Al Schwimmer, who died on Saturday at 94 and whose funeral was held on Monday,
was branded a “legend” by President Shimon Peres for his vital life’s work in
Israeli aviation. This extract from the book Start- Up Nation, the best-seller
on Israel’s “economic miracle” by Dan Senor and former Jerusalem Post staffer
Saul Singer, describes in vivid detail how Schwimmer first got involved…
fantasy of an Israeli aircraft industry took shape on a bumpy flight over the
North Pole in 1951, inside what was to become the first aircraft in Israel’s new
national airline. The conversation was between a pair of opposites: Shimon
Peres, the erudite, future president of Israel, who in 1951 was the chief arms
buyer for the new Jewish state, and Al Schwimmer, a swashbuckling American
aviation engineer from Los Angeles, whose pals included Howard Hughes and Kirk
Kerkorian. Schwimmer’s first name was Adolph, but against the backdrop of World
War II, he’d opted for Al.
Peres and Schwimmer were on one of their many
flights over the Arctic tundra in used planes purchased for Israel’s fledgling
air force. Flying over the North Pole was dangerous, but they took the risk
because the route was shorter – no small consideration when piloting planes that
were falling apart.
Al Schwimmer was a raconteur, who’d been captivated
by the airline business in its earliest days, when flying machines were an
He was working for TWA when the United States entered
World War II and the entire airline was drafted into the war effort. Though not
officially in the US Air Force, Schwimmer and his fellow fliers were given
military ranks and uniforms and spent the war ferrying troops, equipment, and
the occasional movie star all over the world.
During the war, Schwimmer’s
identity as a Jew meant little to him and had almost no influence on his
thinking or way of life. But seeing a liberated concentration camp and the
newsreel footage of countless bodies and speaking with Jewish refugees in Europe
trying to reach Palestine transformed him.
Almost overnight, Schwimmer
became a committed Zionist.
When he heard that the British in Palestine
were turning back ships full of European Jewish refugees, Schwimmer came up with
what he was convinced was a better way: fly over the British Navy patrols and
smuggle the Jews in by landing them at hidden air-fields. He tracked down
Ben-Gurion’s secret emissary in New York and pitched him the idea. For months,
the representative of the Haganah, the main underground Jewish army in
Palestine, sat on the idea. But when it became clear that the British would soon
withdraw and a fullscale Arab-Jewish war over Israel’s independence would ensue,
the Haganah contacted Schwimmer.
By this time, they had an even more
urgent need than smuggling refugees: building an air force. The Haganah did not
have a single aircraft and would be completely exposed to the Egyptian air
force. Could Schwimmer buy and repair fighter planes and smuggle them into
Israel? Schwimmer told Ben-Gurion’s agents that he’d start immediately, even
though he knew he would be violating the 1935 Neutrality Act, which prohibited
US citizens from exporting weaponry without government
This wasn’t just chutzpah. This was
Within days, Schwimmer had tracked down a handful of Jewish
pilots and mechanics from the United States and the United Kingdom, for what he
told them would be the first civilian Jewish air-line. He was obsessed with
secrecy, and did not even want to bring them into the fold about the idea of
building fighter planes. Few were even informed that the planes were destined
When outsiders inquired, the cover story was that they were
building a national airline for Panama and would ferry cattle to
Though the FBI impounded the largest aircraft he bought – three
Constellations – Schwimmer and his gang succeeded in smuggling out other
aircraft, some by literally flying over the heads of the FBI agents who’d
demanded that the planes be grounded. At the last minute, the Haganah cut a
separate deal to buy German Messerschmitts from Czechoslovakia, which Schwimmer
was also drafted to fly to Israel.
WHEN THE 1948 War of Independence
came, Schwimmer’s aircraft fought off Egyptian planes that were bombing Tel
Aviv. In certain battles, the barely trained Israeli pilots were instrumental in
ensuring that the Negev desert – a relatively large triangular swath of land
starting a few miles south of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, between the Egyptian Sinai
and Jordan – became part of Israel.
After Israel prevailed in the War of
Independence, Schwimmer returned to the United States, despite being a wanted
man. The FBI had figured out the smuggling scheme, and the US Justice Department
had built a criminal case against him. His trial, along with those of a number
of the pilots he had recruited, was a public sensation. The defendants pleaded
not guilty, on the grounds that the law itself was unjust.
off with paying a fine, which was widely seen as exoneration.
