Perhaps the most famous operation conducted with F-16 fighters was the "Operation Opera", or as it is known to the world - "The raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor". Note that Opera is most often referred to as Ofra, but this is incorrect.
By the end of the seventies, Iraq purchased an "Osiris" class nuclear reactor from France. Israel's intelligence assumed this was a step taken by Iraq to produce Plutonium for an atomic bomb.
According to Israeli intelligence, the summer of 1981 would be the last chance to operate against the reactor, without putting the population of Iraq in danger of nuclear fallout, since at this stage the reactor wasn't operational and not loaded with it's nuclear fuel.
From Lieutenant-Colonel's Ze'ev Raz - (squadron's leader and leader of the attack) briefing :
- The route:"We are about to fly a course over Eilat and Aquaba, and then south of Jordan along Saudi-Arabia's border. This route is planned to avoid Arab villages and cities where we might be discovered, so we will fly over desert area until Baghdad. This is not the shortest path to fly, but it would avoid radar detection, so we will remain undetected just until we get over target. On the way to the target we will fly at an altitude of 150 ft. On our way back we will fly at high altitude. We are short on fuel ! Those who get engaged in dogfights won't make it back !"
- The bombing technic : "About 20 km east to the reactor we will ignite the afterburner to full power and start a climb. At the peak we will roll over, identify the target and dive at the speed of 600 knots at 35 degrees. Release the bombs at an altitude of 3,500 feet, aiming at the base of the structure, and release flares to avoid hits by ground fire. All pilots will drop their bombs in intervals of 5 seconds - You will drop 16 bombs in total, but a hit of 8 bombs could do the job !"
- The weapons : "You will be armed with two 1,000 kg "iron" bombs, equipped with delay fuses, to ensure explosion deep in the reactors core to maximize the damage."
- Target defense : "The reactor has its own air defense system, combined of AAA guns and missiles. Target is surrounded by high earth ramparts."
Colonel Ramon (the one that was killed as an astronaut in space shuttle Columbia in 2003). - (Number 4 of the first formation) describes the flight:
"We fly deep within Iraq, It is all desert around us while we pass another marking point on our route. I try to concentrate on flying my F-16, but from time to time I think about the target we are about to attack, and the responsibility we've got. It's the first time in my life that I really feel responsible for the destiny of a whole nation. The view changes - a blue river in the middle of the desert. We have been here 2500 years ago... I see buildings and a deserted airfield. Somebody calls over the radio : "Watch out for AAA fire !" and the sky gets filled with flashes of exploding rounds. I light the afterburner and pull up. Just in front of my eyes I see the earth ramparts and behind it - you can't miss - the silver dome of the reactor...
"Eshkol 8" sounds the radio, "Everybody Charlie!" - Charlie was the code name meaning all pilots have dropped their bombs.
It was amazing - I managed to see how the bombs of the pilots in front of me hit the target and the dome collapsed into the structure ! The hits were excellent, and now we fly at high altitude back to our base. I hope they didn't start a chase, to run us out of fuel...
We cross the Arava and we are back in Israel. The IAF commander calls on the radio, and says: "All you have to do now is land"...