CODENAME: OPERATION PEACE FLIGHT
When I led the First
Pilots' Tour of Israel in 1994, I stood on the West
Bank of the Jordan River, gazed across the narrow waterway into the Hashemite
Kingdom of Jordan, and thought about the enormous chasm that it represented. At
that point, the river was only a stream, and one could wade across effortlessly.
But the penalty for doing so could have been enormous, emphasizing how politics
It made me wonder, though, if aviation could somehow be used to breach
this political gap and contribute to Middle East peace.
A few months later, my fanciful idea of such a flight became a more
realistic possibility. This is when Jordan's King Hussein and Israel's Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a peace treaty ending 46 years of hostility.
Here, I thought, was an opportunity for general aviation to participate
in the peace process. Such was my naiveté about Middle East affairs. Although
Israel and Egypt had signed a peace treaty in 1979, for example, general
aviation flights between those two countries were still strongly discouraged.
But I was compelled to try. After all, Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan's
capital, are only 40 nautical miles apart. There were two additional factors in
my favor. The first was that King Hussein was an active pilot and aviation
enthusiast. The second was that former-FAA administrator, Najeeb Halaby, was the
I called Halaby and explained my desire to make the first flight between
Israel and Jordan. Surprisingly, he did not laugh. Instead, he suggested that I
make my request in a letter to King Hussein and said that he would forward it on
It should be noted that since the birth of Israel in 1948, not one
airplane--military or civil--had been allowed to take off in either of these
countries and land in the other. Some overflights of Israel had been allowed.
The first was in 1994 when King Hussein--enroute from London to Amman--circled
1,000 feet over Jerusalem in his Lockheed 1011. Royal Jordanian Airlines was
allowed to fly over Israel on flights to and from Amman, but none had landed
Nineteen days after sending my letter to Halaby, I received a fax in the
middle of the night. It was a letter from Prince Feisal of Jordan. It said that
it would please His Majesty to approve a fly-in between Israel and Jordan.
The letter suggested also that Jordanian pilots be invited to join the
American and Israeli pilots, and "a mixed formation of Israeli and
Jordanian aircraft could fly across the Jordan River [to Amman] as a symbol of
peace." This ingredient was most responsible for the success of what was to
be code-named Operation Peace Flight.
The short distance between Jerusalem and Amman belied the difficulty and
frustration involved in planning such an historic cross-country flight. From my
home in Los Angeles, I spent months coordinating efforts among government
officials and individuals in Amman, Jerusalem, and elsewhere to bring this
effort to fruition.
The events of May 23, 1995 began to unfold at 7 A.M., Middle East time.
This is when five lightplanes carrying 23 Jordanian pilots and guests departed
from Amman for Jerusalem. One can only imagine the excitement of the Israeli air
traffic controllers as they observed on radar a formation of aircraft heading
across their eastern frontier from Jordan. But on this day, no alarms were
The Jordanians were greeted at Jerusalem Airport and taken to a reception
hosted by Israeli President Ezer Weizman, who also was a pilot and commander of
the Israeli Air Force. The Jordanians were taken on an emotional tour of
Jerusalem's holy sites, which had been off-limits to them ever since Israel
captured the city during the Six-Day War in 1967.
That afternoon, the small terminal at Jerusalem’s Atorot Airport was
bedlam except to those who could hear the speeches and preflight briefings above
the excited din of Arabic, English, and Hebrew. History was in the making.
I was to lead the 31-airplane formation in a Britten-Norman Islander.
Arrangements also were made for some Jordanians to fly in Israeli airplanes and
At 4 p.m. the aircraft began departing four at a time. Once airborne,
each quartet formed a loose diamond formation. We were on our way from Israel to
the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The view from my window was incredible. To my right was an Israeli
airplane carrying a Jordanian and to my left a Jordanian airplane carrying an
Israeli. As trite as it may sound, it would not have surprised me to see doves
of peace join the formation.
From over Jericho, we turned northeast toward a checkpoint established
for our flight. It was appropriately named Salam, a five-letter shortening of
the Arabic salaam, which--like the Hebrew word, shalom--means peace.
We approached the serpentine Jordan River north of the Dead Sea. This was
the border and had represented some of the most restricted, hostile airspace in
the world. Pilots of both countries had to avoid crossing this frontier lest
they become targets for hostile jet fighters.
