Home is in the air

Merav Schwartz was 5 years old during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Her father had a friend who couldn’t pronounce her name properly and called her “Mirage.” Mirage was also the name of the French-made jets that dominated the skies during that war.

Maybe that formative memory has something to do with her wanting to fly planes, maybe it doesn’t. But Schwartz has wanted to fly ever since she was a little girl. “I used to want to be an astronaut,” she said. “Maybe I was just born this way.”

Whatever the reason, Merav Schwartz, 36, is the first female pilot to work for El Al, the Israeli national airline. Schwartz said she believes that just 1 percent of pilots in the United States are women.

Now on six months of maternity leave, she visited the Bay Area to further the cause of the Jewish National Fund, a mission she strongly supports. In a lunch with donors last week, she compared JNF’s effort to further populate the Negev desert in Israel to her own journey.

“People said you couldn’t populate the Negev,” she said. “And when I used to say I wanted to be a pilot for El Al, people told me ‘there’s not a chance. Don’t waste your time.'”

Schwartz started taking flying lessons privately, when she was 18. She did not choose the Air Force for her military service, because at that time, women were not allowed to be pilots.

“I didn’t want to be in the Air Force seeing the planes fly without me,” she said.

Nevertheless, Schwartz was not to be deterred. To have the requisite hours of flying time, she took children up in airplanes. She did the traffic watch. She even went up into clouds to insert a substance that causes more rainfall.

“I did everything I could to acquire more flying time,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1990s, her colleague, Orit Katzir, took El Al to court, saying that its policy of only hiring Air Force veterans as pilots is sexual discrimination. Although she won the suit and El Al accepted her into its training program, Katzir chose to fly with American Airlines, with whom she still flies today. Katzir recently had a baby, and Schwartz brought her cookies.

“She paved the way for me,” said Schwartz. And not only for her. Women are now allowed into the Air Force, and into any army unit where they can pass the exams.

Schwartz has been with El Al four years. She began flying 737s to Europe and Africa, and now she is flying 747s between her homes in New York and Israel. Her husband works on Wall Street, but when asked whether her real home is New York, she responded, “Home is primarily in the air.”

She was flying until she was seven months pregnant and will resume the controls in April.

She would never want to work for any other airline but El Al, she said, as she is first and foremost, an Israeli.

Nevertheless, of course working an El Al flight, she has had her fair share of stories. She said she is more closely scrutinized than the men. She gets a few comments here and there, mostly from unsuspecting passengers.

As one of four pilots on a Tel Aviv-New York flight, she often likes to roam the cabin. If she happens to be near the galley, she no doubt is asked for a Coke.

“Would you like ice with that?” she usually responds good-naturedly.

She has heard the disparaging remark here and there, most often from the occasional female flight attendant. “Who cares?” she said, noting that the younger generation of flight attendants is completely supportive.

When asked about the commotion usually to be found on an El Al flight, especially with the fervently religious who all head to one side of the plane to face Jerusalem while they pray mid-flight, she said, “Don’t worry. The airplane can compensate for the weight.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."