Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Pilot flies on
Robert F. Maguire Jr., the chief pilot of an airlift operation that brought well over 40,000 Jews from Yemen to Israel in the early years of the state, died earlier this month at the age of 94. Maguire was a chief pilot for Operation Magic Carpet between late 1948 and early 1950. He died on June 10 at his home in Northridge, Cal., of natural causes.
Pogroms against the Jews of Yemen followed soon after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states in November 1947. In the worst incident, Muslim rioters, joined by the local police force, engaged in a bloody pogrom in Aden that killed 82 Jews and destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes. The Imam of Yemen agreed to let most of Yemen's Jews leave, though the operation was kept secret and was released to the media only several months after its completion. The Jews walked on foot, sometimes for months, in extremely dangerous and risky journeys to reach the capital Aden, from where they were flown to Israel. In an arduous and dangerous operation, nearly the entire Jewish population of Yemen was evacuated over the course of more than two years, on some 380 flights.
The flight from Yemen to Israel, a journey of more than 1,400 miles, was almost entirely over hostile Arab territory. The planes were routinely fired on by Arab forces, fuel was scarce, and pilots were warned that if they were forced to land in enemy territory, they risked being executed.
Maguire became a pilot for Alaska Airlines after World War II. With the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948, the The New York Times reports, the airline won a contract to fly Jewish refugees there from around the globe. Maguire flew thousands of Jews out of Shanghai before being sent to the Middle East to help start Operation Magic Carpet in conjunction with the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee. When Alaska Airlines had to withdraw a few months into the operation, Mr. Maguire started his own company, Near East Air Transport, and hired planes and pilots to continue the job. Maguire once had to drop down to several hundred feet above the ground, squirming through hills and in between passes, to evade Arab gunfire. In another incident, he ran out of fuel and was forced to land in Egypt.
When airport officials rushed up to the plane, the quick-thinking pilot ordered them to send ambulances immediately, explaining, "I have smallpox on board." The Egyptians immediately obtained fuel for him, and he proceeded on to Tel Aviv. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, was reported to have called Maguire "the Irish Moses." The Yemenite Jews had long lived in isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, and Maquire and the other planes presented the fulfillment of their hope and faith to return to Israel "on eagles' wings." The Simon Wiesenthal Center awarded him a medal of valor last year. As many as 28 pilots at a time were involved in Operation Magic Carpet, which involved carrying the refugees to Tel Aviv, flying back to Cyprus for the night - it was unsafe to leave the planes vulnerable to Arab bombers over night - and returning to their start-off point in eastern Africa at dawn before starting over again. The total round trip was about 20 hours.
The work cost Maguire his career, as he contracted a parasite in the region that affected his heart, causing him to lose his commercial pilot's license in the early 1950's. He is survived by three children, eight grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.