It was the world’s first air strike against a nuclear plant. It was a daring mission. The Israeli pilots pushed themselves and their fighter jets to the limit. They exercised during this flight maneuvers that were never tried before and were beyond what the F-16 fighter jets were designed to do. In interviews with the pilots (see video below) the pilots said that they did not believe that they’ll return home alive. They participated in the suicide mission because nuclear bombs in the hands of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, were an existential threat the State of Israel.
The Israeli government believed that the reactor was designed to make nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. On Jun. 7, 1981 at 15:55 (3:55 PM), Operation Opera was launched. In a surprise attack ordered by prime minister Menachem Begin. Eight Israeli Air Force pilots bombed a French-built nuclear plant near Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.
The attack squadron consisted of eight F-16As, each with two unguided Mark-84 2,000-pound delay-action bombs. A flight of six F-15As was assigned to the operation to provide fighter support. The F-16 pilots were Ze’ev Raz (who was later decorated by the Chief of Staff for his leadership), Amos Yadlin, Dobbi Yaffe, Hagai Katz, Amir Nachumi, Iftach Spector, Relik Shafir, and Ilan Ramon (who later became the first Israeli astronaut and died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster).
En route to the target, the Israeli planes crossed the gulf of Aqaba. Unknowingly, the squadron flew directly over the yacht of King Hussein of Jordan, who was vacationing in the Gulf at the time. Hussein witnessed the planes overfly his yacht, and noticed their Israeli markings. Taking into account the location, heading, and armament of the jets, Hussein quickly deduced the Iraqi reactor to be the most probable target. Hussein immediately contacted his government and ordered a warning to be sent to the Iraqis. However, due to a communication failure the message was never received and the Israeli planes entered Iraqi airspace undetected.
Upon reaching Iraqi airspace the squadron split up, with two of the F-15s forming close escort to the F-16 squadron, and the remaining F-15s dispersing into Iraqi airspace as a diversion and ready back-up. The attack squadron descended to 30 m over the Iraqi desert, attempting to fly under the radar of the Iraqi defences.
The attack took less than two minutes. The eight Israeli F-16 fighter bombers destroyed the Osirak reactor 18 miles south of Baghdad, on the orders of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The 70-megawatt uranium-powered reactor was near completion but had not been stocked with nuclear fuel so there was no danger of a leak, according to sources in the French atomic industry. The aircraft landed at their base after the 3 hours of mission, during which no aircraft was damaged.
In this short video, take from one the cockpits of the F-16s on its way to attack the Iraqi nuclear reactor, the following can be seen and heard: The takeoff with the heavy load. The crossing of the Gulf of Aqaba. The very close to the ground flight to Iraq. The ascend before the attack (views from several cockpits). The attack. The pilot can be heard saying in Hebrew not to accelerate to conserve fuel. The pilot describes the lack of activity of the Iraqi anti-air batteries below them on the way to Baghdad. The pilot describes the surprise look on the face of Iraqis, who watched them flying overhead so close to the ground. The presence of anti-air Iraqi shells around them once the launched their bombs.
In the picture: The pilots who destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor
Prime Minister Menachem Begin visiting the air force base after the completion of the operation
One of the F-16 fighter jets that attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor with the mission badge.
The planes that attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor
The flight path over Jordan and Saudi Arabia to Iraq
Watch the video For more information about the attack and interviews with the people who took part in it.
- Remembering Menachem Begin: A Profile of a Leader
- The Story of the Israeli Pilots in the Yom Kippur War – מלחמת יום כיפור: סיפורם של טייסי הקרב
- Above and Beyond and the Israeli Air Force (IAF)
This video (mostly in Hebrew and some English) describes the amazing Israeli attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.