First El Al Flight Departs for London and New York

After several days of training and an official dedication by Prime Minister Golda Meir, the first El Al flight using a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet departs from Lod Airport for London and New York.  The plane, fully booked with 400 passengers, is captained by Oded Abarbanel. Hundreds of onlookers watch the takeoff.

When it debuts in 1968, the Boeing 747 is the largest and widest passenger airline created to date.  It’s size and increased capacity enables airlines to offer less expensive tickets, thereby opening transatlantic travel to the middle class.   Pan-American, then one of the world’s largest airlines, orders twenty-five of the new Boeing 747’s in 1966, the largest single order for an aircraft model in history.  Pan Am enters the first 747 into service in January 1970 with a flight from New York to London.

In July 1966, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) announces that it intends to use the new jumbo jets on its route from London to Lod airport (today Ben-Gurion International Airport)  The decision by BOAC is followed by other airlines making similar announcements.  This forces Israel to speed up plans for expanding and modernizing the facilities at the airport, many of which date to the 1930s when it was first built as a British Air Force base. The larger capacity planes require bigger, modern facilities.  These include the ability for customs and immigration authorities to process larger numbers of arrivals, a longer runway and new equipment for handling passenger baggage. The Israeli Airport Authority begins a series of projects aimed at meeting these needs including the expansion of the terminal and construction of a new passenger hall in 1968.  Additional improvements are made following a fire at the airport in late 1968, speeding up the airport’s modernization and ability to handle increased passenger loads.

In October 1967, the El Al Board of directors vote to acquire new aircraft, including two Boeing 747s, as part of a $200 million, seven year expansion project.  The Government approves the purchase of only one of the 747 jumbo jets.  With delivery of the plane set for June 1971, an initial flight crew is selected in March 1971. After undergoing preliminary training in Israel, the crew travels to London where it trains using BOAC’s 747 flight simulator.

On June 2, 1971, the first El Al 747 arrives at Lod airport after making two passes over Tel-Aviv.  Transportation Minister Shimon Peres is among the small group of passengers to make the journey from London.  The day before its historic first passenger flight, an inauguration ceremony is held at the airport where the plane is given the informal moniker, “The Flying Elephant,” by head of El Al Mordechai Ben-Ari.  Prime Minister Golda Meir cuts a ribbon tied across its entrance to officially dedicate the aircraft.

The photo shows Prime Minister. Golda Meir and Transportation Minister Shimon Peres flanked by Mordechai Ben-Ari and former Transportation Minister Moshe Carmel, during the inauguration ceremony on June 7, 1971.

Photo Source: Government Press Office of Israel, Moshe Milner.