The Israeli F-16 fighter pilot who was downed, apparently by Syrian defense missiles, over Shabbos, was reportedly in improved condition on Sunday, as doctors at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center said he had regained consciousness and was taken off a respirator.
“He is fully conscious and his injuries are now defined as moderate,” said Yaron Bar-Lavie, director of the hospital’s critical-care division. “He is still in the critical-care department.”
A second pilot who ejected from the plane was only lightly injured and is expected to be released from the hospital on Sunday.
President Reuven Rivlin visited both airmen on Sunday. He thanked them and said: “My heart is with you and your comrades, and I hope that I will meet you soon. You and the entire squadron have proven that you do not come back until your mission is fulfilled, and I thank G-d together with the entire nation that you have returned.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force began an investigation into the circumstances of the incident, what caused the pilots to eject and whether the plane was in fact brought down by enemy fire.
Initial findings indicated that the crash was caused by the explosion of a Sufa anti-aircraft missile next to the plane, but not necessarily from a direct hit.
“Even if it was just hit by fragments, that’s still because of the missile,” the army spokesperson said on Sunday.
If the plane was in fact shot down by Syrian fire, it would mark the first such instance since the 1982 Lebanon War.
Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, the Israeli Air Force’s second-in-command, said the Israeli planes faced a heavy barrage of Syrian anti-aircraft fire, which included at least four different types of Russian-made projectiles, the SA-5, SA-17, SA-6 and SA-3.
Surveillance camera footage released Sunday showed that the F-16 was already on fire before it hit the ground in the Jezreel Valley, which tended to confirm the view that it was shot down by a missile. The pilots parachuted to the ground after ejection.
In reaction to the incident, some also voiced concern that the downing might be a sign that Israel’s air superiority over Syria had been diminished due to the installation of the Russian air defense systems.
However, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former fighter pilot and head of Military Intelligence, said this was not the case.
“True, sometimes there are losses, or mistakes on our side, but the balance is unequivocal,” Yadlin tweeted.
“Israel demonstrated its abilities to defend its skies; it struck for the first time directly Iranian forces in Syria and exacted a price from Iran; it destroyed many Syrian SAM sites and left Damascus exposed to future attacks,” he said.
Also on Sunday, Israel increased its own air defense array in the north, according to media reports.
The IDF declined comment, but witnesses said they saw a convoy of missile-defense batteries heading north near the Israeli-Arab city of Baka al-Gharbiya. Others posted photos of several trucks carrying the batteries on highways in northern Israel, The Jerusalem Post reported.