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Pilots of the Mahal

Celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month

The history of the Jewish people stretches back into antiquity, nearly 3,500 years. For Jewish pilots, their brightest moment in aviation history, or at least the boldest, may have been in 1948 when Jewish (and non-Jewish) pilots from around the world gathered to fight for the new state of Israel. The saga of pilots who risked their lives flying smuggled, surplus warplanes, while outnumbered by the air forces of five nations, seems like the stuff of novels and movies; it is, and inspired a number of both.

Israel's first fighter squadron flew Avia S-199 fighter aircraft, which were built in Czechsolvakia and based on the German Messerschmitt Bf 109.

Since 2006, every U.S. president has proclaimed May as “Jewish American Heritage Month,” that month chosen to honor the day Israeli independence was proclaimed, May 14, 1948. Today, the holiday follows the Hebrew calendar and can fall in April or May. Perhaps American aviators should take the month to learn about the brave pilots of the Mahal.

Jewish settlers from Europe, especially from what is now Russia, emigrated to the Middle Eastern region known as Palestine starting in the late 1800s, when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. From 1920 to 1948, the region was governed as the British Mandate for Palestine, instituted after World War I when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. After the horrors of World War II, the United Nations approved a plan to create independent Arab and Jewish states in Palestine. This “partition” was accepted by the Jews, but rejected by the Arab people and opposed by the surrounding nations. The day after the state of Israel was declared, the countries of Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria attacked Israeli forces and Jewish settlements. The conflict became known in Israel as the “War of Independence,” and elsewhere as the “Arab-Israeli War of 1948.”

The outnumbered Israeli forces sought help from Jewish organizations around the world and a group known as the Mahal (or Machal), composed of international volunteers, was established. These volunteers were primarily Jews, but also gentiles, who fought for the cause alongside the Israelis. A sub-group of the Mahal were pilots and mechanics who smuggled surplus World War II aircraft into the country and flew military and logistical missions during the war.

A Nazi airplane for a Jewish nation

Many nations enforced an arms embargo, but Czechoslovakia allowed weapons, ammunition, and the Avia S–199 fighter aircraft to be purchased, although surreptitiously, and shipped to Israel. The S–199 was based on the German Messerschmitt Bf 109, which the Avia company built for Germany throughout World War II. The Czechs attached a Junkers engine to the Bf 109 airframe, as the original Daimler-Benz engines were unavailable, and the result was a fighter with overall poor characteristics, performance, and reliability. Israel would take what it could get and 25 of the airplanes were bought, with the first shipment arriving six days after independence was declared. These few airplanes formed Israel’s first fighter squadron. A few days later, an Israeli pilot scored the Israeli Air Force's first aerial victory. The irony of Jewish pilots flying “Nazi aircraft” to establish a Jewish homeland was not lost on the pilots.

The nascent air force commandeered whatever aircraft it could find, and photos of Piper Cubs being used for reconnaissance and a Beechcraft Bonanza with bombs under its wing can be found in the history books.

Many Jewish Americans contributed to the new nation’s struggle. Mickey Marcus, a U.S. Army colonel, commanded units of the Israel Defense Forces and became Israel’s first general. Al Schwimmer, an American aerospace engineer, organized the smuggling of surplus aircraft and recruited crews to fly them. He was able to buy numerous cargo aircraft, plus a few Boeing B–17 bombers, and get the aircraft out of the United States and across the Atlantic to Israel. Many of these pilots would become the first members of the Israeli Air Force. Louis Lenart, a former U.S. Marine Corps pilot, was recruited by Schwimmer to fly S–199 fighters through the British blockade from Czechoslovakia to Israel. As a battle-tested pilot, he commanded the first mission of Israeli aircraft in the war, leading four aircraft to attack Egyptian forces advancing on Tel Aviv. After the war, Lenart airlifted Iraqi Jews to Israel and was a pilot for the national airline, El Al.

To learn more about the Mahal pilots in Israel, there are a few good books on the subject in print and available at bookstores and Amazon. For an evening’s entertainment, view one of the feature or documentary films about the Mahal and the creation of Israel. Or, get out to visit one of the numerous Jewish museums in the United States.

Dennis K. Johnson

Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer and pilot living in New York City.
Topics: Warbird, Movies and Television

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