Joseph Burns never served in the Israel Defense Forces, yet the Monroe resident played a role in Israel’s remarkable defeat of the armies bent on its destruction during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Burns, an internationally recognized electronics expert, developed the mechanism for the Israeli Air Force that allowed its fighter planes to lock onto enemy aircraft. Used for the first time during the 1967 fighting, the technology helped the Israelis destroy the Egyptian Air Force before it left the ground on the first day of military action and take out many of the Syrian and Jordanian planes during the second.
Without air cover for protection, the Israelis captured the Old City of Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Sinai Peninsula.
The aircraft technology allowed pilots to view their targets and data with their heads up, rather than looking down at their instrument panel, with information reflected off the windshield. The display is based on the use of light-emitting Cathode-Ray tubes, a specialty of the inventor.
“There was a piece of equipment in front of the pilot, and when he would push a button on the throttle stick he could lock onto an enemy target when he saw it,” explained Burns. “If he saw another enemy aircraft coming at him, he could circle around in front and lock onto it by use of a computer…. The fact is he was locked on them but they were not locked on him.”
The heads-up display assembly put into Israel’s A-10 aircraft was so effective that by war’s end “every air force in the world” tried to acquire the technology, said Burns.
“As soon as this happened, I had France, Germany, all the Europeans, Canada, banging on my door,” Burns told NJJN. “It became the most desired thing for any air force. But the United States grabbed it.”
Originally from Brooklyn, Burns also lived in Clifton before moving to Monroe 20 years ago. At the time he developed the device that assisted the Israelis, he was director of advanced research and development, manufacturing manager, and vice president for Dumont Electronics in Clifton.
Executives of Elliot Brothers, a British firm that had the contract with the Israelis, had sought out Burns because of his expertise, and the inventor himself never had any contact with the Israelis.
In an interview with NJJN conducted July 18 in the living room of his home in the Concordia adult community, the 89-year-old Burns — a specialist in tube development and technology who holds more than 120 patents — said the device was a source of pride for him as a Jew and for the Israelis.
“It made me feel terrific to help the Israelis, and it made them feel invincible,” said Burns, who counts among his other inventions displays developed for use on the American Trident nuclear submarines.
Today, reflective “heads-up” technology is widespread and can be found in commercial planes; it is what makes the data on dashboards of newer model cars so easy to see even at night.
A World War II veteran, Burns “fought through” Germany, France, and Austria. A machinist in the military, he went to Cooper Union and then City College, majoring in electrical engineering.
Over the course of his career — he retired in 1984 — Burns’s inventions were used in products by such industry giants as Xerox and RCA. He also came up with the concept of the sterile “clean room,” now standard in scientific research labs.
“I developed the technique, which was very rudimentary by today’s standards,” said Burns. “I used a baby incubator and built-in sleeves. Those were primitive days.”
Today Burns, a father of three, and his wife, Anita, split their time between Monroe and Delray Beach, Fla.
Now legally blind, he thinks back on the days — more than 40 years ago — when “the world was barking at my heels.”