Today in Transportation History – 1991: Operation Solomon

A hugely successful airborne humanitarian mission in Ethiopia resulted in the establishment of a new and still-intact flight record. Operation Solomon was an Israeli military effort to airlift thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel within a tight timeframe. At the time, Ethiopia was in grave danger of political destabilization as the government of Mengistu Aile Mariam found itself increasingly threatened by Eritrean and Tigrean rebels.

As this situation rapidly worsened, Israel and various Jewish organizations throughout the world grew strongly concerned about the safety of the Ethiopian Jews (known as Beta Israel) living in Ethiopia. The Mengistu regime, motivated in large part by the intercession of President George H.W. Bush, ultimately agreed to allow as many Ethiopian Jews as possible to be airlifted out of the country within a brief span of time.

Operation Solomon was therefore organized to undertake this ambitious and urgently needed evacuation. Non-stop flights of 35 Israeli aircraft (both military and civilian) transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews – virtually the entire Jewish population in the besieged African country – to Israel during the course of only 36 hours.

In order to accommodate the greatest number of people possible on these flights, all of the planes were stripped of their seats. One of these planes, an El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 747, flew out of Ethiopia on May 24 with a total of 1,122 passengers on board.  This figure was more than twice the number of passengers normally transported on this type of aircraft, and it set a new world record for the most people to travel on a single flight at one time.  “We made history,” commented Aryeh Oz, this plane’s pilot, in a New York Times article. “I don’t think it will happen again.”

Mukat Abag, one of the many passengers on board the flight, gave voice to its even larger significance. “It was a very nice flight,” he said after the plane landed in Israel. “We didn’t bring any of our clothes, we didn’t bring any of our things, but we are very glad to be here.”

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