Operation NICKEL GRASS: The Airlift Race

  • Published
  • By Mr. Walt Napier III
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing

The Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur is one of Judaism’s most sacred days.  Found in the holy book of Leviticus and typically translated as “The Day of Atonement” in English, this “Sabbath of Sabbaths” is intended to seek atonement and repentance for sins.  The occasion is marked by fasting, prayer and attending temple.  In 1973, however, the holy day would take a terrible turn.

When the State of the Israel made a Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, a coalition of Arab states invaded the following day.  By 1973, that first Arab-Israeli War (1948-1949) had already had two additional chapters, the Suez Crisis (1956), and the Six-Day War (1967).  On October 6, 1973, a new chapter would be written when Egypt and Syria led an Arab coalition with members from twelve nations, and invaded the Sinai Peninsula from the southwest and the Golan Heights from the east.

The surprise attack was partially possible because the Soviet Union had been supplying the Arab coalition with armaments.  The Soviets provided fighters, tanks, missiles, ammunition and thousands of tons of war material.  With dogged determination, the Israeli forces were able to mobilize and halt the Arab offensive in the south, and even began to press the Syrians in the east.  In order to regain the initiative, the Arab alliance reached out to the Soviet Union to begin strategically airlifting needed supplies.

Due to the overwhelming odds facing Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir requested assistance from the United States and began to prep nuclear missiles as a last resort.  She did so without much secrecy, however, likely in an attempt to show the United States how grave the situation was.  The United States had to be careful in how it reacted.  The Cold War was at its height, the Soviets were already involved, and a new player OPEC (The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) had begun threatening to use oil as an economic weapon.  With so many angles, the international incident could cause undesirable military, diplomatic, political and/or economic confrontations.

President Richard Nixon decided to take action, but the Soviet Union was already in the process of resupplying their Arab allies through naval and air power.  The Soviets had a three day head start, and their aircraft only had to travel an average of 1,700 nautical miles one way.  United States aircraft had to fly roughly 6,500 nautical miles one way, while following a complicated flight path in order avoid the airspace of all OPEC nations.  On October 14, 1973, the first US aircraft landed in Israel. That same day, Israeli ground troops won a decisive victory against Egyptian forces at the Battle of the Sinai.  For 32 days, United States C-5 and C-141 aircrews flew non-stop missions in order to provide Israel with needed war materials to continue their push. 

With both of the Arab fronts being pushed back, and the United States delivering a steady stream of supplies, the war, which would become known as the Yom Kippur War, ended on October 25, 1973 with a cease fire.  The airlift continued until November 14, in case the peace talks broke down, but the fighting was over.  Israel had won on the ground against the Arab alliance, and the United States had won in the air against the Soviet Union.   Despite the Soviet’s head start and shorter flying distance, the United States outpaced the Soviet airlift nearly two to one.  By the end of NICKEL GRASS, the United States had delivered 22,325 tons of supplies compared to the Soviet’s 12,500 tons.   During the operation, the 514th - then known as the 514 Military Airlift Wing (Associate) - would fly fifteen missions, or roughly 195,000 nautical miles in support of our allies. 

Unfortunately, despite all of the precautions the United States took to avoid OPEC airspace (not to mention the extra hours US aircrews had to put in as a result), OPEC decided to use the airlift as an excuse to limit petroleum exports.  The issue would cause the 1973 Oil Crisis, with massive gas lines appearing across the US.  Despite the political fallout, the United States Air Force had shown the growth in proficiency and long reaching capability now available with strategic airlift operations, and the 514th was instrumental in that success. From China-Burma-India, to NICKEL GRASS, to ALLIES REFUGE, the 514th has consistently rose to the challenge in strategic airlift operations.