Back to Main Page   "A Duel in The Sky"

  IAF Mirage IIICJ vs.
  Syrian MiG-17

On May 12, 1970 during the War of Attrition, Asher Snir, an Israeli deputy Sqn Commander who would eventually down thirteen enemy aircraft, fought a classic duel with one of the gifted Syrians (Author: There are doubts about the identity of the Syrian or he could be mercenary from Pakistan, etc?).  Snir and his CO, Amos Amir, were patrolling over the Golan Heights when they spied a lone Syrian MiG-17 heading northward at low altitude.
As Snir later recounted...

I am a little sad.  Amos, who is about 1,000 meters ahead of me, will shoot him down unceremoniously, and it really is not fair.  The MiG is all alone, already in front of us, and does not know that he is about to confront us, and does not know that he is about to confront a squadron commander and his deputy who, between them, have already put more than one MiG squadron out of business.  No, it is not fair.  The MiG is no match for our Mirages.  But then this "No Match" business is a booby trap; there are flight regimes in the lower and medium speed ranges in which the MiG-17 out-turns the Mirage, and whoever is seduced into the following a MiG into these territories will get nailed but good.

Amos is closing fast on the MiG, but just as he gets into the firing range the MiG breaks sharply up and to the right.  He has seen us in time.  It was a good maneuver on the MiG's part.  An excellent maneuver.  Amos pulls up.  I

 Size and configuration comparison between delta-winged
 Israeli Air Force Mirage IIICJ and conventional swept-wing
 of a former (captured) Syrian MiG-17F "Fresco".
 Photograph Copyright Israeli Defence Force / Air Force.
enter for a pass and I see the MiG diving, turning sharply and presenting his entire back across my windscreen.  I configure the gunsight; estimate the range.  Just as I am about to fire, the MiG twists forcefully and drops even lower.  Damn!!  Screwed up my pass, that Man!!, and I pull out.  Amos enters.  The Man in the MiG takes advantage of the short respite to drop closer to the valley floor and to gather some airspeed, which he will need to continue the fight.  I see the MiG break again just in time, flying practically on the deck, successfully frustrating Amos's pass.  I am on my way in.  I pull above him, stronger and faster but I am still unable to get a good shot.

He flies, that Man!  Lower than I have ever seen, knows where to look and when, has excellent vision, and has the concentration and the attention to think clearly, to judge correctly when to do what and not to make any mistakes.  I am beginning to understand that we have found a real adversary, and that this battle will be quite different.  I could almost visualize the Syrian casting away all the approved rules -- rules only applicable to the pilots not as good, and the situations not as desperate.

This is not the way to fight.  One must not fly at such levels of risk that only success separates them from recklessness.  But something told me with great certainty that today, with this Man, this was the only way.  The entire periphery is etched in my memory as an express tunnel of eight and a half minutes with the series of entries and pullouts; three volleys which missed, and extremely hard physical effort.  I remember him at least once at the bottom of my gunsight, which I could not lower further even one millimeter because we were already among the treetops and he was a couple of agricultural terraces lower than I was.

Boxart from Mirage IIIC kit by AML of Czech Republic

I remember the Syrian pulling up after me once, and both of us climbing out of the valley in cold rage.  I remember Amos saying, "Watch Out! He is coming after you!" and I more alive and aware then I had ever been, knowing exactly how much speed the Man in MiG had on his gauge and that he was bluffing!  And so we kept getting further and further to the North, three Madmen joined together till death do us part.

The missile on my wingtip, a Sidewinder from America, sends a buzz through my headset from time to time to inform me that it "sees" the MiG.  I know that I must not launch at this altitude because the missile will simply dive into the ground directly in front of me if I do not provide it with some room to sink before it has a chance to start homing and climbing.  For a long time I ignored it, until during one of the climbouts I see that the MiG is about to cross wide valley at right angles.  The Man in MiG doesn't know this yet because all he can see from his altitude is the near ridge before the valley, and Amos is almost in firing range already and the Syrian must get busy again and break nicely and correctly among the treetops so this is my chance!

I do not descend towards the MiG.  Instead, I stay at altitude and close the range to 800 meters, the very heart of the missile's flight envelope, and I see the MiG's silver fishlike silhouette evading Amos's Mirage once again twisting northward, homeward.  The MiG is skimming the rocks, following a narrowing valley that is turning into a dry river bed, climbing within its walls to the top of the ridge.


With the sight on the distant tailpipe, I hear the missile's battle cry at once.  Before the Syrian has a chance to notice that the ground is about to fall away from under him, I launch.  A sharp "whoosh" and the missile is on the way.  The missile crossed the ridge successfully, still sinking, two seconds later, registering a new world record for the low-altitude flight by a missile.  It continued to sink some more in the valley before it started climbing, homing steadily on the MiG.

Something caused Syrian to do the very last thing in his life.  Perhaps he saw the distant portion of the missile's smoke trail; perhaps he grew suspicious.  When the missile was about 50 meters behind him, the Man started to break to the right, still within the valley.  It was too close and it was too late.

The last seconds of the brave and talented Man's life still etched in my memory: the missile with its thin smoke plume hiding beneath the wing; the large orange flash which was certainly a direct hit; the right wing breaking at the root; the fast, uncontrolled roll toward the missing wing; the grotesque spin of the stubby fuselage.  Then came the unavoidable crash of the broken MiG in the distant, steep wall of the valley and the ugly black mushroom that sprouted from the green terrain.

The Man in the MiG.  A famous hero or an unknown just starting to blossom, he was deserving of one more thing, and to this day I hope that it was granted to him.  I hope he died instantly when the missile hit and did not live that last second and never, never knew that he lost the battle.

Author: Syed Shais Ali Khan, Time-Life Books, Air Combat.

The Israeli Air Force boasts 39 Aces.  Though five aerial victories are considered necessary to be an Ace, ten of these pilots have shot down more than eight planes.  One of these pilots, Col. (Res.) Giora Epstein, stands out as the unquestioned Ace of Aces, having shot down a [world] record 17 planes in the course of his amazing career -- and all while flying the Mirage and Nesher.  Follow this link for his diary of aerial victories.

Header photograph Copyright Israeli Defence Force / Air Force.
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