Civil Aviation in Mandate Palestine
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
In the Beginning
No doubt the Covid19 pandemic has made most of us aware of the degree to which we have taken the freedom of global air travel for granted. Just 120 years ago air travel, let alone global air travel was still in the realms of science fiction. One of the early “miracles” of the 20th century was the history making first flight in a heavier than air machine by the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, on 17 December 1903. This initial flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in the United States, heralded the beginning of a rapid advance of air travel in powered aircraft. Just 10 years later, on 27 December 1913, the first aircraft landed in Ottoman Palestine, announcing the arrival of air travel to the Middle East.
1903 Wright Flyer - the first heavier than air machine to fly successfully
Very soon after the birth of aviation, two distinct tracks developed, one civil and the other military. Civil aviation has the capability to unite people from all over the globe, while military aviation as an offensive weapon, has the capability to rain death and destruction on humankind, and has done so with alarming regularity. This article is devoted to civil aviation in Ottoman and Mandate Palestine. I will be writing another article which will concentrate on military aviation in the region during the same period, as the two branches of aviation are like oil and water to one another.
The first aircraft lands in Ottoman Palestine
Not long after that first epoch making flight, air races and challenges became fashionable. One such challenge was to be the first pilot to fly from Paris to Cairo, which was taken up by 3 French pilots, Louis Blériot, Pierre Daucourt and Jules Vedrines. They all selected the same flight route that took them from Paris, which they left on 21 October 1913, to a refuelling stop in Istanbul. From there they had to fly over the 3,500 metre Taurus Mountains to the next planned stop in Palestine, with Blériot and Daucourt both crashing on the mountain, Daucourt losing his life while Blériot’s aircraft was destroyed. Vedrines was the only one to succeed in negotiating the dangerous flight over the mountain. He had planned to touch down on a specially prepared landing strip at the Mikveh Israel School near Tel Aviv, but was blown off course by strong winds, forcing him to make an emergency landing, which he did on the Jaffa beach on 27 December 1913. The forced landed resulted in damage to his plane’s undercarriage requiring an overnight repair, before he was able to fly to his original destination in Palestine the next day. He landed to much acclaim from a huge crowd that had gathered at the Mikveh Israel landing strip, dubbed Palestine’s “First International Airport”.
1913 Blériot Monoplane - Identical to the one flown by Jules Vedrines
Vedrines promised to return to Palestine after completing the last leg of his flight to Cairo, intending to be the first pilot to land in Jerusalem, but this was not to be. He lost out to a pair of French pilots, Mark Bornier and Joseph Bernie, who landed in the city on 31 December 1913. Vedrines, Bornier and Bernie can quite rightly be considered as the pioneers of aviation in the Land of Israel
The First Airfields
All air travel begins and ends on land (and occasionally on water), which necessitated the construction of suitable landing strips. Muqeible Airfield, a few kms north of Jenin and Tzemach (Samakh) Airfield at the southern end of Lake Kinneret were Palestine’s first primitive airfields, built by Turkey's German allies in 1917. They were the first formal, albeit very basic airfields to be constructed in Palestine and designed specifically for military use; Muqeible was never used for civil aviation and will feature in my forthcoming article on military aviation in Israel, while Tzemach was soon used for civilian flights. The first properly designed airfield was constructed in 1923 by the Palestine Mandate Authorities at Qalandia, near Moshav Atarot, a few kms north of Jerusalem. The airport was intended to meet both military and civilian needs, essentially to serve British civil servants and dignitaries.
The airfield can justifiably claim to be the first international airfield in Palestine, and the name was in fact later changed to the Jerusalem International Airport. This came about after the British Mandate Authorities expropriated land from Atarot residents and enlarged the airfield, opening it for regular international flights in 1936. Jerusalem, the destination of religious pilgrims for over 2,000 years, now became easily reachable by air, rather than the dangerous and time consuming sea and land journeys of the past.
Moshav Ararot was captured and occupied by Jordanian forces during the 1948 Arab Israeli War, with the airport falling into Jordanian hands. Jerusalem Airport was in official use and recognised by the International Aviation Authority (IAA) as a Jordanian airport from 1948 onwards. Following the expulsion of the Jordanians after their defeat in the Six Day War of 1967, Israel reclaimed the moshav along with other parts of Jerusalem. The runway and other aspects of the renamed Atarot Airport were upgraded to meet the standards set for licensing by the IAA as an international facility. Ironically, the IAA refused to recognise the airport for international travel as they considered it to be in captured territory occupied by Israel. I have chosen to use the word “ironically”, because the same IAA had no problem recognising Jordan’s illegal occupancy in 1948, illegal expulsion of the Jewish residents, and equally illegal later annexation of territory that included the area in which the airport was located.
