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.

Warren MetzgerWarren, 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.

Operation Magic CarpetKnown 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."

Operation Magic CarpetFor 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 bombings."

"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."

Warren and Marian Metzger

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.

What 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.

Warren and Marian Metzger"I 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.