El Al flies to rescue throughout the world

JERUSALEM — El Al's history is as long and intriguing as that of Israel itself.

Israel's national airline was officially incorporated in November 1948, although it took months before it had its own aircraft.

"In fact, El Al was really a matter of paint," said Marvin Goldman, a New York lawyer and aviation buff who chronicled El Al's growth in his book, "El Al: Star in the Sky."

"When the need for a special flight arose, military planes were quickly redecorated."

Typically, El Al used aircraft borrowed from the Israeli Air Force. Most of these planes, in turn, had been acquired from LAPSA, a "paper" Panamanian company that served as a clandestine conduit to Israel for planes refurbished by the Zionist activist Al Schwimmer in Southern California.

To circumvent an embargo on military equipment, Schwimmer, former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, and master spy Yehuda Arazi had devised a risky plan for a circuitous route to Israel via Panama, Brazil, Senegal, Morocco and Sicily.

El Al's first aircraft purchases — two unpressurized DC-4's bought from American Airlines — were made possible with funds from the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency and other Jewish organizations.

Capt. Maurice Kouffman, formerly a pilot in the U.S. Air Transport Command during WWII, was assigned to fly the first reconditioned plane back to Israel. Kouffman had come to Israel as a volunteer Mahal pilot. His wife, Marilyn, was the stewardess on the flight which arrived at Lod Airport on April 3, 1949.

Shortly afterward, the airline received permission to land in New York. In July 1949, El Al received formal certification from the Israeli government as a regular scheduled airline. Its first international flight went to Paris on July 31.

Within 2-1/2 years, El Al was serving 12 countries in four continents.

The dramatic airlift of 47,000 Yemenite Jews and 3,000 Habbanim Jews from a remote area of the South Arabian peninsula during 1949 and 1950 was a serious challenge for the airline, which played a major role in the so-dubbed Operation Magic Carpet.

At the operation's peak, there were seven to eight flights a day doing the 1,600 mile route in nine hours, with 120 passengers squeezed onto flights which normally carried 50. The last stretch was the most precarious, for without the benefit of ground radio, the planes had to navigate over the Red Sea's narrow corridor.

The Yemenites, who had never seen an airplane, were filled with awe. For them, it was like a big bird, an answer to the biblical prophecy that they would be delivered from exile to the Holy Land "on eagles' wings."

An even more massive immigrant airlift was carried out to save the Jews of Iraq from rampant anti-Semitism.

When the Iraqi government finally gave its Jews permission to emigrate to Israel, it was on condition that they leave all their property and not fly directly to Israel. From May 1950 until December 1951, El Al took an active part in Operation Ali Baba, airlifting more than 113,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel via Cyprus.

During this period, El Al also started special immigrant flights to bring survivors from post-war Europe. It was an emotional experience for many of these passengers. To them, the insignia of a winged Star of David on the crew members' uniforms symbolized the rebirth of the Jewish homeland.

With the opening of the floodgates of immigration from the former Soviet Union in January 1990, El Al was again called on to assist in the massive immigration, sending the first charter flight to Moscow.