No, this wasn’t a student effort to try to make it into the Guinness Book Of Records, but it is in there. The most passengers on a 747 – in the air – is 1,112 and it took place during a humanitarian rescue mission in 1991. Known as Operation Solomon, the record was achieved during the rescue of 14,325 Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews). So how did it all happen? How is that even physically possible?
A little bit of backstory
During the 1980’s a wave of immigration between Ethiopia and Sudan into Israel was taking place. The Ethiopian Aliyah, as it is known in Israel, was the result of growing tensions and poverty in the area as well as the threat of hostility towards the Beta Israel. Ethiopian Jews were heading to Israel overland through North Africa in massive numbers. It was a dangerous route, but other factors forced The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to take action.
Over ten years, the situation had escalated. The Ethiopian government was also fighting off Eritrean and Tigrean rebels at the time, the president needed money for weaponry, but also wanted an escape route himself. In the US, both Ethiopian and Jewish charities began lobbying government for help.
But once it became apparent the rebels would soon topple the Mengistu Haile Mariam government, it was clear, the opportunity to rescue people was almost up. Once the rebels took hold, the entire region would be destabilized. Everyone would try to leave and the border would have to shut.
Setting the record for most passengers to fly on a plane
Uri Lubrani at the Israeli Ministry of Defence realised he needed to negotiate with Mengistu to save these people. The agreement opened several operational windows. Lubrani made clear to Mengistu, his money would only arrive once the people did.But this was a secret arrangement. If anyone knew of it, the deal would collapse.
Operation Solomon was the second half of this final push out of Ethiopia. The sudden urgency was the product of a newspaper leak in the US. While many major US papers knew of the secret agreement and operation, all had agreed not to publish. Sadly, a story in the L.A Times went out without the editor being privy to the agreement. And once he ran it, everyone did. After than it was all hands on deck. From May 24th to May 25th, 1991, 14,325 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in just 36 hours.
The insider view of Operation Solomon
Many aspects of Operation Solomon are still sealed, so eyewitness accounts from military insiders are unavailable. However, Ambassador William Brown, from the Tel Aviv Embassy has recounted the event. He remembers getting a call to go quickly to Ben Gurion International Airport where he saw a stream of planes landing one after the other, including a Boeing 747 and lots of C-130s.
As the ramps opened came down, thousands of Ethiopian men, women, and children descended onto the tarmac. Inside, he saw all of the equipment removed out of the aircraft and the deck covered with sheets of black, polyethylene plastic.
The odor coming out of the plane after the long flight, with no toilets was overwhelming. Medics were on hand to help those taken ill. In addition, five babies had been born en route. The ambassador was briefed on the tarmac and couldn’t believe his ears when the administrator told him the 747 coming in had 1,112 people on board. He was there to witness the doors open and could hardly believe his eyes either.
How many people can you fit in a 747?
He was so astounded, Brown put a call through to his son, a US Air Force pilot. He challenged him to guess – in an emergency – how many people could be flown in a Boeing 747.
His son said, “Well, in a real emergency, I could cram some 700 people in it.”
Williams replied, “Well, we’ve just done almost 1,030! Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”