This Day in Jewish History

1917: A Man Who Smuggled Jets Into Israel to Create Its First Air Force, Is Born (And Dies)

Al Schwimmer was protected by Israel from grilling by U.S. over his role in Iran-Contra affair.

Ilan Bruner/Wikipedia Commons

June 10 is both the birthdate and the date of death of Al Schwimmer, the man who enabled the young State of Israel to put an air force in the sky. He is also the man who founded and led the aerospace giant Israel Aircraft Industries in its first decades. Along the way, the brazen Schwimmer managed to have some encounters with the law, incidents that only added to his semi-legendary status in Zionist annals.

Adolph William Schwimmer was born in New York on June 10, 1917 to Eastern European immigrants William and Zippora Schwimmer. He grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In 1939, Schwimmer, who understandably chose not to go by his given name, earned his civilian pilot license, and began working as an engineer for aviation manufacturer Lockheed. He soon moved to Trans World Airlines, all of whose fleet was mobilized for the American effort in World War II, serving as a flight engineer for the U.S. Air Transport Command, the body that oversaw the logistics of the use of aircraft for equipment and personnel transport, and the movement of the aircraft itself.

At the end of World War II, Schwimmer was deeply affected by the reports emerging from Europe about the Holocaust. When approached in 1948 by Teddy Kollek, the Haganah’s official in charge of weapons acquisition in the U.S., for help in supplying Israel with aircraft, he undertook the mission with alacrity.

During Israel’s War of Independence, 1948-1949, Schwimmer oversaw the purchase, overhaul and delivery to Israel of some of the war-surplus planes that flooded the market following World War II.

Planes and parts were available, but the UN had imposed an embargo on arms deliveries to any of the combatants in the Arab-Israeli war. With a combination of contacts, organizational skills and derring-do, Schwimmer smuggled four B-17 heavy bombers, 10 C-46 transport planes, and 25 Avia S-199 fighter planes, a Czech version of the German Messerschmitt – among other aircraft – to Israel, forming the rickety basis of a nascent Israel Air Force. He and his colleagues also recruited pilots and other skilled personnel for the force.

Returning to the United States in 1949, Schwimmer soon found himself indicted – and convicted – for violating the Neutrality Act. Although he was not imprisoned, he was fined $10,000 and stripped of his voting rights and veteran’s pension.

In 2001, as Bill Clinton was preparing to leave the White House, he issued a belated pardon for Schwimmer, which had been requested on his behalf by friends. (Schwimmer told The Jerusalem Report that year that he himself had never asked for a pardon because “you have to express regret for what you did, and I didn’t feel that way.”)

In 1951, during a visit to the United States, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion approached Schwimmer, who was then running an airplane-maintenance company in Burbank, California, and asked him to return to Israel to set up an aviation firm. What began as aircraft-maintenance company Bedek in 1953 soon became Israel Aviation Industries, today the enormous Israel Aerospace Industries, a government-owned manufacturer of civilian and military aircraft, weapons systems and avionics, and provider of aviation services. Schwimmer remained IAI’s president until 1978.

During the 1980s, he also served as an unpaid consultant to the Israeli government on technology, and in that capacity, was involved in what became the “Iran-Contra affair,” a rogue operation organized by the Americans in 1985, in which Israel supplied arms to the Islamic Republic and passed on the payments to the Contras, insurgent forces working to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. The U.S. also hoped the arms sales would inspire Iran to prevail upon Islamic militias in Lebanon to release seven American hostages. Schwimmer’s role was as a middleman in the arms transfers.

When the Keystone Cops-like operation became public and came under investigation by U.S. law-enforcement officials, Israel shielded Schwimmer from being interrogated, despite the American request to question him.

In the final years of his life, Schwimmer was active in efforts to have Israel create and adopt a constitution.

Al Schwimmer died of complications from pneumonia in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2011. He was 94.