After 1967 the airport was used for internal flights between Jerusalem, Haifa and Eilat until the Second Intifada, which started on 28 September 2000. From then onwards the airport was considered too dangerous for civilian use, and was converted into an Israeli Air Force Base. The old Moshav Atarot has since become a major industrial park, home to over 160 industrial enterprises, making it the largest in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem Airport in 1969, before the name was changed to Atarot Airport
Lydda (Lod) Airport
Lydda Airport was established in 1934 after an area on the outskirts of the town was cleared to prepare two dirt airstrips, which served as the first runways for the airport. The first airline to offer a passenger service to Lydda was Misr Airworks, forerunner of EgyptAir, which offered a service connecting Lydda, Cairo and Nicosia. This route was inaugurated in August 1935 and soon extended to also offer flights connecting Lydda, Haifa and Baghdad, while a connection to Europe was offered by LOT Polish Airlines from April 1937. By the time LOT began flying the Lydda route, the airport boasted 4 functional concrete runways.
Tel Aviv Airport
The journey by road from Tel Aviv to the airport at Lydda had become increasingly dangerous for Jewish travellers after the 1936 Arab riots, prompting Tel Aviv mayor Israel Rokach to approach the British administration for permission to build an airport in Tel Aviv. Rokach, an obvious favourite of the Mandate officials as the short anecdote which follows will show, was granted the necessary approval to construct the airport in order to provide safe transport from Tel Aviv to Lydda Airport. Rokach, who had been the right wing candidate for the mayoral position in the 1936 Tel Aviv council election was beaten by Moshe Chelouche, the leftist candidate supported by Labour. Despite the result, British officials insisted on Rokach becoming the mayor, ignoring emphatic public disapproval of British interference. Notwithstanding the circumstances of his elevation to the mayoralty, Rokach had an extremely successful 16 year mayoral career, which ended with his appointment as Israel's Interior Minister in 1952.
Lydda becomes Lod
The airport was captured by the Israel Defence Forces on 10 July 1948, after which it became Israel’s primary international airport, with the name changed to Lod Airport when the former Arab city of Lydda was renamed as the Israeli city of Lod. The airport's name was later changed to Ben Gurion Airport, honouring Israel’s first prime minister and pre-eminent statesman, David Ben Gurion, shortly after his passing on 1 December 1973.
International Air Travel to and from Mandate Palestine
During 1924 Britain merged several colonial air passenger services to form Imperial Airways, with the objective of providing an airlink between the various constituents of its far flung Empire. During the period 1931 to 1935, Imperial Airways seaplanes from London landed on Lake Kinneret, with passengers disembarking for transport by road to the nearby Tzemach Airfield, where connecting flights departed for Baghdad and Karachi in India. The seaplane flights to Lake Kinneret were halted after bad weather resulted in an aircraft overturning while landing on the lake, with the seaplanes then being rerouted to land at the Dead Sea, while other flights landed in Gaza en route to India and the Far East.
1930’s Flying Boat landing on the water
Jewish Owned Airlines in Mandate Palestine
Pinhas Rutenberg, the Russian born engineer who had pioneered the construction of the first hydroelectric power generation plant in Mandate Palestine, which was commissioned in 1930, also established Palestine Airlines in 1934. This was a joint venture between Rutenberg, the Histadrut Trade Union and the Jewish Agency, initiated for strategic reasons. Rutenberg, who had made Aliyah in 1919, was later instrumental in the establishment of the paramilitary Haganah defence organisation together with Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The intention was for the airline to provide a safe means of transport between Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, while strategically, the provision of security to the far flung Jewish settlements was considered equally important. Rutenberg who had been the Haganah Commander of Tel Aviv during the period of the 1921 Arab riots, was well aware of the importance rapid deployment of Haganah forces made possible by the flying service. The British Mandate Authorities were obviously not happy with the dual roles of Palestine Airlines and expropriated the company in 1937, promising to return it to private ownership at a later stage. The company was closed down in 1940 when its aircraft were requisitioned by the RAF to bolster British military forces in the Middle East.
