Magic Carpet Pilots
Two former Magic Carpet pilots recall challenges, dangers and inspirations.
Stanley Epstein says he is not a religious man, but Operation
Magic Carpet "had to have been blessed by God because the possibility of
any of these airplanes being successful was pretty remote."
Epstein, a pilot and maintenance specialist, was airlifting supplies
from Czechoslovakia to Israel. When that operation ended, he contracted
with Alaska Airlines to help with Operation Magic Carpet. The
humanitarian airlift operation brought more than 40,000 Yemenite Jews to
Israel between late 1948 and early 1950.
legend said they would be returned to Israel on the wings of an eagle.
Alaska Airlines painted an eagle with outstretched wings over the door
of each airplane and it reassured people when they got on the plane.
They were living their legend and Alaska Airlines helped fulfill that
legend," Epstein said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
"We flew almost continuously from Christmas Eve 1948 to nearly a year
later and never lost a life or had an injury from an accident," Epstein
said. "One airplane undershot the runway in Asmara, but it didn't burn,
even though it was loaded with gasoline barrels. We had a few bullet
holes. But only one airplane had to land in hostile territory when it
ran out of fuel and landed in Port Sudan (Egypt). The pilot (Bob Maguire)
told the airport officials he needed ambulances right away to take his
sick passengers to the hospital. They asked why and he told them the
passengers had smallpox. They wanted him out of there right away so he
got some fuel and left."
The threat was that Jewish refugees and maybe even crew members would be killed if they landed in Arab territory.
"There was an overpowering humanitarian need," Epstein said. "There
was rioting in Yemen over the concentration of Jews. The British - who
controlled Aden as a colony - were putting pressure on us to get the
airplanes turned around and get the refugees out of there."
Maguire, an Alaska Airlines pilot with management experience, was
sent to the Middle East near the end of 1948 by company President James Wooten to start-up Alaska's participation in Operation Magic Carpet.
"I had just come back from the Orient where we had started a charter
operation with the government to take civilians into Japan," Maguire
said. "I had worked with Jim and had business experience that the other
pilots didn't. The combination of business and flying experience was the
reason I was asked to start Operation Magic Carpet."
Originally, the operation used only Alaska Airlines planes and crews.
But because the demand was so great, additional pilots - such as
Epstein- and planes were brought on.
were high death tolls in the refugee camps and they were having trouble
with the Arabs," Maguire said in a recent phone interview from his home
in Ventura, California. "Moving that many people under those conditions
required an operation that would have been illegal under U.S. aviation
Epstein noted that C-46 aircraft were carrying 76 passengers per trip
- nearly 30 more than licensed for based on the average passenger
weight and the number of aircraft exits. And the DC-4s, licensed to
carry 60 passengers, was instead flying with 150 Yemenite Jews.
"People from our government came over and saw that this was an
emergency situation and allowed us to set up an operation that would
move the people," Maguire said.
In addition, pilots flew much longer than would have been allowed in
the U.S. Maintenance was difficult and planes flew well beyond their
scheduled service intervals, Maguire said. "But remember, the
environment was tense and time was of the essence."
"I was flying between 270 and 300 hours a month," Maguire said. "I
wouldn't have been able to fly more than 90 hours a month back home. And
fuel was a big problem. Israel didn't have enough. We had to buy it
from the British in Asmara. We would fill up there with enough to go
pick up our passengers in Aden, fly them to Israel and then return."
While the operation was successful it took a toll on Maguire. "I lost
my pilot's license a year and a half after I returned because of health
reasons," he said. "The doctor was an old friend of mine, a flight
surgeon. He told me that he couldn't let me fly any more because of the
health and safety issues. I had a heart condition and I didn't find out
until later that there were parasites in the water where we swam in Aden
that contributed to the problem. That's where the problem started."
Epstein said the danger and logistical hurdles that had to be
overcome were top of mind at every turn. But the plight of the Jews is
what drove everyone to keep going forward. "For the English-speaking
volunteers in Israel, the story of the Jews from Yemen was just another
amazing story of the gathering of the Jewish people in their homeland.
If there was a single reason felt by all of the English-speaking flight
crews and other volunteers, it was a feeling of 'never again' after the
press and other news media dramatically revealed the stories of the