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Museum's Exhibit Pays Tribute to Operation Magic Carpet


Alaska Airlines' Yemen flight 1949.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alaska Airlines

From the end of 1948 to the fall of 1950, Alaska Airlines took part in the airlift of 50,000 Jews from Yemen to the newly created nation of Israel. Known as Operation Magic Carpet, Alaska Airlines employees flew in perilous conditions while helping to fulfill a Biblical prophecy that said the Yemenite Jews would return to their homeland "on the wings of eagles."

More than 60 years later a new museum in the state of Alaska pays tribute to this piece of Alaska Airlines history. The Alaska Jewish Museum's first featured exhibit, "On the Wings of Eagles: Alaska's Contribution to Operation Magic Carpet," tells the story of a young Alaska Airlines and its employees' heroic efforts to avert a humanitarian crisis during a trying time in world history.

"We decided to have the 'On the Wings of Eagles' exhibit at the museum because of the unique melding of energies between disparate groups (Alaska Airlines, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the State of Israel and the American government) to ensure the rescue of virtually an entire population from devastating circumstances," says Leslie Fried, the museum's curator.

The Yemenite Jews in Aden were living under extremely harsh conditions in the years prior to and immediately following the Birth of the State of Israel.

At the time, Alaska Airlines was the largest non-scheduled carrier in the world. When the American Joint Distribution Committee contacted Alaska President James A. Wooten, he was moved after seeing the terrible conditions under which the Yemenite Jews lived in the Aden ghetto created by the British. Throughout the next two years Captains Sam Silver, Warren Metzger, navigator Elgen Long and Chief Pilot Robert McGuire Jr. along with many others airlifted 50,000 Jews to Tel Aviv. The approximately 430 flights Alaska Airlines made were treacherous. Fuel was difficult to obtain, flight and maintenance crews had to be positioned throughout the Middle East and sandstorms wreaked havoc on the plane engines. There were no deaths during the flights though one plane was forced to make a crash-landing after the loss of an engine.

Capt. Silver and Capt. Long (navigator with Alaska Airlines but later a captain with Flying Tigers), and Darragh Metzger, daughter of Capt. Warren Metzger attended the museum's grand opening this past July.

Tim Thompson, Alaska Airlines' manager of public affairs in Anchorage, learned more about the carrier's participation in Operation Magic Carpet during a conversation with the former Alaska Airlines pilots.

"What really struck me when I had the opportunity to talk with Sam, Elgen and Darragh, while it was a different era, they held the same values and commitments we as a group hold today," says Thompson. "It was amazing to bridge 60 years and know that, though the planes and conditions have changed, the people who work at Alaska Airlines have not."

Alaska Airlines has been involved with a number of different historic projects and events from helping build the Trans Alaska Pipeline to the Berlin Airlift. Each composes a unique part of Alaska's history as a company.

"When you hear directly from the pilots that took part in this mission of mercy, you realize that even back in 1949, there was that Alaska Spirit. It was only natural that we take part in this exhibit as it not only tells the story of this humanitarian relief effort, but also tells the story of who we are as an airline today," says Thompson, adding that this is also the first museum of its type in the state of Alaska. "Considering the subject matter, it seemed natural for Alaska Airlines to take part."

Alaska Airlines helped support the museum, donating travel vouchers to bring the pilots and their families to the opening, a monetary donation and the loan of items from the Alaska Airlines archives such as pilot and flight attendant uniform collections.

The exhibit provides a detailed look of the history of Operation Magic Carpet through historic artifacts, such as the jacket worn by Capt. Metzger and video footage of pilots sharing their airlift experiences. An interactive map also illustrates for visitors where the planes traveled while transporting the refugees.

"It comes back to being able to tell the story of Alaska Airlines' rich history that really makes us the airline we are today and to remember that what we do today is what makes us that company people remember tomorrow," says Thompson. "This is a good reminder that every day we have the opportunity to build on our strengths and while not every day is a life or death mission, the little things we do, being caring and compassionate for others and providing safe travel, reflects directly on every employee, past, present and future."

The Operation Magic Carpet exhibit will be featured in the museum until June 2014.

For more information about the Alaska Jewish Museum, visit www.alaskajewishmuseum.com.

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