Operation Solomon – El Al’s Record Breaking 747 Max Capacity Flight

As part of a covert effort to evacuate Ethiopian Jews to Israel, Operation Solomon took place in 1991 and airlifted over 14,000 out of Ethiopia. The airlift consisted of Israeli Defence Force Hercules C-130 transports as well as Boeing 747s and 707s from El Al. Amid this massive operation, one particular flight was extra special in that it broke the capacity record for the 747.

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In the early 90s, El Al operated the Boeing 747-200. Photo: Kambui via Wikimedia Commons

Setting the scene

This article will mainly focus on the aviation portion of the operation. But why were 14,000 people being airlifted out of Ethiopia in the first place?

Without getting too deep into the history of the country’s brutal, decades-long civil war, Ethiopia was facing extreme instability and violence. In addition to this, the country was also dealing with a devastating famine.

Caught in the middle of this conflict were civilians living throughout the country. One sub-section of Ethiopia’s population caught in the cross-fire were Ethiopian Jews – a group that the government of Israel decided to protect.

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ethiopian migrants
C-130 Hercules military transports were also involved in the massive operation. Photo: ISRAELI TSVIKA, GPO via Wikimedia Commons

May 24th and 25th

According to TheAvGeeks.com, Operation Solomon took place on May 24th and 25th using 35 aircraft. These consisted of three types:

  • C-130 Hercules military transports
  • Boeing 707s
  • Boeing 747-200s
The journey was a direct 2,575km from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv. Photo: GCMap.com

According to the JDC Archives, the 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were flown nearly 2,600km from the airport at Addis Ababa to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv (Israel) in a mere 36 hours. This was initially designed to be a 10-to 15-day evacuation but was reduced to 48 hours. However, Operation Solomon was so well-executed that the task was complete by midday Saturday.

When all was said and done, the Israeli aircraft made 40 continuous flights over a 36-hour period.

The record-breaking flight

One of the 40 flights operating was extra special in that it had over 1,000 people onboard. According to Half As Interesting, the exact number is disputed with some claiming 1,078 while others go with 1,088. The highest claim is 1,122. Even with the lowest number, the flight set the record for most people on a plane – a record which it still holds to this day.

Operation Solomon
More than 1,000 people were on the plane. This is actually a 707 also used in the airlift but shows what conditions on board must have been like. Photo: Getty Images

The record-setting aircraft was an El Al 747-258C, registered as 4X-AXD. FlugzeugInfo.net notes that the maximum capacity for a Boeing 747-200 is 480 passengers (For anyone curious, the exit limit for the Airbus A380 is 853). So how could the aircraft fit more than double this number?

This was made possible because of several factors:

  1. The aircraft had been stripped of all of its seating. Thus seat width and seat pitch were completely non-existent specifications to consider.
  2. Many passengers were malnourished and had body-weights and dimensions below average or even healthy.
  3. Almost all passengers had belongings with them – literally just the clothes on their backs.

Additionally, the number includes many children and even babies.

The operation was considered a success and is said to have saved a countless number of lives.

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