TEL AVIV (Jun. 27)
An El Al Boeing 757 took off from Ben-Gurion Airport shortly after noon Tuesday, landed in Soviet Armenia and returned to Israel before midnight, making what is believed to be the first direct flight to the Soviet Union by Israel’s national airline.
It was not a commercial flight, but a humanitarian mission organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The aircraft arrived back in Israel late Tuesday evening carrying 71 victims of the earthquake that devastated Soviet Armenia last December.
They include patients, many of them children, who were treated by an Israeli medical relief team dispatched at the time of the disaster to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where the plane landed Tuesday.
The Soviet patients will receive artificial limbs and further treatment at the Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer and the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, before returning home.
Aryeh Cooperstock, director of JDC’s international development program, said the Soviets originally had planned to fly the patients to Switzerland.
But JDC prevailed on them to accept “international Jewish humanitarian aid” and the use of Israeli air transportation, said Cooperstock, who headed a JDC delegation aboard the chartered jet.
He said the Soviets were appreciative of the medical assistance Israel rendered immediately after the earthquake.
CARRYING TONS OF CLOTHING
The plane flown to the Soviet Union on Tuesday carried several tons of clothing purchased by the JDC to be distributed in Armenia, where relief is still needed.
During their visit to Israel, the patients are being accompanied by two Armenian doctors and four nurses, who will observe the treatment.
Preparations were under way Tuesday at the two Israeli hospitals to receive the patients. Armenian-speaking volunteers will assist the staff.
The pilot of the chartered plane, Capt. Avner Slepak, said prior to taking off from Ben-Gurion that this would be his first trip to the Soviet Union.
The Israeli rescue team that initially treated the earthquake victims last December flew to Switzerland, where it was picked up by a Soviet aircraft.
Likewise, Israeli army medics who flew to the Soviet Union on June 8 to help treat victims of the Trans-Siberian Railway disaster took an Israeli air force transport plane to Cyprus, where a Soviet plane picked them up.
While Tuesday’s flight is believed to be the first by Israel’s national carrier, it is not the first to fly to the Soviet Union from Israel.
Last November, Jewish Agency officials flew from Israel to Moscow aboard a private jet. In December, a Soviet airliner that had been hijacked to Israel was allowed to take off from Ben-Gurion Airport for its return trip home.