Just as the United States was ending its massive involvement in Vietnam and reducing its force structure, the Military Airlift Command (MAC) was called upon to conduct a major wartime airlift in support of Israel . At approximately 2 p.m. on the afternoon of 6 October 1973, (the day of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement), Egypt and Syria simultaneously attacked Israel in violation of the tenuous cease-fire that had existed between the three countries since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Desperately engaged in a war on two fronts, Israel quickly pressed all of its El Al Airline commercial aircraft into service to ferry replacement war materials from the United States; however, these airlift resources were inadequate to transport the large amount of supplies needed, especially the outsized cargo. Intensifying the crisis, the Soviet Union began airlifting supplies to Egypt and Syria on 10 October.
In response to an urgent request from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, President Richard M. Nixon initiated an aerial resupply operation to Israel starting on 13 October. Nicknamed NICKEL GRASS, the airlift soon proved the value of maintaining a responsive and efficient military airlift system. For the next 32 days, MAC C-141 and C-5 cargo transports streamed steadily into Lod International Airport at Tel Aviv from onload points throughout the United States carrying urgently needed war materials. The aerial resupply was conducted with an en route stop at Lajes Field in the Azores, approximately one half of the one-way distance of 6,450 nautical miles from the United States to Israel. Given the diplomatic sensitivities associated with so much of the world’s dependence on Arab oil, the C-141 and the C-5 flight routes over the Mediterranean carefully avoided the airspace of all the nations in the region.
The first mission was completed when a C-5 landed at Lod Airport on 14 October with 186,200 pounds of cargo. To expedite the unloading operations of all the MAC aircraft arriving in Israel, another C-5 had been dispatched to Lod with material handling equipment and aerial port personnel. Unfortunately, it was forced to abort at Lajes for maintenance. As a result, the cargo aboard the first C-5 was unloaded manually by Israeli civilians and MAC crew members. The command’s airlift planners scheduled the flights into Lod at the rate of four C-5 and 12 C-141 missions daily. The airlift flow peaked on 21 October with the arrival of six C-5s and 12 C-141s. Nine days later, 30 October, the intensity slackened as sealift began to take over the bulk of the resupply operation.
From the arrival of the first mission on 14 October through the landing of the last aircraft at Lod on 14 November, MAC’s combined force of C-5s and C-141s airlifted 22,318 tons of material to Israel. The delivery was completed in 567 missions and 18,414 hours of flying time. In 145 missions, the C-5s carried half of the tonnage, and the C-141s moved 10,754 tons on 422 missions.
By the time the cease-fire was in place on 2 November, MAC’s Israeli operation had outperformed the Soviet effort in resupplying Egypt and Syria. The Soviet Air Force used AN-12 and AN-22 transport aircraft to haul 15,000 tons on 935 missions. What made MAC’s performance all the more noteworthy was that C-5s and C-141s had covered a one-way distance of 6,450 nautical miles compared with an average distance of 1,700 nautical miles flown by the Soviet transports.
Contributing so significantly to the success of Operation NICKEL GRASS was the C-5 which carried an average of 73 tons to the C-141’s 28 tons. Additionally, the C-5 transported outsized cargo including 155mm howitzers, 175mm cannons, M-60 and M-48 battle tanks, Sikorsky CH-53D helicopters, and McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk aircraft fuselages. No other USAF aircraft had that capability. NICKEL GRASS further constituted the first real test of the C-5 under wartime conditions.
While the Israeli Airlift confirmed the importance of the United States maintaining basing facilities at Lajes, it also renewed interest in developing the C-5’s aerial refueling capability. Had the Portuguese not made Lajes available and with Germany, Spain, Greece, and Turkey refusing aircraft landing rights, MAC would have been hard pressed to execute Operation NICKEL GRASS.
An account by Lt. Col. Harry Heist, USAF (Ret)
On 6 October, as Israel was being attacked by Egyptian and Syrian forces, our C-5 crew was onloading materials at Patuxent Naval Air Station, Maryland, for a trip that would take us across the Pacific Ocean to Anderson AFB on the island of Guam. The Paris Peace Accords had ended the United States’ direct military intervention in Vietnam, with the cease-fire agreement going into effect on 27 January 1973. However, the United States continued to provide assistance to counter North Vietnam’s incursions into Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam. Anderson AFB’s location and its mission were critical in providing this assistance.
Our return trip took us via Hickam AFB, Hawaii, arriving back at Dover on 14 October only to be met by the squadron’s operations officer informing us to wash our flying suits, hug the wife and stand by for a trip to Israel. In less than 36 hours I was on the ramp at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, onloading cargo for Tel Aviv. During the period of 17 days I would fly four missions in support of Operation NICKEL GRASS ended only by maxing out my allowable flying time.
As with most new things, there were some problems with the C-5’s sophisticated navigational systems. Although the C-5 had inertial navigation (very high tech at the time) and doppler, both were sometimes prone to failure and considered simply as just other aids to navigation. The C-5 did have a full complement of navigation gear — sextant, loran, radar, etc. However, due to the constraints placed upon the aircrews (restricting the fly over of the airspace of the Mediterranean border countries), navigation from Lajes through the Mediterranean and into Israel at times became a bit hairy. I recall that on one mission we had minimum navigational aids. It was dark, and we were approaching the Straits of Gibraltar. There is a ten mile gap between Gibraltar and the coast of Morocco, and we were required to fly between the two with just five miles on each side of the center line. Normally the radar would get us through there okay, but this time we had lost our radar and our other electronic navigational aids were unreliable at this location. With the aircraft’s speed clocked in excess of Mach .78 (530 mph) and our altitude 5½ miles above the water, the coasts were approaching rapidly with no time to fix our position by celestial observation. I had the pilot look out of his window and the co-pilot out of his and I was sitting in the jump seat between the two of them as we flew down the center line visually sighting the ground lights on both coasts. Aided by radio fixes and with the help of the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, we approached the Eastern Mediterranean where we picked up our Israeli F-4 Phantom escort for a safe approach and landing at Lod Airport.
Regardless of the time of arrival at Lod, every aircraft was welcomed by very attractive El Al Airline flight attendants who had prepared a brunch for the crew. Also, on every departure, each crew member received a flight lunch, sometimes more than one, usually with steak and plenty of fresh fruit. Souvenirs were also given to the crews and one that I received is in the museum’s NICKEL GRASS exhibit.
My last trip into Lod was on 4 November and, following two weeks at home, I was again back in Southeast Asia at U-Tapao , Thailand.
Sources: MAC History Office, Anything, Anywhere, Anytime: An Illustrated History of the Military Airlift Command, 1941-1991 ; Heist, Harry, memoirs