On this day in 1991, Israeli Defense Forces accomplished a miracle and broke a world record for number of passengers transported in a plane, launching a covert mission to airlift thousands of people, thousands of miles away to bring them home to Israel.
It seemed impossible at the time, but Operation Solomon rescued 14,500 Ethiopian Jews on May 24 and May 25 and transported them 2,500 miles to a new life in Israel.
To date, the unprecedented airlift remains the largest aerial expedition in the history of the State of Israel and the largest transport of passengers in a single plane in the world.
In 1990, the Israeli government and the IDF became aware that the incumbent government of Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam was coming closer to collapse or a coup. World Jewish organizations joined Israel in its concern for the Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews whose mass emigration had to that point been impossible.
The Ethiopian government finally allowed all the Jews to leave the country at once in great part due to a letter from U.S. President George H.W. Bush. Up to that point, Mengistu was only willing to discuss their emigration in exchange for weapons.
U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz was sent as a special emissary by Pres. Bush to meet with the Ethiopian government to aid Israel in arranging the airlift. Assistant Secy of State for African Affairs Hank Cohen was also involved as he was an international mediator in Ethiopia’s civil war.
The operation itself was not publicized by media, thanks to a gag order under military censorship. The aircraft were all stripped of their seats in order to maximize their space.
Upon arrival 140 frail passengers received medical care while still on the tarmac; five pregnant women gave birth on the plane – they and their newborns were rushed to the hospital as soon as they arrived in Israel.
In 36 hours, 35 Israeli aircraft flew non-stop flights to transport 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Among the aircraft were Israeli Air Force C-130s and El Al Boeing 7474s.