This Day in Jewish History

1948: El Al Takes Wing, Not That It Existed Yet

Baby Israel had no airline, but to fly the new president home, the first Israeli passenger plane was created by converting an air force propeller plane.

The original El Al plane, a converted air force jet, at Ekron Air Base. The picture was taken on September 27, 1948. The plane is a Douglas C-54B, which had a rather short history: On January 2, 1949 it crash-landed on a Tel Aviv beach and never returned to service.
State of Israel Ministry of Defence, IDF & Defence Establishment Archives

September 28, 1948, is the date of the first flight by Israel’s national airline, El Al. At the time, the airline did not yet legally exist, nor did it own any aircraft of its own. Nonetheless, in order to carry President Chaim Weizmann back to Israel from a brief visit to Geneva, an air force plane was requisitioned for the purpose. It was repainted with the colors and name of the airline, and its interior refurnished so that it could carry its passengers.

According to Marvin G. Goldman, author of “El Al: Star in the Sky,” a 1990 history of the airline, it was in August 1948, three months after Israeli independence, that the Ministry of Transportation issued a call for creation of an airline, to serve as the “chosen instrument” for Israel's international civil aviation needs.

The initiative was not based only on national pride. So long as Israel was at war with its Arab neighbors, both it and they were subject to international sanctions. The United Nations had declared a comprehensive arms embargo on the all the combatants. Circumventing it required a great deal of creativity.

The president gets stuck

Weizmann, 73, had been named provisional chairman of the state on May 16, 1948 (and after the establishment of the Knesset, the following February, he would be elected president officially). In September 1948, the state wanted to fly him back to Israel from Geneva, where he had undergone eye surgery. But because of the embargo, Israel's military aircraft were prohibited from landing in European airports.

Chaim Weizmann, left, with David Ben-Gurion
David Eldan, GPO

The solution upon was to take one of the Douglas C-54 planes from the Air Transport Command, which Israel had used earlier in the year to transport arms from Czechoslovakia, and re-outfit it for civilian flight. The interior was remodeled for the honored passenger, and extra fuel tanks were installed so the plane could make the trip back to Israel without stopping.

Transport Minister David Remez had already chosen a name for the national airline, “El Al,” meaning, roughly, “to the heights,” and taken from a line in the Book of Hosea, “Ve’el al yeekra’ey’hu yahad” (“they call them upwards,” Hosea 11:7).

The first flight was skippered by Hal Auerbach, or Hillel Bahir, the Hebrew name with which he signed the flight record. President Weizmann also inscribed that record, writing that, “It is a great privilege to travel for the first time in an Israeli aircraft so beautifully appointed and with such an amiable crew.”

The flight from Geneva took 10 hours, and landed at Ekron air base, today known as Tel Nof. It was greeted by government officials and a military band.

After completion of the flight, the furniture was removed from the C-54, and it was returned to military use.

An airline, after all

The following month, Marvin Goldman recounts, Remez continued his efforts to organize El Al as a commercial airline. That same month, Israeli officials traveled to France to convince local authorities there to grant the new airline landing rights, and on November 15, 1948, the line was incorporate as El Al Israel Aviation Company Ltd., which was later changed to El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. Eighty percent of its shares were held by the government.

El Al purchased its first aircraft the following February and March, buying two used DC-4 propeller planes from American Airlines. The planes were flown to Idlewild Airport, in New York (today JFK International). They would not, however, be permitted to leave the United States until Israel succeeded in convincing American authorities to grant it the proper export licenses. That was accomplished on March 1, 1949.

The line’s first regular commercial service began on July 31, 1949, when the first flight left Tel Aviv for Paris, stopping along the way in Rome for refueling. El Al would remain in Israeli government ownership until 2003, when it was privatized and floated.