Hero pilot returns to Israel, 69 years after daring rescue of Yemenite Jews

Elgen Long is a decorated pilot with 15 aviation records. In Israel, he is remembered as the Alaskan Airlines pilot who flew nearly 2,000 Yemenite Jewish refugees to safety.

By: Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

Elgen Marion Long is a world renowned pilot, best known for his accomplishment of setting 15 aviation records and firsts, starting with his 1971 flight around the world over both poles. Long was the first man to have crossed Antarctica alone via the South Pole, and first to use inertial navigation in crossing the Antarctic Continent. He received the prestigious FAI Gold Air Medal for his accomplishments.

In 1949, as Israel’s War of Independence was still raging, the Alaska Airlines pilot decided to volunteer his service to the newly formed, but under-equipped, Israeli Air Force. Long became a member of Mahal, (foreign volunteers in the IDF) and was given a top secret assignment that required him to fly 12 missions, one after the other, bringing desperate Jewish refugees from Yemen to Israel.

Those were the early days of the migration of the 50,000 strong Jewish community, under the code name “On Eagles Wings.” Now aged 91, Long visited Israel for the first time after 69 years. The trip was arranged by the Stand With Us organization and the Israeli Association for the Preservation of Yemenite Jewish Heritage.

Long’s 12 missions in a DC-4 managed to rescue nearly 2,000 hungry and desperate refugees who had walked through the desert for about a month to reach the gathering point in Aden. There was room for only 48 passengers in Long’s plane. So much could have gone wrong. The Yemenite Jews were frightened because they had never even seen a plane, there were no flight plans, and the lights were off at the Israeli landing strip. Yet Long managed to bring all of the refugees safely to Israel.

The pilot’s fist mission for the newly born Jewish State was to bring a group of stateless Jewish refugees from China to Israel. Shortly after landing, he received a cable instructing him to fly to Aden to meet a group that had crossed the desert on foot. He was told to get there as soon as possible because the group “was at risk of dying of disease and hunger.”

WIN: Are you the last surviving airman from the 1949 mission to bring Yemenite Jews to Israel?

ELGEN LONG: Well, there are a few still alive from later missions of “On Eagles Wings.” We arrived before the war ended and were the first mission in what was a secret operation. We were told to fly to an airfield in Aden, Yemen and the commanding officer would meet us there with further orders. When we got there the officer was on the ramp and said “I have 2,000 people here and it’s a matter of life or death that we get them to Israel as fast as we can.” Some of them were ill and very worn out. They had no food and had been sleeping in the desert. They were dying and we had to get them out of there as quickly as we could.

WIN: How many trips back and forth did you make from Aden to Israel?

ELGEN LONG: We made 12 trips all together. The officer wanted us to carry as many refugees as we could, but we only had 48 seats in the airplane. So we found out how much they weighed, and it was only weighed about 80 pounds each.

WIN: What did you know about your passengers?

ELGEN LONG: We knew nothing about our passengers. We got there on the morning of the Sabbath and they had already gotten permission from the rabbis to fly on the Sabbath because it was a matter of life or death. What we did was take all the seats out of the airplane to maximize passengers. We could carry 12,000 pounds and aimed at placing 150 people on each trip, including some children. All made the trip sitting on the floor.

WIN: What was the mood like on the plane? These were people from a very primitive society and now they were coming to a new world. Were they singing, happy, worried?

ELGEN LONG: They were very worried and desperate and some were afraid to get on the air plane. The rabbi told them, “In Exodus its written that ‘they will fly on the wings of a golden eagle.’ So get aboard!” That convinced them. We managed to get 150 on board. We flew nonstop to Israel via the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba to Um Rushrush (now Eilat), on to the airstrip in Lydda. When we arrived, there were no lights at the airport. The tower would not answer, but we knew we were over the airport. In the dark we managed a good landing.

WIN: Are you still flying?

ELGEN LONG: I have not been a pilot for 30 years. When I visited Beersheba this week, the air force put me in a flight simulator. I managed to take off, but could not figure out where I was.

WIN: You know that you are considered to be a great hero in Israel.

ELGEN LONG: Well it too long to get here. It’s been 69 years but I am enjoying every minute. It’s absolutely fantastic what you people have done here. I was really shocked to see what Ben Gurion Airport looks like now. The Lydda air strip no longer exists, but what a wonderful airport you now have made. I am pleased and honored to be here.

Dr. Yigal Ben Shalom, Director of the Association for Preservation of Yemenite Jewish Heritage told World Israel News, “The refugees were hungry, tired and scared and prayed the entire nine hour trip. Elgen came out more than once to see how they were managing. They greeted Elgen as thou he was a messiah. He took a huge risk for our sake and the Yemenite community owe him a debt of gratitude for the success of the clandestine immigration to Israel.”