Chocks Away

Vision of Flight exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv lends itself to romance and pioneering spirit.

chocks.521 (photo credit: Yoram Shalom)
(photo credit: Yoram Shalom)
These days, for many of us, getting on a plane and popping over to some geographically distant destination is not too big a deal. As long as your passport is still valid, currency changed, you’ve packed enough clothes and your cell phone is primed to operate efficiently and economically while you’re away, the sky’s the limit. But a hundred years ago, and even 60-odd years ago, the very idea of boarding a flying contraption, leaving terra firma way below, and enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the some of the places you are used to seeing exclusively from street level, fired the imagination and often set the pulse racing.
Those sentiments exude a palpable presence at the Vision of Flight exhibition which opened at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv recently. The show’s subtitle, The Early Years of Aviation, 1913-1948, puts the exercise in its historical context and naturally lends itself to the romance and pioneering spirit of the first three and a half decades of flying in this part of the world.
Vision of Flight curator Rachel Bonfil says it took the Middle East a while to get on board the flying circus. “Flying began here in 1913. That’s not too early because that’s 10 years after the first flight was made. The Land of Israel always lagged behind the rest of the world.”
Anyone old enough to have caught the 1965 cinematic romp Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, farcical comedic bent notwithstanding, may have some idea of what air travel in those early halcyon days may have entailed.
The movie was based on the idea of an air race from London to Paris, in 1910, and the film’s theme is pretty similar to the way the aviation scene in Palestine was kick-started into life.
“The Aero Club de France announced an air race from Paris to Cairo,” explains Bonfil. “That was in 1913, and Tel Aviv was a stopover location for the flyers.”
That was the first time aircraft were sighted in this part of the world and, naturally, it caused quite a stir, although we are not privy to the response of the local population when the first of the three rudimentary aircraft made it here on December 27, 1913.
“The plane should have landed at Mikve Yisrael, but instead it landed on Tel Aviv beach, and there were no cameras there to capture the historic event,” says the curator.
That was not the case with the second plane to make it here from Paris.
“On December 31, 1913, a two-man team – a mechanic and a pilot – landed in Jerusalem. That was photographed, and there were people to welcome the Frenchmen,” Bonfil adds.
Some of the pictures taken in Jerusalem are on display in the Vision of Flight exhibition, all highly evocative of the time.
“The French consul welcomed the flyers to Jerusalem. The whole of Jerusalem waited for the plane. It was a great event for everybody.”
Meanwhile, the crew of the plane that landed, unheralded, in Tel Aviv won the race to Cairo and, although they didn’t make it to Egypt first, at least the mechanic and pilot who landed in Jerusalem enjoyed a better fate than the third aircraft to leave Paris.
“They landed near a village in the Swiss Alps, but a guard there lit a cigarette near the plane and the whole aircraft went up in flames,” says Bonfil.
“That was the end of that pilot’s flying career.”
That opened the aviation floodgates in pre-state Palestine.
“After the French flights there were all sorts of Turkish planes that flew in and out here, and the Yishuv was introduced to the airplane, and the harbinger of modernity,” continues Bonfil. “The local inhabitants suddenly understood that there was the possibility of greater mobility, more quickly and to greater distances. They began to become familiar with the advanced technology of the beginning of the 20th century.”
War, as we know, causes great suffering, but history also shows that military hostilities often help to further technological advancements.
That was certainly the case with the Great War.
“There were all sorts of air force squadrons in Palestine during the course of the war – the Germans, the Turkish, the Australians and, of course, the British,” says Bonfil.
It was during the Mandate that all aviation matters – pardon the pun – really began to take off.
“The British developed extensive infrastructure here,” notes Bonfil. “They built facilities all over the Empire and, of course, Palestine was part of that.”
Within a few years of the beginning of the Mandate you could, if you had the wherewithal, for example, commute daily between Jerusalem and Haifa courtesy of the first Jewish airline company, Aviron, which was founded in 1936.
Low-cost flights were not even a figment of anyone’s imagination back then, so only a very small portion of the general public experienced the joys of flitting hither and thither in relative double-quick time, but the evolution of flying here began to impact on the national psyche.
Flying clubs sprang up all over the country and, on the weekends, people would learn to pilot planes while others engaged in related activities, and small children began to dream of flying planes and not just of becoming a fireman or policeman.
While all this was going on the British authorities endeavored to keep their beady eyes on flying goings-on, and to ensure “undesirables” did not get their hands on joysticks.
“The Hagana and Irgun Zva’i Leumi, and all the other Jewish organizations, used these flying clubs to train pilots and to try and make sure there were qualified flyers, in readiness for the Jewish state,” explains Bonfil, although adding that the man who was to lead the country was not entirely convinced of the advantages aviation offered.
“To begin with, [David] Ben-Gurion was not too enthusiastic about developing flying skills, but he eventually came round,” the curator adds. That is evident from some of the pictorial evidence on display in the exhibition, which includes a fetching shot of our first prime minister in the cockpit of a Dakota en route to Eilat in 1949, and there is a striking photograph of several leaders of the fledgling state, including Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and then-chief of staff Yigael Yadin looking appreciatively in the direction of an El Al plane.
The evocative photographic display is augmented by intriguing related artifacts, such as a log book and various posters and pamphlets from those early days, while visitors to the exhibition will pass beneath an impressive model airplane, lovingly assembling over the course of two years at the Holtz Air Force Multidisciplinary School in Holon.
The Vision of Flight exhibition will run until March 30, 2014. For more information: (03) 641-4244 and