SHORTLY after four in the afternoon on June 7th 1981, the late King Hussein of Jordan looked up from his yacht off the port of Aqaba and saw eight Israeli F-16 jets, laden with weapons and external fuel tanks, streaking eastward. He called his military staff, but could not find out what was going on. An hour or so later, the answer became clear. After a ground-hugging infiltration through Saudi Arabia, the jets climbed up near Baghdad and bombed Saddam Hussein’s Osiraq nuclear reactor.
Zeev Raz, the squadron’s leader (pictured bottom right), still recalls every phase of “Operation Opera”: his constant worries about running out of fuel; the risky move to jettison tanks, while the bombs were still attached to the wings, to reduce drag; and the loss of a key navigational marker. He overshot his target and had to loop back. He later discovered that his deputy, Amos Yadlin (now Israel’s military-intelligence chief), had slipped ahead and, annoyingly, dropped the first bombs. Somehow the Iraqis were surprised. King Hussein’s tip had not been passed on. And even though Iraq was then at war with Iran, there were no air patrols or active surface-to-air missile batteries. The Israelis encountered only brief anti-aircraft fire. In the cockpit video of the last and most exposed plane, Ilan Ramon (top left), who later died in the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, is heard grunting nervously. Their mission completed, the jets flew home brazenly on the direct route o… >>>