El Al – Israel’s National Airline – missions to bring stranded Israelis home during the Corona crisis
By Rolene Marks
“This is Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) – we never leave our brothers or sisters stranded”.
I recently enjoyed the distinct pleasure of interviewing Captain Ofer Aloni, a veteran pilot who has had a renowned career both in the army flying Cobra helicopters; and for El Al – Israel’s national carrier.
Captain Ofer Aloni is warm and engaging. A pilot with an enduring passion for music, Captain Aloni recently participated in a historic mission – to bring back stranded Israelis from Peru because of international travel bans due to the global spread of the Corona virus. He graciously shared some insight into this extraordinary mission, one of several to various countries.
What makes these missions extra special, is that this is the first time the Boeing airplanes, with their tails proudly displaying the Israeli flag, have flown to these countries. Australia, Peru, Colombia, Nigeria, Costa Rica and various others – Israel has proven that we will dispatch our national carrier to the far flung corners of the world to bring our citizens home safely.
First Direct Flight To Melbourne Lands. Rescuing stranded Israelis, the flight on the 2 April 2020 from Tel Aviv Israel to Melbourne Australia took 16 hours and 24 minutes.
Captain Aloni describes how the mission started. “We heard that there was a mission being planned to go to Peru and everyone wanted to be a part of it,” he says. Israel does not have an Embassy in Peru but the prospect to fly to a place where El Al had never been before, proved intriguing.
Before the planes could take off on their extraordinary mission, a sterile environment had to be created on board because of the highly contagious nature of Covid-19. A sterile area was created behind the cockpit – business class became a no-go area. Pilots and cabin crew took great pains to keep a distance from each other, and social distancing rules means that there was absolutely no contact between pilots and passengers and cabin crew had to wear masks and what has now become de rigueur Corona accessories.
With a sterile environment set up on board, it was time for the two El Al flights to depart for Lima, Peru.
“Flying into the unknown is very exciting for a pilot and this time we were flying over countries and in weather we had not previously experienced,” says Aloni. The flight path soared over the magnificent Amazon Rain Forest and high above the Andes mountains, with its unusual clouds and the weather was eye opening. High clouds above the Andes Mountains are fertile ground for storms.
For this long haul flight that took over 30 hours with no layover, the six pilots took shifts. Usually, the pilots that are off shift, are able to rest comfortably on proper cots with sheets and blankets but in this case, nobody seemed to mind catching a few z’s on the floor of the cockpit. “It was special, and the atmosphere was different – we knew that we doing something completely out of the ordinary,” says Aloni.
It was certainly out of the ordinary. With the whole world engaged in a war against encroaching Corona virus, airports were closed and for the first time, flight traffic was quiet.
After flying for so long, it was time to notify air traffic control that El Al was coming into land.
“This was the most incredible feeling. It was so exciting not just for us, but for the air traffic controllers at the airport in Lima. This was the first time ever that they were greeting El Al pilots and having planes land in the empty airport. I felt so lucky! Prime Minister Netanyahu phoned to congratulate us but we are Israel – we never leave our people behind,” says Aloni.
With a 1000 enthusiastic and grateful passengers on board, it was time to head home. This was a flight like no other and while Aloni and his crew had to keep a safe distance from the passengers, the affable Captain took to the on-board microphone to address everyone. For Israelis and Jews around the world, this was defining moment. It was a moment that would signal light and collective brotherhood.
August 2018 – Captain Ofer Aloni, son of Holocaust survivors, with his guitar, making a special emotional gesture with passengers returning from Poland to Israel , after delegations visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and other Nazi death camps.
“I used the opportunity to speak about using this opportunity of quarantine to appreciate our togetherness. I said to them that I would love to hug all of them, we couldn’t at this time, but we can focus on each other,” says Aloni.
Footage of the speech and ensuing singing was posted to social media channels and had people the world over singing – and shedding a few emotional but joyful tears.
Home sweet home – and was homecoming ever this sweet?!
The reception waiting for crew and passengers was simply extraordinary! There were about 30-40 parents, clapping, crying and thanking us and I could not contain my tears,” says an emotional Aloni. “This was the greatest reward! There are moments in life that you cherish. For me, it has been the rescue of four soldiers I rescued during combat, and now this mission is definitely another one. We don’t leave anyone behind – on the battlefield and in crisis,” says Aloni.
Israel has proven the ancient tenet that we are all responsible for each other – even if it means flights to every corner of the globe, including the unexplored that bring with them new terrain, and that every life is precious which is why we never leave anyone behind.
Going home – Sweet home!