Ramat David Airbase
• HH-65A Dolphin
• AS565 MA Panther (known in Hebrew as the “Atalef”, meaning “Bat”)
In the mid-eighties the decision was taken for the Navy to acquire its own helicopters for use in rescue, observation and naval target acquisition missions. On 26th July 1985 two HH-65 A Dolphins, tail numbers 901 and 905, reached Israel. The helicopter had found a place in the United States Coast Guard as a short range rescue helicopter in 1979. The helicopter's success resulted from its high speed and its ability to manoeuvre in windy conditions typical of operation at sea. In the American model the helicopter’s motors, systems and many other components were replaced. The helicopter's flexibility, its speed and flight characteristics made it a tactical craft capable of operating alongside the Navy's ships, to land on their decks and to increase their ability to search for, locate and identify targets at sea approaching Israel's waters. The helicopters were received by the “Rolling Sword” Squadron on Palmahim, alongside the Bell 212.
On 12th August 1987 the “Defenders of the West” Squadron was established to fly the Dolphin. The squadron’s missions were outlined as follows:
1. Participating in naval combat. Locating and identifying vessels for the Navy's ships.
2. Helping Naval vessels aim at targets beyond their horizons.
3. Fighting against submarines.
4. Search and rescue at sea.
5. Air transport at sea.
6. Carrying out sea-air routine security measures.
7. Training the squadron's air and ground teams.
8. Educating the sea crew who help operate the helicopter.
In April 1982 the squadron saw its first operational activity, as part of Operation Rainman 2, during which it, alongside INS Geula and an IAI Westwind Sea Scan from the "International" Squadron, searched for terrorist activity at sea.
One of the squadron's Dolphins investigated suspected targets found by the helicopter crew. During the operation the squadron logged more than six hours of flight time.
On 20th December 1989 the decision was taken to close down the squadron and to absorb its two helicopters into the "Rolling Sword" Squadron as of the beginning of July 1990.
The helicopters' activities include training exercises held together with the Navy, aimed at improved inter-force cooperation and the development of a shared combat doctrine. As part of these exercises, the squadron often joins the Navy on long range journeys abroad by sea. Following the closure of the MD-500 Defender squadron based on Ramat David, it was decided to return the flight on Palmahim to its status as a squadron on Ramat David Airbase. During 1994 the Chief of Staff authorized the replacement of the Dolphin Helicopter with the advanced AS565 MA Panther sea helicopter, which was produced by Eurocopter. It was named the "Atalef", meaning "Bat".
On 12th August 1996 the first Panthers reached Israel, tail numbers 882 and 885, as part of a number of aircraft that had been purchased. Nearly two weeks later one of them had been assembled and had started to fly.
On 16th September 1996, during a tactical night exercise alongside a missile boat to identify targets at sea, 12 miles out from the beaches of Naharia, the Dolphin 905 hit the water and crashed. The crew, Lieutenant Colonel Benzi Baker, Lieutenant Shahak Sela and naval officer Captain Eran Garbia were lost.
On 13th March 1997 an official ceremony was held in the presence of Commander in Chief of the IAF, Major General Eitan Ben Eliyahu, for the opening of the squadron with the new helicopters. During September 1997 successfully passed an inspection by the Operations Department, and thus became operational. At the same time, the one remaining Dolphin was put out of service.
At the end of 1999 the squadron began looking into nighttime operations using night vision equipment using the Panther, and in early 2000 received authorization to carry out such missions.
On 6th May 2001 then Panther participated in the capture of the "Santorini", a fishing boat on its way to Gaza carrying weapons sent by the PFLP, a terrorist group based in Lebanon. The ship was spotted by the Panther crew after it left Lebanon and was captured by Navy vessels around 150 miles west of Tyre. The captured weapons included SA-7B anti-aircraft missiles, 107mm Katyushas, RPG launchers and rockets, mortars, mines, grenades and light weapons.
On 20th May 2003 the squadron participated in the seizure of the "Abu Hasan", a Hizballah weapons ship on its way from Lebanon to Gaza. For the first time Panther helicopters were deployed on 3 INS Lahavs simultaneously. The "Abu Hasan" was identified from the air by a Panther air crew, and seized south of Cyprus.
The squadron is known for the close, almost family-like bond amongst its members. It's a small squadron with few regular pilots, all of whom work in harmony with the navy. It operates out of an Air Force base, but most of its operations are planned by the Navy. During the Second Lebanon War the squadron worked in cooperation with the navy along Lebanon's beaches, and lost two of its crew to a missiles attack on INS Hanit.