One of the most meaningful and emotional flights of my life occurred on May 23, 1995, 20 years ago this month. This is when—with the permission of King Hussein—I led a formation of 31 small airplanes from Jerusalem, Israel, to Amman, Jordan. The distance was only 40 nm and barely qualified as a cross-country flight, yet it transcended what previously had been a seemingly insurmountable cultural and political barrier. Ours was the first flight—civil or military—ever allowed between these countries. On board were 135 Americans, Israelis, and Jordanians. Our goal was to use general aviation as a means of participating in the Middle East peace process. There were some behind-the-scenes aspects of this flight that I would like to share with you.
One night during the planning stages of Operation Peace Flight, I was awakened at home at three o’clock in the morning by an unusually insistent telephone ring. Half asleep, I picked up the phone and heard the static then associated with international connections.
“Hello?” I answered, wondering who would call at such an hour.
A female voice at the other end spoke English with a thick Hebrew accent. “Captain Schiff?” the voice asked.
“Yes. That’s me.”
“Hold one moment please for the prime minister of Israel.”
Then there was a male voice with a thick Hebrew accent. It minced no words and got straight to the point, “I understand that you have permission from His Majesty to make a flight from Israel to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.”
“Yes, sir. That is correct, sir.”
“That is very nice, but since this will be the first flight of any kind ever between our two countries, don’t you think that you should have at least consulted with my office?”
I was now wide awake. “But, sir,” I stammered. “Israel is a democracy. I didn’t think that I needed permission.” My voice was shaky; my whole body seemed to be quivering. I seemed to have committed the ultimate faux pas. Had I put the flight at risk?
“No, no.” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said almost apologetically. “You don’t need my permission. I called only to wish you a pleasant and successful flight,” he said with a chuckle. The prime minister of Israel had an interesting sense of humor.
After our 31 aircraft had landed at the Marka Airport in Amman, our group was led to an auditorium on the airport where we would soon be addressed by the king. My son, Brian, and I, however, were whisked away from the group and taken into a small anteroom for a few private moments with King Hussein and his son, Prince Faizal. And guess what we talked about? Aviation, of course. The four of us were pilots, and our conversation drifted naturally into several minutes of hangar flying.
King Hussein then asked if there was anything he could do for me while we were in Jordan. The question caught me off guard, and I wasn’t sure how to answer. Finally I asked, “Would it be possible to obtain a Jordanian pilot certificate while I’m here?”
“Of course,” the monarch replied. “That is not a problem.”
I was surprised by the response. “Really?” I asked.
With a smile and a twinkle I shall never forget, he said, “Barry. I am the king.”
As promised, my Jordanian private pilot certificate arrived in the mail at home the following month. I was told later that I was only pilot in the world to hold both Israeli and Jordanian pilot certificates.
Sporty’s Pilot Shop founder Hal Shevers generously offered to provide a video crew while we were in Israel and Jordan. It was important, he thought, to record this historic event for posterity. After we returned home, I wrote and recorded the voiceover narration, and the Sporty’s production team completed the video.
One particular order for a video was most intriguing. It came from a Saudi pilot who lived in Jeddah. His letter said that there were many pilots in his country who would like to see the video, but because of the subject matter, it could not be mailed to his home. “Would it be possible,” he asked, “to send a copy to American Express in Paris, where it could then be picked up and taken into Saudi Arabia?” We, of course, complied.
Thanks to the Internet, the 48-minute video now can be viewed by almost anyone in the world. Brian recently digitized and uploaded it to YouTube.com. Just enter “Operation Peace Flight: Israel to Jordan” in the search window. We hope that you enjoy the moving story of this unprecedented flight.
Barry Schiff was a pilot for TWA for 34 years.