Operation Magic Carpet
When Alaska Airlines sent them on "Operation Magic Carpet" 50 years ago, Warren and Marian Metzger didn't realize they were embarking on an adventure of a lifetime.
a DC-4 captain, and Marian, a flight attendant, were part of what
turned out to be one of the greatest feats in Alaska Airlines’ 67-year
history: airlifting thousands of Yemenite Jews to the newly created
nation of Israel.
The logistics of it all made the task daunting. Fuel was hard to come
by. Flight and maintenance crews had to be positioned through the
Middle East. And the desert sand wreaked havoc on engines.
It took a whole lot of resourcefulness the better part of 1949 to do
it. But in the end, despite being shot at and even bombed upon, the
mission was accomplished—and without a single loss of life.
as the lost tribe of Israel, the Yemenite Jews had wandered the deserts
for at least two centuries after being driven out of Palestine. Nomads,
they had never seen an airplane and never lived anywhere but a tent.
Ironically, their faith included a prophecy that they would be returned to their Holy Land on the wings of eagles.
"One of the things that really got to me was when we were unloading a
plane at Tel Aviv," said Marian, who assisted Israeli nurses on a
number of flights. "A little old lady came up to me and took the hem of
my jacket and kissed it. She was giving me a blessing for getting them
home. We were the wings of eagles."
both Marian and Warren, the assignment came on the heels of flying the
airline’s other great adventure of the late 1940s: the Berlin Airlift.
"I had no idea what I was getting into, absolutely none," remembered
Warren, who retired in 1979 as Alaska’s chief pilot and vice president
of flight operations. "It was pretty much seat-of-the-pants flying in
those days. Navigation was by dead reckoning and eyesight. Planes were
getting shot at. The airport in Tel Aviv was getting bombed all the
time. We had to put extra fuel tanks in the planes so we had the range
to avoid landing in Arab territory."
British officials advised them that Arabs, angry over the
establishment of the Jewish state, would certainly kill all the
passengers and likely the whole crew if they were forced to land on Arab
soil. Many planes were shot at.
Days often lasted between 16 and 20 hours and the one-way flights, in
twin-engine C-46 or DC-4 aircraft, covered nearly 3,000 miles.
"We’d take off from our base in Asmara (in Eritrea) in the morning
and fly to Aden (in Yemen) to pick up our passengers and refuel," Warren
said. "Then we’d fly up the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba to the
airport at Tel Aviv to unload. Then we’d fly to Cyprus for the night. We
couldn’t keep the planes on the ground in Israel because of the
"One of our pilots got a little bit too close to Arab territory when
flying into Israel from the Gulf of Aqaba and tracers started arching up
toward the plane," Warren said. "Another one of our planes got a tire
blown out during a bombing raid in Tel Aviv. One of our crews
practically lived on their plane from the end of April through June."
Bob Maguire, another Alaska pilot, once had to drop down to
several hundred feet above the ground, squirming through hills and
passes, to evade Arab gunfire.
Warren and Marian thought was a temporary assignment turned into a
seven-month mission of mercy. It also launched a marriage that has also
celebrated its golden anniversary. Warren and Marian were married in
Asmara in January 1949.
had met Warren when I started working for Alaska in July of 1948,"
Marian said. "We had both worked the Berlin airlift. I was sent to
Shanghai and I didn’t know where Warren was. I landed in Asmara after
one flight and when the door of the plane opened, one of the guys who
knew I’d been seeing Warren from time to time said he was in Tel Aviv
and he’d be flying in the next day."
Before her Operation Magic Carpet flights in the Middle East, Marian,
who retired from Alaska in 1952, assisted on flights from Shanghai
transporting Jews who fled to China to escape persecution in Germany.
When communists came to power in China, the German Jews took flight
again to Israel.
"We had been doing a lot of trips, a lot of different kinds of
trips," Marian said. "We realized this was going to be part of the
history of Israel, but it seemed like more of an adventure at the time."
In all, with the help of Alaska Airlines, charter carriers and the
military, more than 40,000 Yemenite Jews were airlifted to Israel
between late 1948 and early 1950.