For the JC Nov 2020
Most 100-year-olds are likely to celebrate their milestone birthday with a cup of tea or — occasionally — a drink of whisky. But — thanks to two of his children — the former head of air operations of Israel’s nascent air force, Harold “Smoky” Simon, took to the skies.
South African-born Mr Simon had not been in a plane’s cockpit since 1949, when he was a navigator-bombardier. The look on his face, however, as he flew around the Sde Te’eman airfield, near Beersheva, in a vintage Tiger Moth, said it all.
The long-retired insurance magnate was one ear-to-ear grin during his 20-minute flight. He was flanked in the air in two other vintage aircraft by his sons, Saul and Dan, both former Israel Air Force pilots: and applauded on the ground by supporters of the Air Force Museum, and a group of “mechanics”, ex-IAF, some in their 70s and 80s, but who use their weekends to indulge in their joint passion for aviation.
“I was so excited and delighted, it was such a wonderful experience”, Mr Simon told the JC, speaking from his home in Herzliya.
His son Saul, whose idea the 100th birthday flight was, still seems slightly amazed at his father’s enthusiastic embrace of the event. “He was a natural”, he said, “he loved every minute he spent in the air”.
The Simon saga of service begins in South Africa in January 1941, when, like all his countrymen who served in the Second World War, Smoky Simon was a volunteer — there was no conscription in South Africa. That nickname, incidentally, comes not from a cigarette habit; instead, he told me, it arose during his military training.
“A group of us used to play softball and one day I hit a tremendous shot. One of the other guys called out — ‘Great shot, Smoky Joe from Kokomo!’ And the nickname stuck”. Many people in Israel, he laughed, didn’t even know his real name. After five years in the South African Air Force, Smoky Simon, who had qualified as an accountant, went back home and got engaged to another volunteer — Myra Weinberg, who had served as a flying meteorological observer in the SAAF. The couple were due to marry in June 1948, but could see “the war clouds gathering over Palestine”, and so brought their wedding forward to April of that year.
On 4 May, 1948, Smoky and Myra arrived in Palestine as part of an early contingent of Machal volunteers. (These were diaspora Jews who had gained invaluable wartime experience and arrived in the new Jewish state to help establish it). By 14 May, Smoky was flying as navigator and “bomb-chucker-outer” in some of the Israel Air Force’s first missions in the War of Independence. Saul Simon described how the men would literally sit with bombs on their laps before throwing them out of the planes; the combat aircraft themselves, some smuggled in, some bought from Czechoslovakia, were rickety machines which required constant maintenance.
Smoky became head of air operations, deploying the air force’s tiny numbers of aircraft, some of which included the Tiger Moths used as part of the country’s bomber forces. Going up in a Tiger Moth to celebrate his birthday must have been like meeting an old friend.
After discharge from the IAF in 1950, Smoky and his wife returned to South Africa, but made aliya, with their four children, in 1962. He built up one of Israel’s biggest insurance companies and retained his links with Machal by becoming its world president.
The Simon flight tradition has gone down through the family, though Saul reckons more have been in the Israeli navy than in the air force.
Saul was an F-15 pilot and Dan was a Phantom pilot, and one of Smoky’s grandsons, Erez, is a Hercules captain.
At the conclusion of his epic centenary flight, Smoky sat back in the Tiger Moth cockpit, while two of his great-grandchildren hopped up on the wing of the aircraft.
He said: “Mika, aged three or four, asked me, well, how was it?”
And he bursts into delighted laughter at the memory of an extraordinary day.