Remember when ... Operation Nickel Grass

  • Published
  • By John Lacomia
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing History Office
The United States Air Force has proven in 61 years that it can move troops, supplies and equipment anywhere in the world when called upon. The Berlin Airlift presented the first airlift challenge to the Air Force in 1948. The service met and overcame that challenge, while preventing a war with the Soviet Union. Twenty-five years later, the Air Force was put to another significant airlift challenge with the advent of the Yom Kippur War in Israel.

On October 6, 1973, while Israel observed the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked the Sinai and the Golan Heights in Israel in an attempt to reclaim territory lost during the 1967 "Six Day War." Although the Israelis had proved to be a formable opponent in the past, they were caught off-guard by the attack from the two nations. The Israelis suffered heavy losses to their air force going up against Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles that protected the Egyptian troops in the Sinai. It was not long before Egyptian troops and armor crossed the Suez Canal and entrenched themselves under the cover of radar-guided antiaircraft missiles.

The Israelis fared better on the Syrian front. After suffering serious casualties, the Israelis pushed the enemy back across the border and advanced toward the Syrian capital of Damascus. Soviet intervention on the side of Egypt and Syria put the United States into a difficult position. Additionally, Arab oil-producing nations imposed an oil embargo on western nations that supported Israel.
On October 9, Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel, pled her case to President Richard Nixon, requesting emergency shipments of arms to her country. It was not long before the United States provided Israel with tanks, artillery, ammunition, aircraft and supplies, while dispatching the Navy's Sixth Fleet to the area for additional support. Due to the complexity of the situation, Portugal was the only ally that allowed U.S. aircraft permission to land in their country.

The Military Airlift Command (MAC) under the command of Gen. Paul K. Carlton was tasked to move supplies and ammunition to Israel October 12, 1973. MAC C-5A Galaxy and C-141A Starlifter aircraft provided the backbone of U.S. airlift. The aircraft flew 6,500 miles from the United States to Lajes Air Base in the Azores, refueled, and then flew onto Lod International Airport, Tel Aviv. The first U.S. military transport, a C-5 landed at Lod on October 14th only two days after Operation Nickel Grass was initiated.

U.S. and Israeli fighters also provided escort cover to the MAC airlifters that were flying in and out of Tel Aviv. Each transport was unloaded by a compliment of U.S. and Israeli servicemen.

In addition to airlift, the United States sold the Israelis more than thirty F-4 Phantom fighters to replenish their depleted Air Force. These new aircraft provided the Israelis with the technical advantage to overcome the Soviet made weapons utilized by their enemies.

A cease fire was implemented October 24, 1973, but the airlift would continue until November 14, to ensure that the Israeli forces were re-built to their pre-war strength. Though the airlift lasted only 32 days, the operation proved that the United States and its Air Force could overcome any challenge.

During Operation Nickel Grass, 567 missions were flown by the MAC transports and more than 22,395 tons of cargo was airlifted to Israel. Both the C-5 and C-141 aircraft proved their effectiveness in a very restrictive operation. The C-5 alone flew 145 missions and delivered over 10,000 tons of cargo, which silenced many critics on the capabilities of the aircraft.

United States intervention in the Yom Kippur War helped to stabilize that region of the world and prevented Soviet encroachment in the Middle East. Operation Nickel Grass afforded the United States Air Force to opportunity to re-access its deficiencies and to adapt its aircraft and personnel to be able operate independently anywhere in the world.