A model Zionist

A model Zionist

Building replicas of its air force connects Julian Yudelson to Israel

Dr. Yudelson at his modeling bench.
(Larry Yudelson)
Dr. Yudelson at his modeling bench. (Larry Yudelson)

Outside the theater where “Above and Beyond” was about to play, a man stood at a table featuring models of the airplanes Israel’s nascent air force flew in 1948.

This was six months ago, in Rochester, New York, and that man was my father.

Dr. Julian Yudelson builds model airplanes, carefully putting in details that the kit makers leave out. His mission is to build a replica of every plane flown by Israel’s air force over the decades. Each is marked as being part of Squad 101, that initial unit founded by Ezer Weizman, whose American volunteers are interviewed in “Above and Beyond.”

Before his retirement more than a decade ago, my father was a professor of business. He earned his Ph.D. for a different kind of modeling: “An attempt to optimize the retail markdown problem through the use of dynamic programming.”

Dr. Julian Yudelson displays his models outside a showing of “Above and Beyond” in Rochester, New York. (Howard Levant)
Dr. Julian Yudelson displays his models outside a showing of “Above and Beyond” in Rochester, New York. (Howard Levant)

I remember him working on the models in our basement, and that I played with Legos while he worked. For a time I even tried building my own models, but I lacked his patience. I enjoyed watching the liquid glue that cemented the plastic pieces dissolve the Styrofoam packing crate he had set up as my workbench, But I was frustrated by the time and effort it took to make a perfect model. I never finished my model of the U.S.S. Enterprise. But he finished one for me, and I had a wonderful Star Trek space ship hanging in my room.

It takes my father about 40 hours of work to build an airplane. Depending on whether the kit is built for children or obsessive hobbyists, a kit might have between 15 and several hundred pieces of plastic; most have around 100. It’s not the gluing that takes the most time. It’s adding the details. To make the cockpit look realistic, a dedicated modeler paints dials and lights the size of punctuation marks. Some kits come with enough detail to please my father, sometimes he can buy add-ons that provide the detail, and at other times he will painstakingly cut tiny pieces of plastic with an X-acto knife. He has magnifying glasses for the small work, and clamps, and dentist tools that are the right size for — to be honest, I’ve had too many bad times in the dentist’s chair to ask what he uses them for. But use them he does.

It’s not just the cockpit that needs detailing. The seams where the pieces were joined have to be carefully sanded and filled in. The plane has to be painted, which is a two-step process. First, a coat of primer. Then, the final coat — perhaps silver, perhaps a multicolored camouflage design — spray-painted on. Then putting on the decals, and when he can find the right references, the actual unit markings and serial numbers.

Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, when model building was still a young person’s hobby, companies like Aurora made inexpensive plastic models of American planes and tanks being used in Vietnam — several models of which were being used by the Israel Defense Forces as well. The cheap kits had their cost for a dedicated perfectionist like my father: The rivets in the model were sized to look cool, not to be realistic. To scale, they would have been the size of grapefruits. So there was work to be done. Now, most sets my father buys are for hobbyists as dedicated as he is; often imported from Japan, with Japanese instructions.

Some of the many model airplanes Dr. Yudelson has built. (Larry Yudelson)
Some of the many model airplanes Dr. Yudelson has built. (Larry Yudelson)

My father entered the world of plastic modeling at its beginning. It was the early 1950s, and plastic injection molding was just beginning to displace the cruder wooden kits. He might have been 12 or 13 — still in grammar school. His first kit was one of a series of models of racing airplanes. “Air racing was really big in the 30s,” he says, speaking from historical knowledge, not memory. (He was born in 1938.) “Competitive planes would fly a close course that might be a hundred miles. That was a major source of the development of aircraft.”

He built a bunch of those plane kits, which he bought at the five-and-dime store for 25 or 30 cents. Then he built a series of antique cars, including a 1911 Hudson that he built because his father had one. Even earlier, he built old stage coaches and covered wagons.

Then he started high school. “There were too many other things to do, like flirt with girls and all that stuff,” he said. Stuff that included running his Jewish youth group and editing its newspaper.

But in freshman year in college, he had to relax before final exams, and rediscovered his hobby. This time, he focused on the airplanes of the first world war. He kept at it, and years later, when studying for his doctorate, he even joined the Cross and Cockade, a World War I aviation historical society. He liked that the kits were readily available, and that he could study and research and learn about the history of the planes and their pilots.

“There were so few pilots that you could get information on the planes and most of the individuals,” he said.

Then came another break in his hobby, as my younger sisters were born and he began teaching. When he started again, it was after the Six Day War, and the military machines that spoke to him bore Israel’s Jewish star.

