“As I flew over the city, I could see the flashes of gunfire on the outskirts,” the general recalls. “I was captaining the first aircraft and didn’t get authorization to land. Someone needed to pressure them on the ground.” Flying in, he had been unable to contact the country’s air traffic control center. It had already been captured by the rebels.
The capital city of this war-torn country was about to fall. On the ground were thousands of frantic civilians waiting to be rescued and flown to safety. All hopes were concentrated on one airstrip, but the armada of aircraft on their way did not know whether they would be able to land...
This sounds like the airlift currently taking place at Kabul’s airport in Afghanistan. But Israel Air Force Brig. Gen. (ret.) Asaf Agmon is describing his experience from just over 30 years ago, in May 1991, when he commanded the IAF’s cargo squadrons and led them to Addis Ababa airport for Operation Solomon.
Like many veteran military transport pilots, Agmon watched the recent television reports from Kabul and found it difficult to believe his eyes as he saw the footage of a U.S. C-17 aircraft taking off from the chaotic Hamid Karzai International Airport as dozens of desperate Afghans ran around below. Some even tried to cling to the aircraft as it took off, but fell to their deaths.
Flying into the unknown, to makeshift strips in hostile territory, is a major part of what these pilots train for and do in operational circumstances. But having people climb onto the aircraft in what was supposed to be a secure and orderly airport is another matter.
“When you prepare an operation like this, you have to take into account there will be people trying to come onto the runway,” Agmon says. “You need to think how you secure the perimeter. That is the basic requirement. Without it, you simply don’t go ahead with the operation.”
“The pilot in the cockpit of that C-17 would never have been in such a situation before,” says Brig. Gen. (ret.) Amir Haskel, who captained a C-130 Hercules during Operation Solomon as Israeli airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews out of Addis Ababa. “Having people jumping up on the plane from the outside simply isn’t something that should ever happen, and a pilot can’t control it,” he adds. “It isn’t even one of the many scenarios we train for as military transport pilots. You always have people on the ground making sure it doesn’t happen.”
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Rwanda, not Ethiopia
The situation in which the C-17 pilot found himself taking off from Kabul is a sign of a much wider failing in the planning of the Afghan airlift.
Most emergency airlifts are of personnel and equipment needed at a distant location, in a major military deployment or in response to a major disaster. Like any other type of flight operation, there are operational and logistical doctrines on how the first aircraft establish and secure the base and the next ones are brought into land. If there are problems at the destination, each pilot has an alternative flight plan to handle the delay or an aborted mission.
“The only time I saw anything similar to the situation in Kabul,” Haskel recalls, “was when I led the Israeli airlift to Rwanda during the civil war there, and I saw people around the runway as I came in to land at Kigali.” In 1994, Israel sent its armed forces to set up a field hospital in Rwanda, and as commander of Squadron 103 (“The Elephants”) at the time, Haskel led that airlift.
Mass evacuation airlifts are much rarer. Many comparisons have been made in recent weeks between Kabul and the airlift out of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in 1975. However, the final phase of that evacuation, Operation Frequent Wind, was carried out when the airstrips around Saigon were no longer safe, and the iconic footage is of helicopters landing on rooftops and then flying the evacuees to U.S. aircraft carriers offshore. Helicopter pilots are trained to exfiltrate under enemy fire. They also fly much smaller numbers of passengers. Large fixed-wing aircraft with hundreds of people onboard don’t operate under similar circumstances.
“If Addis Ababa had already fallen to the rebels and there was shooting on the streets, we couldn’t have carried out Operation Solomon,” Agmon says now. “There’s no way you can be sure that as you’re coming into land, someone won’t fire a Strela [the Soviet, shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile] at you. And once you’re on the ground, even a stray bullet can be fatal for a large aircraft.”
That is why preplanning, timing and, above all, securing the perimeter of the destination airstrip are crucial for a large-scale evacuation airlift to work.
Operation Solomon was the culmination of over a decade of clandestine operations to bring Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel. During the 1980s, Operation Moses involved a series of nighttime landings on makeshift desert strips, mainly in Sudan, though there were occasional flights to Addis Ababa as well.
“I was involved in the operations for 14 years. Once we flew to Addis Ababa with crates of ammunition for the regime and came back with Jews,” Agmon says. “But each operation was a hundred or so [Jews], here and there. In Operation Solomon, in 36 hours we flew out more Jews than we had in all the other flights combined.”
The planning for the operation had started two months earlier, in March 1991, as it seemed increasingly likely that the Ethiopian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam would soon fall to the rebels of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Whether or not the rebels’ victory would have seriously threatened the thousands of Jews who had begun gathering in Addis Ababa is disputed to this day. At the time, though, the warnings of international Jewish aid organizations were enough for the government of Yitzhak Shamir to send a senior Israel Defense Forces officer, Brig. Gen. Meir Dagan (who would go on to be Mossad chief), to assess the situation.
Dagan suggested a range of plans for evacuating the Jews, including using a large IDF airborne force to take over parts of Addis Ababa and the airport. This option was quickly discounted, and the decision was made instead to organize an airlift in which the local authorities would grant the IAF sufficient time to use Addis Ababa Bole International Airport.
From that moment on, two simultaneous efforts were launched: the IAF began planning the operational side of the airlift; and Israeli and American diplomats, Mossad agents and senior executives in Jewish organizations – including the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency – all worked their contacts to secure the agreement of an Ethiopian regime on the brink of collapse. On the ground, the Jewish organizations began preparing some 15,000 Jews for the secret order to move quickly to the Israeli Embassy.
On May 6, the IDF’s then-Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who would be in overall command of the operation, flew into Addis Ababa and spent four days scouting the routes from the embassy to the airport.