Schwimmer was cleared, it didn’t take him long to get back into the smuggling
game. By 1950, Schwimmer had joined forces with Shimon Peres, then a young
Ben-Gurion protégé working for the new Israeli Defense Ministry. Peres had tried
to buy thirty surplus Mustang aircraft for the Israeli Air Force, but the United
States had decided to destroy the planes instead. Their wings were sliced off
and their fuselages cut in two.
So Schwimmer’s team bought the cutup
planes at cost from a Texas junk dealer, reconstructed them, and made sure they
had all their parts and were operational.
Then the team disassembled the
planes again, packed them in crates marked “Irrigation Equipment,” and shipped
them to Israel.
But because of the urgency with which they had to get the
aircraft to Israel, a few of the planes were left assembled, and Schwimmer and
Peres flew these to Tel Aviv. And that is how they found themselves in 1951
talking about a future Israeli aviation industry.
Peres became captivated
by Schwimmer’s ideas for creating an aircraft industry in Israel that would
serve a purpose beyond a short-term military strategy. It was part of Peres’s
fascination with creating industries in Israel.
Schwimmer insisted that
in a world flooded with surplus aircraft from the war, there was no reason why
Israel could not buy planes cheaply, repair and improve them, and sell them to
militaries and airlines in many countries, while building Israel’s own
commercial industry. Shortly after they returned to the United States, Peres
took Schwimmer to meet Ben-Gurion, who was on his first visit to America as
Israel’s prime minister.
“You learning Hebrew now?” was Ben-Gurion’s
first question when Schwimmer reached out his hand to greet him; they had met
repeatedly during the War of Independence.
Schwimmer laughed and changed
the subject: “Nice girls here in California, don’t ya think, Mr. Prime
Minister?” Ben-Gurion wanted to know what Schwimmer was working
Schwimmer told him about the renovations he was carrying
“What? With this tiny collection of machines you can renovate
planes?” Schwimmer nodded.
“We need something like this in Israel. Even
more. We need a real aviation industry. We need to be independent,” Ben-Gurion
said. This was exactly what Schwimmer had discussed with Peres, while flying
over the tundra. “So, what do you think?” Unbeknownst to Schwimmer, Ben- Gurion
had recently instructed the Technion to build an aeronautical engineering
department. In giving the order, he’d said, “a high standard of living; a rich
culture; spiritual, political and economic independence...
possible without aerial control.”
“Sure, I think you’re right,” said
Schwimmer, falling into the prime minister’s trap.
“I’m glad you think
so. We’ll expect you to come back to Israel to build one for
Schwimmer stared dumbfounded at Peres.
“Just do it, Al,” said
Peres. Schwimmer resisted. He immediately began thinking of the run-ins he would
have with the Israel Air Force chiefs and the small, but powerful Israeli
establishment. Plus he didn’t speak Hebrew. He wasn’t a party insider. He hated
politics and bureaucracy. And the Israeli combination of socialist, economic
planning and cronyist politics could be stifling for anyone, let alone someone
trying to build an aviation industry.
He told Ben-Gurion that he could
build the company only if it would be free from cronyism – no political hacks
getting jobs. A private company, organized along commercial lines, he told
“You’re just right for Israel. Come,” Ben-Gurion
Schwimmer did go to Israel. Within five years, Bedek, the
airplane maintenance company he founded with two Israelis, became the largest
private employer in the country.
By 1960 Bedek was producing a modified
version of the French Fouga fighter plane. At an official unveiling and test
flight of the plane, dubbed Tzukit (“swallow” in Hebrew), Ben- Gurion told
Schwimmer, “This place isn’t just Bedek anymore. You’ve gone beyond repairs. You
guys have built a jet. The new name should be Israel Aircraft Industries.”
Peres, who by now was deputy defense minister, translated the new company
Peres and Ben-Gurion had managed to recruit an American Jew to
provide one of the biggest long-term jolts to Israel’s economy, all without
asking anyone for one investment dollar.Extracted by permission from
Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, by Dan Senor and Saul
Singer (Twelve books).