Palestine airlines advertising brochure
Aviron Airways, which had been established by Dov Hoz and Yitzhak Ben Yaakov in 1936, also in cooperation with the Histadrut and the Jewish Agency, was intended to supplement Palestine Airlines. The company was brought into being with a triple objective, firstly to provide a safe internal air service for the Jewish settlers, secondly to secretly train pilots and thirdly to provide security services for the Jewish residents of Mandate Palestine. In order to meet the three objectives, the airline based its flying school in a cattle shed on Kibbutz Degania Alef, the hangars for the aircraft on Kibbutz Afikim and its landing strip on the adjoining Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov. Unlike Palestine Airlines, these facilities were all reasonably well hidden from the Mandate Authorities. The company’s first aircraft was a de Havilland Tiger Moth, which the Jewish Agency had purchased in 1934. The aircraft was delivered by a pilot/flying instructor, with Yitzhak Ben Ya’akov becoming his first pupil, and later the first pilot to qualify from the Aviron Flight School.
Dov Hoz (R) and Yitzchak Ben-Yaakov (L) with an Aviron pilot and aircraft
Aviron Pilot Training
The ever vigilant eyes of the British Mandate Authorities were on the watch for pilot training, which meant that Aviron had to camouflage their activities. The first Aviron pilots course in 1938 made use of gliders for practical training, while the acquisition of the gliders for training is indeed a strange tale. The importation of gliders into Mandate Palestine was not allowed by the authorities as there was a fear that they would used by the Jewish paramilitary groups. The ban was ingeniously overcome by including gliding as one of the sports in the 1935 Maccabiah Games, with contestants having to provide their own gliders. This was the first and only time gliding has been included as an event at the Games. Several German Jewish glider pilots travelled to Palestine together with their equipment to participate, with 2 of the gliders, which had been imported for the competition remaining behind, together with one of Germany's leading glider pilots, Ernst Rappaport. Shortly after the Games the first glider pilot training course began at Mount Carmel under the auspices of the Palestine Aero Club, with Rappaport as the instructor. By the time Aviron Airlines was ready to provide a commercial passenger service together with its clandestine activities as the air arm of the Haganah, several trained pilots were available as a result of training with the Aero Club or by Aviron’s own flying school.
Palestine Aero Club Notice of Meeting
Dov Hoz, his wife Rivka, daughter Tirza, sister in law Tzvia Sharret and Yitzhak Ben Ya’akov were all tragically killed in a car accident in 1940. Rivka Hoz and Tzvia Sharrett were sisters of Moshe Sharrett, who was destined to become Israel’s second prime minister in January 1954. Despite the loss of the two founders, Aviron continued with its activities until the company was taken over by the Haganah in 1947, to become the foundation of the Israeli Air Force. After the War of Independence, Aviron’s civil activities became a stepping stone for the establishment of El Al, Israel's national airline. The name of Tel Aviv Airport was changed to the Dov Hoz Airport after his untimely and tragic death.
Palestine Flying Service
During 1937, another Jewish owned airline, Palestine Flying Service, based at Lydda Airport, opened its doors for business. Unbeknown to the British authorities, the airline was a front for the underground Irgun resistance movement. The Mandate officials were so blissfully unaware of the true nature of Palestine Flying Service that they allowed the airline to commence pilot training from its base at the airport. The first group of pilots to graduate from the flying school assembled at Lydda Airport on 21 April 1939 to be handed their pilots license by no less a personage than the British High Commissioner for Palestine, Sir Harold McMichael. One of the recipients of a licence on that occasion was Binyamin Kahane, who had joined the Betar movement as a youngster and graduated to become an Irgun member when the organisation was founded. Kahane went on to join the Israeli Air Force when when all the Jewish paramilitary organisations were joined together to form the Israeli Defence Forces. Kahane became a highly decorated hero, but more about him when I write my piece on military aviation in Israel.
Graduation ceremony of the first pilot training course
Lydda Airport 21 April 1939
Lod International Airport 1949
By the time David Ben Gurion proclaimed the Independence of Israel on 14 May 1948, civil aviation was well established boasting a 35 year history in what had been Ottoman and then Mandate Palestine.
Interesting comment from one of my readers.
In 1947 my mom, sister and I flew from Durban to Tel Aviv. Our flight was on a flying boat to Alexandria and then in a Dakota to Tel Aviv.
Landing in Tel Aviv was on the road to Jerusalem in the region of where Ben Gurion airport is located. The stretch of road used to be closed to allow for the aircraft craft traffic.
The flight to Alexandria was undertaken in daylight only. Nights were spent in a hotel in harbour. Each morning and late afternoon when we were sprayed with DDT as we boarded and disembarked.