the F-15. Gal had no choice but to comply. And so they flew onwards.
Nedivi really managed to get the controls back and leveled the jet. It was now time
to wholly evaluate the situation and the condition of the Eagle. They both saw the stream of
fuel from the right side, and the fuel indicator showed that the tanks were empty for that
wing. Again, being unaware of the real loss, they thought the tanks sustained damage in
the collision — punctured or torn, perhaps. Neither of them entertained the idea they
might be crippled, otherwise they would’ve bailed out much earlier.
The pilot assessed the odds and tried to slow down a bit, but the jet immediately went out
of control again. So Nedivi made the only sensible decision there was, in his opinion:
he accelerated once more, switching on the afterburners, regained control of the aircraft,
and directed it to the nearest Air Force base, which was 10 miles away. He knew the remaining
fuel would allow him to make it. As he approached the airfield, Nedivi requested
the ground crew to deploy the safety net and catch the F-15 if necessary. That was a sensible
idea too: the pilot realized the Eagle was moving too fast for a regular landing and
couldn’t slow down without risking loss of control again. This close to the ground
and to other people, it was even more dangerous than in the open sky.
In the end, the Eagle touched down at twice the recommended landing speed and lowered
its tail hook to help stop the vehicle. But the tension was so high that the hook only
managed to slow the jet down and then snapped. The eyewitnesses say they didn’t believe
what they were seeing: a one-winged fighter Eagle was speeding like a bullet along the
landing strip, its tail hook torn out by the sheer force of the tug… and then it miraculously
stopped just 35 ft before the safety net. Both Zivi Nadivi and Yehoar Gal were safe
and sound inside the cockpit. While they were still in the final stages of stopping the
aircraft, they received a radio message saying that neither of them would believe what they’d
just done. And it was only when Nadivi turned back to shake his navigator and instructor’s
hand that he realized the actual scale of the damage done to his jet. What he hadn’t
seen before was now horrifyingly obvious: instead of the right wing, there was only
a bunch of wire and metal sticking out of the fuselage.
After the incident, the Israeli Air Force sent an official inquiry to McDonnell Douglas,
the F-15 manufacturer. The military asked whether an Eagle is capable of flying and
successfully landing without a wing. The reply was adamant: no, that was physically impossible.
In return to that answer, the IAF sent pictures of Nedivi’s aircraft to the company. The
engineers there were at a loss for words. They started their own tests right away.
Finally, they were able to crack this mystery. After numerous simulations, it turned out
that it was all thanks to the horizontal surface area of the jet. Its fuselage, the remaining
wing, and the stabilizers at the rear helped the Eagle generate lift and stay under control.
And of course, no one could deny Zivi Nadivi’s masterful handling of the aircraft. As he
would recall later, he heard that Eagles can become something like rockets at certain speeds.
That’s why, when he slowed down, the jet became uncontrollable, but the second he gained
speed again, it stabilized. At the time, no other fighter jet was able to do that kind
of stunt. The amazing Eagle was fully repaired afterwards
and served in the Air Force for several more years. Today, it’s retired and exhibited
in an outdoor aircraft museum in Israel, backstory and all.
As for the pilot, Zivi Nadivi, he remained in the Air Force too, of course. And his story
after the incident is a bit amusing: first, he was demoted for disobeying orders from
his instructor; and then he was immediately promoted for landing the aircraft and thus
saving it. Nadivi continued to serve as a fighter jet pilot and became something of
a celebrity in the Israeli Air Force. Years later, there was even a documentary based
on his story made by the History Channel. And he deserved every bit of this attention.
Do you think any other pilot or jet would’ve managed such a feat? Let me know down in the
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