Could a salvaged airplane from Tucson have played a part in the Six Day War? Improbable, yet true.
In 1967, three Israeli engineers, with a handful of American mechanics and help from the Tucson Jewish community, secretly put together four Boeing C-97 planes from scraps in a Tucson junkyard, not too far from Davis-Monthan Air Force base. The first of those planes made it to Israel in time to fly in the Six-Day War.
I learned of this unique Tucson-Israel connection a few months ago in an email from Marshall Grant, a former Tucsonan now living in Israel. Through his translation and editing business, Grant recently met Jacob Carmi, an Israeli aircraft engineer who spent about 11 months in Tucson back in 1967, restoring salvaged planes for the Israel Air Force.
Carmi was back in Tucson this January, 47 years later, scouting out a cargo plane in Marana for an Israeli company, Cargo Air Lines, Ltd., where he now serves as a consultant. Intrigued by this unusual Tucson-Israel connection, I interviewed him for the AJP.
In April 1967, Carmi was 27 years old and working as an engineer for Israel Aerospace Industries the first time he was sent to Tucson. According to an article in the Washington Post from Oct. 29, 1967, IAI had purchased four C-97 carcasses from the Pentagon for about $10,000 each. At that time, United States foreign policy prohibited the sale of flyable freighter or tanker planes to Israel. These planes were no longer flyable and had ostensibly been used as “personal aircraft assigned to various generals or military outfits for executive flying,” according to the article.
“The Pentagon sold them to Israel because they were sure we wouldn’t be able to turn them back into airplanes,” Carmi says.
The remains of those planes ended up at a scrapyard on south Kolb Road that Carmi says was owned by Ben Klimst, who gave Carmi’s team access to work on them. “We put them together from scraps,” says Carmi. But first, they had to acquire the pieces.
“Hard pressed for engines, the Israelis find a C-97 donated by the Federal Aviation Agency to the Tucson Fire Department. They are allowed to remove the engines, but must return the fuselage, which the firemen promptly burn,” David Hoffman wrote in the Washington Post. Hoffman served as co-pilot on one of the C-97 flights back to Israel.
Hoffman described Carmi as “a rugged, sandy-haired sawed-off John Wayne, who has incredible rapport with machinery. When the pilots say, ‘Jake, the whosis is broken and the whatsis is leaking,’ Jake always responds: “I fix.” And Jake, a Sabrah, or native-born Israeli, never breaks his promise.”
Working around the clock, the team had the first plane ready in early June, just as Israel found itself under siege from its neighbors. They were eager to fly the plane to Israel, but getting it off the ground wasn’t so easy.
“When the Israelis finish with their first C-97, they ask Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to fill ’er up with 7,835 gallons of gasoline — for cash, of course. The Air Force refuses on the grounds there just couldn’t be an Israeli C-97 parked right there in the desert beside a U.S. base,” Hoffman wrote.
“When we were done and requested permission to take off, they said, ‘What are you talking about? We sold you junk, not airplanes.’ And we replied, ‘Yes, you sold us junk, but we renovated them, put them back together, and now we’re ready to fly them to Israel,’” Carmi says.
They finally got permission to fly out of Tucson. But then there was the matter of landing in Israel in the middle of a war. “They didn’t know we were coming and they were afraid of foreign aircraft flying into Israel during the war, so they didn’t want to let us land at first.
I spoke to them in Hebrew and convinced them that we were legitimate,” says Carmi.
The team received an outpouring of support from the Tucson Jewish community. Carmi says that several women involved in raising money for Israel asked if they could send some packages on one of the planes. “They spent six months going to stores owned by Jews and collected things for WIZO [the Women’s International Zionist Organization]. On the day that we were ready to leave, we brought the plane to Tucson International Airport. They showed up with a big truck full of cardboard boxes and were very pleased that we agreed to take them on the plane,” Carmi says. When they landed in Israel, Carmi unloaded the boxes to take them through customs and some of them fell apart. He found himself picking up ladies’ undergarments in the middle of the airport. “I didn’t know where to bury myself,” he says. But Carmi says it was worth it because the women who arranged the donations were so pleased.
“I’ve worked with planes all of my life,” Carmi says. During the Yom Kippur War he was responsible for all IAF personnel carriers — 67 planes in all. “It was an awful war. Seeing an airplane full of wounded soldiers, after the first night of shelling from the Egyptians, that was more than enough for me.”
His work as an aeronautics engineer has taken Carmi around the globe. In 1966 he was responsible for maintaining Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s plane during his travels through Africa. From 1975-77 he lived in Tehran, maintaining three Boeing 707s that were rented to Iran Air by an Israeli company, leaving just months before the fall of the Shah. He helped airlift food to Biafra and Sudan. All in all, Carmi says he has spent seven years of his life traveling, away from his family, sometimes on covert missions that he still isn’t allowed to discuss.
But Tucson remains a special place for him. Carmi has been back here several times since 1967. He figures that he spent about two years in total, fixing up planes for the IAF and then — later in life — scouting out planes to purchase for companies like Cargo Air Lines. He fondly recalls trips to Mount Lemmon, “A” Mountain and Nogales.
“Tucson was much smaller then. Where we’re staying now [Omni Tucson National Resort] was just desert,” says Carmi. “I spent so much time here that my daughter didn’t recognize me when I came home. But back then, Zionism came before everything.”
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson. She can be reached at [email protected].