It wasn’t hard to find a kit for a U.S.-made Patton tank like the ones Israel used to conquer the Sinai desert. Getting the French-built Mirage jets the Israeli air force flew was only a bit trickier. If the hobby store didn’t stock them, and wouldn’t special order then, by then there was the Squadron Shop, and overstuffed mail order catalog kits.

In either case, the planes had to be modified with Israeli markings. “I started sending letters to Israel to get information in terms of colors and markings,” my father told me when I asked him recently.

Israeli security policies, however, made that information hard to obtain. In 1972, on his first trip to Israel, my father saw a halftrack — a vehicle with treads in the rear like a tank, tires in the front like a truck, and in this case with an open back, used to transport soldiers. It hardly seemed like a state secret. He wanted to capture the colors so he could replicate it.

“If you take the picture I have to take your camera away,” the tour guide said.

In the pre-Internet days, the government press office had real power, and the military censor really examined stories and photographs of anything with potential military information. Sure, you might see a picture of an Israeli tank or plane in Life or Time, but to my father’s chagrin, “the squadron markings were censored, the aircraft numbers were censored,” he said. “Some of the tank gun barrels were censored. They didn’t want anyone to know where the tanks had come from.” As histories written decades later revealed, some of the tanks used in Israel during the Six Day War had come from American stocks in Germany shortly before the war broke out.”

“It was hard to get information about a lot of things,” he said.

If current Israeli military materiel was secret, what about the historical records of obsolete equipment? He wrote to the Israel Defense Academy, asking for old photographs from the 1956 war and before. Was there any way to get aircraft markings from ’56? No response came. He did get markings of the three B-17 Flying Fortress bombers that Israel acquired in 1948 despite the American arms embargo. (A fourth purchased plane was impounded, thanks to the FBI.) But he didn’t get the color data he had asked for. More than a decade after the planes were decommissioned, that was still deemed too sensitive.

Models of the first four planes in the Israeli Air Force (Larry Yudelson)
Models of the first four planes in the Israeli Air Force (Larry Yudelson)

Now the veil has lifted. Talk with my dad about his model planes, and he’ll pull out a prize volume from his library of Israeli military history: 101 IAF First Fighter Squadron. Published in 2007, it collects all the material he couldn’t scrounge in the 1970s, with hundreds of color photos. (His collection of books on Israeli military matters is rivaled only by his collection of biographies of retailers, which, given the preponderance of Jews among department store founders, also has a decidedly Jewish tilt.)

Inevitably, a conversation about my father’s models becomes a conversation about Israeli military history. Israel’s first plane, in what was to be dubbed the 101 squadron, was a Spitfire cobbled together with parts left behind when the British evacuated and took their working planes with them.

“Then they started flying in the Czech Messerschmitts,” he said. Czechoslovakia was willing to sell weapons to Israel. “The Messerschmitts were disassembled and flown in to Israel in cargo planes and had to be put back together once they got there. In the fall of 48 they started getting Spitfires in, also from Czechoslovakia. They cost $23,000. Czechoslovakia offered 50, enough to start a second squadron.”

Among the models in his collection are some planes that were one of a kind. There’s the Russian plane captured from Syria, and flown by the 101 in maneuvers. There’s the Lavi, the fighter developed by Israeli Aircraft Industries but canceled amid controversy. A prototype was built and flown, and there’s a model of it in my father’s basement.

The pace of his model building slowed in the past couple of years, after my mother grew sick. Now he’s taking care of matters in the wake of her death. He’s also kept away from his modeling bench, perhaps ironically, by his ever-deepening connection to Israel. Keeping up with the news online takes time. And last year he helped found Roc4Israel, which holds rallies, screens films, and creates an interfaith pro-Israel coalition in Rochester.

But he plans to keep on building, and hopes that with enough headway on his to-do list he can devote time to the models again. He has one kit he wants to build — one of the rarest planes ever to fly for Israel. One of the rarest planes ever, actually: The Douglas DC-5. 1938, as it turned out, was not the best time to introduce a civilian passenger plane, and only 12 ever were built. In 1948, the last surviving DC-5 was smuggled to Israel and the name “Yankee Pasha — The Bagel Lancer” was crudely hand-painted on its nose. On bombing missions, “they would roll the bombs out of the side door,” my father explained.

Meanwhile, he brings a perspective on “Above and Beyond” refined by the thousands of hours spent delicately painting details on model planes, getting to know the shape of their lines, the curves of their wings, and how the engines fit into the fuselage. “The planes they were actually flying in the film were Messerschmitts from the Spanish air force that had been re-engined,” he told me. “The only people flying that variety were the Spanish air force.”

See also‘Above and Beyond’: Screenwriter to talk about swashbuckling pilots at the center of Israel’s early air force