In 1985, as the political situation in Ethiopia deteriorated, the sitting regime blocked the mass emigration of Ethiopian Jews living in the country. Initially, the Ethiopian government would only allow Ethiopian Jews to leave in exchange for weapons, and a few minor rescue missions were undertaken in 1985 and 1987.
By early May, 1991, the political and socio-economic situation had deteriorated so significantly that decisive action was needed. Under the direction of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a secret mission to repatriate the Ethiopian Jews was hatched.
Operation Solomon was planned with significant political support from the United States and a personal letter from President George H. W. Bush was sent to the Ethiopian government. Upon receipt of the letter, the Ethiopian government capitulated and gave permission for the Jews to leave Ethiopia.
Throughout 24 and 25 May, 1991, a total of 35 Israeli aircraft – including C-130s, Boeing 707s, and Boeing 747s – made 35 non-stop flights from besieged Addis Ababa, transporting a total of 14,325 people in less than 36 hours.
An El-Al Boeing 747-258C (4X-AXD) managed to take off with 1,086 people onboard, almost double the normal capacity of that aircraft. Carrying 1,086 passengers on an airliner was a world record, but this record was broken only a few hours into the flight when two babies were born onboard en route to Tel Aviv.
1,088 people on an airliner remains the record for the most people ever carried on an aircraft.
When the 747 arrived in Tel Aviv, an unknown El Al employee described the sight when the airliner door was opened as “a sea of bodies crammed in everywhere.” The mission was a great success that undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.