When a Wooden Airplane Was State-of-the-art Technology in These Parts

'Vision of Flight,’ an exhibit on history of aviation in early-20th century pre-state Israel, opens at Eretz Israel Museum.

A model of the Bleriot XI aircraft, which was used to make the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft, hangs in the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. Although it was constructed to actual size and a great deal of effort was invested in keeping to the precise specifications, this aircraft - made of wood and fabric, held together with bolts - still looks small and fragile. Just less than a century ago, on December 27, 1913, an aircraft of this type landed on the seashore north of Jaffa. The French pilot, Jules Vedrines, who had flown the aircraft from Beirut, landed it late in the evening, making it the first aircraft landing ever in this country.

Vedrine had planned to land in the pioneer settlement of Mikveh Israel, where a large reception awaited him. But Vedrine, either blown off-course by the wind or because of the darkness, decided to land earlier than planned on the seashore, doing so successfully even though one of the delicate aircraft’s wheels broke on the improvised runway. This unscheduled landing, which took place just 10 years after the Wright brothers’ flight in the United States, was the historic event that marks the beginning of the local age of flight.

It’s a bit hard to believe that in its time, this delicate Bleriot aircraft was considered the pinnacle of technology. Louis Bleriot, for whom the aircraft is named, was a French aviation pioneer who is considered to have been the first international pilot. In 1909, he crossed the English Channel, touching down in Dover after a flight of almost 37 minutes. Bleriot quickly became an aircraft builder of excellent reputation.

The pilot Vedrines was one of five participants in a flight competition held by the newspaper Le Matin. The winner — the first to complete a transcontinental flight — was supposed to fly from Paris to Cairo. The flight path passed over Austria, Turkey, Lebanon and the land of Israel.

Three planes took off. Vedrines flew alone, while the other two pilots had mechanics with them. One aircraft burned in Turkey. Vedrines landed in Jaffa, repaired the broken wheel the next morning, flew to the reception awaiting him in Mikveh Israel and continued on to Cairo. The third aircraft landed in the Emek Refaim area of Jerusalem on December 31. Its two pilots, Marc Bonnier and Joseph Barnier, were crowned the first pilgrims of the air. Vedrines was killed, together with his flight mechanic, six years later in a flight competition from France to Rome when the engine of his aircraft failed.

Rachel Bonfil, the curator of the exhibit, titled “Vision of Flight” and which opened October 10, stands beneath a model of Bleriot’s aircraft that hangs from the ceiling and explains the exhibit’s significance. “The flight that arrived in Israel a century ago was a harbinger of modernity and technology. It was a sensational innovation that heralded a new age of mobility, communication, public transportation, a new perspective on the world. The inhabitants of pre-state Israel were ambivalent about it — they feared the new technology, but at the same time had a strong desire to adopt and accept it.”

She continues: “I was drawn into this subject — the photographs, the texts — completely. These events were documented extensively a century ago, and we dug into a mountain of fascinating material. The perspective we chose for the exhibit was the view from the ground, an attempt to see what it was like for the people who encountered this innovation for the first time. People in Jerusalem called this odd machine ‘the devil’s bird.’ But when several Turkish airplanes crashed, the Jewish settlements got together and raised money to buy a new plane. The money disappeared and no new plane was purchased, but the attraction was there even then, and the development of aviation in the land of Israel was rapid and impressive.”

Herzl's imagination takes wing

The exhibit is based on fascinating photographs from the early 1900s, together with captions. One discovery Bonfil is particularly proud of is a story Theodor Herzl published in Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse in 1896, seven years before the Wright brothers’ maiden flight, in which the protagonist dreams of a “navigable airship.” Although the protagonist is hospitalized in the airship inventors’ wing of the local mental hospital, in the end he fulfills his dream, constructing an airship that can be navigated. Disappointed later on, he concludes that human beings, unworthy of flight, are better off crawling on the ground. Herzl died a year after the airplane was invented, and his story was read mainly as an allegory of the Zionist vision, but Bonfil sees it as having a direct link to those in pre-state Israel who dreamed of technological innovation.

Danny Shalom, a historian of pre-state Israeli aviation, is responsible for the construction of the model of the Bleriot XI aircraft that hangs in the museum. Shalom believes that the exhibit’s main significance is that it shows a period of time that is often ignored — from the arrival of the first aircraft to the establishment of the state. “Very few people remember that the German army had eight squadrons here during World War I. The Turks allowed them to operate here, and they brought in planes for fighting, photographing and patrolling. It was the peak of technology at the time.”

Shalom says that one of the conditions General Allenby set for entering Palestine was air cover by advanced aircraft of the British air force. He says seven British squadrons operated in the country beginning in 1917. It was these squadrons that gave aviation here its biggest push. Later came the zeppelins (1929), the aviation clubs, the model airplane clubs and the first pilots’ courses, where members of the Irgun and Haganah learned how to fly — separately, of course.

Bonfil says flight in the country developed dramatically during World War I. Even then, the Germans created a large archive of aerial photographs and documentation of the land of Israel. In her office, she takes out old, rare photographs of German, Austrian and English pilots in Merhavia, Be’er Sheva, Jerusalem and many other places. In 1933, two members of the Hashomer organization, Zvi Nadav and Yisrael Shohat, started the first aviation club in Israel and called it The Flying Camel. Later on, similar clubs opened in the Jordan Valley and the Carmel regions.

Bonfil is particularly proud that the exhibit also focuses on the civilian aspect of flying, which is less well known than the military aspect. “From the first, it was planned that civilian aviation would also have a military use,” she says. “At the start it was completely civilian, of course, but it was known that later on, the field would have direct links to military activity, covertly at first and openly later on.”

Dan Mokedi, 48, a former fighter pilot in the Israel Air Force, is working to keep the memory of these early flights alive. He has established an “aviation reserve” on Habonim Beach. Mokedi, who helped gather the material for the museum exhibition, is the owner and manager of Paradive, a skydiving club that has been running on Habonim Beach for 15 years. Over the past year, he has opened a flight gallery which contains roughly 10 aircraft, decades old, in a large space. Most of the aircraft have been repainted and are gleaming.

“This isn’t a museum,” he says several times. “All these planes can fly, or will be able to soon. We have no interest in just displaying planes. These are historical aircraft. There’s an institute here for preserving the heritage that does preservation, reconstruction and flying of aircraft.”

He hopes to add the Mustang and Spitfire to his collection. The air force used these aircraft during the War of Independence. “The condition they’re in makes me sad,” he says. “They need to be saved and flown. It’s been done all over the world, and we’re serious and professional enough to do it very well here, too, at Habonim Beach.”

Zoltan Kruger, GPO Archive
Moshe Gilad