As we crossed the river, someone observed over the radio. "It is as
if God's breath were lifting our wings." And then someone from another
aircraft said that he was the first to make a cellular call from Jordan to
We approached Amman from the west, in violation of a briefing page
included with our Jeppesen charts. Although later deleted, the instruction said,
"Aircraft registered in Israel or other aircraft on flights to or from
Israel are not allowed to overfly or land within Jordan territory."
Another "Berlin Wall" crumbled.
Moments later, Amman sprawled beneath our wings. I was the first to land
at Marka International Airport and the first to deplane. Walking toward me on
the hot tarmac ramp was a man familiar in face, short in height, and tall in
stature. We shook hands and the man said, "Hello, Captain Schiff. I am
Hussein. Welcome to Jordan."
The king of Jordan subsequently walked up to every airplane as it parked
and greeted everyone. Some initially thought they were suffering from heat
prostration and delirium. Others were convinced that the man was a stand-in. No
one had expected the king to be awaiting our arrival. But King Hussein made
everyone feel welcome and at ease despite our casual appearance.
Accompanying the king was his son, Prince Feisal, a squadron commander
and F-5 pilot in the Jordanian Air Force, who had worked so hard with me to
ensure the success of this event.
An Israeli obviously overcome by the emotion of the moment and sobbing
with joy walked toward His Majesty with arms outstretched, as if to embrace the
king. Two strapping guards standing behind the monarch reacted reflexively and
began to move forward in a protective manner, but they were stopped short as the
king held out his arms
in return. The guards stepped back, and the taller of the
two could not withhold his tears.
One of the Jordanian pilots said that he had logged 3,500 hours, but that
the last 30 minutes were the most exciting of his life.
An Israeli pilot, Eli Inbar, said, "It is wonderful seeing the
Jordanians this way. In the past, I had only seen them through the sights of my
rifle. And now we are their guests." (Inbar's father had been killed in
battle against the Jordanians.)
I stood back to observe these former enemies laughing and embracing, and
it seemed so natural. I wondered how these people could ever have been at war.
They have so much in common, so much to fight for, not against. General aviation
was the catalyst for this profound experience and prideful moment.
Everyone was then led into a reception room, but my son, Brian, and I
were whisked into a small anteroom where King Hussein and Prince Feisal sat
waiting. There we did what pilots do best--we talked about flying. The king
discussed the camaraderie of those who share the sky, and how this helped to
bring the people of Israel and Jordan one step closer. "You are pioneers in
the peace process, and I want to thank you."
I learned also that the king had taught his son to fly, as I had taught
During his subsequent speech to members of the Peace Flight, King Hussein
said, "Today you have made history. As you know, the distance you have
flown is not a very long one, and I hope and pray that the distance will become
even shorter with the passage of time.
"I never sought peace between only governments and leaders. But a
peace between the people is a true peace and the only one that can last. There
is no other way to carry out our obligation to future generations."
Our flight was given little advance publicity in the Middle East, because
there are enemies of peace shackled by the chains of the past. There was no
reason to afford them an opportunity for sabotage. But afterward, the electronic and print media spread this remarkable
Operation Peace Flight marked the first time that any airplane had ever
been allowed to fly from either of these neighboring countries to the other and
opened the door for a free flow of general aviation traffic between Israel and
Prior to our departure from Amman the next day, Prince Feisal was on hand
to say goodbye. In his farewell speech, he said, "This momentous event will
not be considered successful until the safe return of the last plane in
All members of the Peace Flight were given a small gift from the king,
but the most precious gift that he gave to us and to the rest of the world is
the one of which he was most proud: his peace treaty with Israel. Each of us
also received a beautiful book containing the treaty and related documents, in
English and Arabic.
Linda Regan, an American pilot and Presbyterian pastor, wrote a prayer
the evening before our departure for Jordan in which she said, in part, "We
are one people brought together by our love of flight."
During the return flight to Israel, I gazed down upon the Jordan River
and reflected on Regan's prayer. Although politics can transcend geography, the
love of flight can transcend both.
Note: During the two days of Operation Peace Flight, Barry arranged for his group to be accompanied by a video crew, which filmed the entire event. After
Barry returned home, the tape was edited. Music and voiceover narration were added.
This was made possible by Sporty’s Pilot Shop and Hal Shevers, who
sponsored the production. Buy the "Codename: Peace Flight" video here.