In 1991, the country of Ethiopia was nearing the end of a debilitating civil war. The government of the country was about to be toppled, and the country of Israel and worldwide Jewish organizations were concerned for the fate of thousands of Ethiopian Jews.
In just a few days, the Israeli government undertook a massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and on one of those planes, a record was broken for the most passengers ever on an airplane.
The Beta Israel, as the Ethiopian Jews were known, were unable to flee the civil war. The Israeli government had sensed the worsening situation in 1990 and made covert plans to get them to Israel. American diplomats also helped to facilitate the upcoming operation, and George H. W. Bush wrote a letter to the then leader of the Ethiopian government, Mengistu Haile Mariam, asking him to allow all the Jews to exit the country at once. The Ethiopian leader’s previous stance was only to allow the Beta Israel to leave the country in exchange for weapons, but this time, he agreed to let them go.
The massive airlift was code-named “Operation Solomon,” and though it had been planned for weeks, the Israeli government and defense forces only had two days to carry it out. They ended up completing it in less than 36 hours.
Israel ended up airlifting about 14,500 Ethiopian Jews on 40 different flights with 28 aircraft in the air at one time. El Al, the Israeli national airline, used Boeing 747 and 757 aircraft, the largest in their fleet, to transport the Ethiopians who sat two or three to a single seat.
One such flight aboard a 747 held 1,086 passengers, which usually only had a capacity of 400–500 passengers depending on the configuration. Never before had one flight carried so many people at one time. Two babies were born during the flight, which brought the total up to 1,088 passengers. Three other babies had even been born during other flights.
Though 14,500 Ethiopian Jews had been evacuated, about 1,000 Ethiopian Jews had to remain in the country because news of the airlift had been leaked. This forced Israel to suspend its operations.