It would take two months, the replacement of Mengistu by an interim president (who remained in power for seven days), a $35-million bribe and quiet assurances from the EPRDF, who were on the outskirts of the city, to ensure that the IAF would be allowed to operate from the airport for 48 hours. The airlift began on May 24 when the first C-130 took off from Ben-Gurion Airport in the early hours, followed by a faster IAF Boeing 707, captained by Agmon, which overtook it and landed in Africa first. Everything remained touch-and-go throughout the entire mission.
Agmon was at the time commander of Lod Air Base (next to Ben-Gurion Airport), where the IAF’s heavy cargo squadrons were based. The plans for Operation Solomon were already in a sealed envelope in his office safe when, in the days leading up to May 24, a courier arrived to tell him the operation was imminent.
Against orders, Agmon immediately opened the envelope and when he saw the sheer number of planes needed for the mission, he called the General Staff. “I told them I would need to get all of the aircraft out of routine maintenance and call up additional crews, and there was no way I could do that without notifying my squadron commanders, my maintenance chief and the manager at Bedek [an Israel Aerospace Industries division that carries out maintenance of the IAF’s cargo aircraft] to be ready on time,” he recalls.
Reserve air crew were called in and the maintenance crews worked around the clock to prepare the aircraft. The regular seats were stripped from the aircraft and, since the evacuees would not be allowed to bring any baggage with them, the maximum passenger allowance was doubled.
But the key element to the operation’s success would be the ability to keep Addis Ababa airport secure for the duration. “We worked on the assumption that we would have the cooperation of the local authorities,” Agmon says.
In his final briefing before take-off, Lipkin-Shahak told the officers, “We’re not going to conquer Ethiopia and enforce law and order in Addis Ababa. We’re going to bring the Jews who are now in Addis Ababa to Israel.”
But nothing was left to chance. In the first Boeing 707 piloted by Agmon and the C-130 that landed immediately after it, 200 soldiers from the IAF’s Shaldag commando unit traveled under the command of Lt. Col. Benny Gantz (now Israel’s defense minister), in civilian clothes and with weapons in their backpacks.
The aircraft also carried all of the equipment necessary to establish a forward-operating base and air traffic controllers, who took charge of operations at the airport upon arrival – though the Ethiopian controllers refused to leave the tower.
The Shaldag commandos secured the perimeter throughout the operation, but at one point Agmon feared they would be overwhelmed by the hundreds of curious Ethiopian soldiers milling around.
“I radioed to Lod, to put on the next plane all the cigarettes we had in the canteen,” he recounts. “We gave them out to the Ethiopian soldiers to make sure they kept their distance.”
Another decision that helped ensure no chaos at the airport was the move to process passengers at the Israeli Embassy, 3.5 kilometers (about 2 miles) away. This turned out to be crucial, because as word of the evacuation spread throughout the capital, tens of thousands of Ethiopian citizens (including members of the Falashmura – descendants of Jews who had converted to Christianity and were not eligible at the time for emigration to Israel) began surrounding the embassy.
The crowds held up the operation for hours, until a nightly curfew began. Had they all turned up at the airport, and scenes like those witnessed at Kabul had ensued, the operation would almost certainly have been aborted.
Processing the passengers in the embassy compound also allowed for them to be divided into clusters of 190 – a C-130 transport usually carried a maximum of 92 passengers, but in this operation it took 190, while larger aircraft carried several clusters. They were then bussed in planeloads, ensuring there was no congestion at the airport.
The planning, the control of the airport and the combined resources of the IAF’s transport squadrons and El Al’s fleet allowed the entire operation to be completed in 36 hours – 12 less than planned. In that time, 14,310 people were flown to Israel on 24 IAF aircraft (the six Boeing 707s made the trip twice), nine El Al airliners and one Ethiopian Airlines plane. Two El Al Boeing 747s were ordered to return to Ben-Gurion Airport without landing after the Ethiopians complained that the Jumbos would damage their runways.
The one 747 that did land was a cargo plane in which 760 narrow seats had been hastily installed. Six clusters of passengers were loaded onboard, setting a world record for the number of passengers on a single flight. It remains unclear precisely how many passengers were on the plane – the numbers range from 1,022 to 1,078 – as it is unclear whether small babies carried by their mothers had been counted upon boarding. Two babies were also reportedly born mid-flight.
Things seem orderly at Kabul Airport right now. Dozens of aircraft, from the U.S. Air Force and other air forces, are landing daily, busy taking out thousands of their citizens and Afghans in danger. But that will not erase the memory of the recent chaotic scenes there and nearby, at the airport’s perimeter and at roadblocks across Kabul, where tens of thousands desperately try to reach the aircraft. American and British troops have secured a narrow perimeter around the runways, but their aircraft can only land because the Taliban is allowing them to do so, until August 31. They are in control.
“I don’t want to criticize the Americans,” Agmon says about current events. “I have huge admiration for the U.S. Air Force and they have massive resources to carry out such an airlift. They could have done it a month ago much easier, if they’d decided to. But the failure here goes much higher. It’s a failure to plan in advance and a failure to assess the level of threat. For an airlift to work, you have to ensure control of the destination. And to make sure that’s the case, you have to start the evacuation earlier – because a failed state can fall much sooner than you expect, and then it’s too late.”
Perhaps the best comparison with Kabul from Israel’s military history isn’t the successful Operation Solomon. Instead, it is its pullback from the “security zone” in southern Lebanon on May 24, 2000. Then, the IDF had to retreat in a matter of hours after its own proxy militia, the Southern Lebanese Army collapsed overnight and thousands of its members and their families gathered at the border crossings, clamoring to be given refuge in Israel.
If anything, that failure of foresight and intelligence is reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the situation on the ground right now in Kabul.