Anastasia Torres-Gil
Former National Hadassah Board Member

El Al’s Last Flight from Tehran

El Al Captain Uri Bar-Lev, Retired

Today, it’s nearly impossible to believe that in the not-so-distant past, Israel enjoyed close and warm relations with Iran. The Shah was very close to the Israeli leadership and the two countries had extensive trade relations. Large Israeli companies had a representative office in Iran, including the Israeli airline El Al. Daily flights from Israel to Iran – and at times even twice a day – were routine, due to popular demand. These flights were some of El Al’s most active and lucrative lines. Retired El Al Captain Uri Bar-Lev (who notoriously thwarted terrorist Leila Khaled’s attempted hijacking of his plane in 1970), looked back on sweeter times. As is the way throughout history, times were good for the Jews – until they weren’t.

With the Iranian Revolution in 1979, everything changed. Bar-Lev told me he was not surprised by the uprising. A few years prior, the Shah of Iran had privately chartered an entire El Al Jumbo jet for the sole purpose of filling the plane with sacks and sacks of special white cement made in Israel. The cement was being specially (and expensively) flown to Iran for the construction of a new palace to celebrate the Shah’s rule. As such, all of the rows of passenger seats in the Jumbo were removed, and the plane carried only the cement — not one passenger. After the cargo was off-loaded, Bar-Lev flew the empty Jumbo back to Israel. “I couldn’t comprehend the frivolity or expense involved. I thought the Shah must be crazy!” Bar-Lev exclaimed.

When the Islamic Revolution riots broke out, Israelis began leaving country as quickly as they could. The last to leave seemed to be Israeli officials as well Jews who were born and raised in Iran. It was February of 1979 and Bar-Lev had just returned home from a flight from New York. An early morning phone call from El Al’s operations manager woke him from a deep sleep. He was directed to report to the airport as quickly as possible as he was to immediately to Tehran. Mass riots were threatening the safety of the Israelis and Jews still living there. It was a matter of life and death that El Al help rescue them. This was to be a special flight.

Bar-Lev was instructed to land on the airfield, but contrary to regulations, he was to keep at least one engine on his plane on and running at all times. The normal routine was to turn each engine off. But with all the engines each turned off, it would take twelve minutes to normally restart the engines to ready the plane for take-off. Trouble was expected, and it was anticipated that the Israeli plan would need to make a quick getaway. Captain Uri Bar-Lev would be the captain of the last El Al flight to leave from Tehran. And he needed to be prepared to make an immediate get away.

Bar-Lev followed the instructions, landing his Jumbo jet in Tehran and leaving all four of the engines on and idling. A large group of people began to quickly board the plane, some of them lugging large Persian rugs on their shoulders. Suddenly, Bar-Lev received a message from the control tower – they had noticed his engines running and shouted, “Close all the engines! Close all the engines!” Instead of turning off the engines and leaving the plane vulnerable, Bar-Lev decided to take off right then and there. He gave the order to his crew, and they sprang into action so rapidly that the doors were shut tight before even the local security personnel managed to board, including the head of the Mossad’s branch in Iran who was in charge of the escape plan for the Israelis and the Jews. Fortunately, the Mossad agents were later able to heroically escape through Turkey and made their way back to Israel.

Doors were secured, packages stowed, and passengers scrambled to jump into the nearest seat. From his cockpit window, Bar-Lev saw a mob of young people screaming “Death! Death!” and running through the field towards the plane. These were the people of the revolution – Khomeini’s people.

Bar-Lev did not ask the tower for permission to take off. He drove his plane hard towards the runway on his own accord. Through his cockpit radio, he and his crew could her the outraged voices from the Iranian air control tower, “Stop, stop, you’re not allowed to take off!” Bar-Lev decided he was taking off anyway. When he reached the runway, two Iranian Phantom fighter jets dived towards his El Al plane and made passes at his plane from a low altitude above. It was terrifying. Bar-Lev was afraid the Phantoms – flying fast and furious – would fire at his passenger plane. “From my days as a fighter in the Israeli Air Force, I knew the Phantoms would fly past us and circle back. But that to complete their full rotation to get back to us would take two minutes, I took advantage of the extra 120 seconds I had and took off immediately. I was afraid that the next time, the Phantoms would not be satisfied with merely scaring us and instead would fire at us, shooting us from the sky.” Bar-Lev flew his Jumbo at a freakishly low altitude of only sixty-five feet above the ground. Yes, you read that correctly – he flew a Jumbo jet only sixty five feet above ground. “At this height, I knew it would be very difficult for the Phantoms to recognize the silhouette of our plane,” explained Bar-Lev.

He flew like that, low and fast at the level of the treetops all the way to the border with Turkey. Once safely in Turkey, Bar-Lev climbed to regular cruising height, breathed a sigh of relief and he and his passengers and crew headed home to the safety of Israel.

Back at the kitchen table in the moshav where he has lived for 93 years, Bar-Lev smiled, shook his head of white curls and offered me some more coffee. Did I have time for another story, perhaps? He asked. Most definitely, I thought.
Excerpted from the author’s interview with Captain Uri Bar-Lev, retired, concerning his newly published memoir, Survival Against All Odds – The Captain Uri Bar-Lev Story,

About the Author
Anastasia Torres-Gil is a former National Board Member of Hadassah and a member of the Hadassah Writers' Circle. She is a retired Assistant District Attorney. She served as the Santa Clara County District Attorney's first Hate Crimes Unit Coordinator. In the 1990’s, she was sent to Israel to investigate a Conspiracy to Commit Murder case. She’s a Wexner Heritage Fellowship alumna. Her op-eds have been published in The Jewish News of Northern California, The Oakland Tribune, Thrive Global and Santa Cruz Sentinel. Additionally, she wrote the first training manual for the California District Attorneys Association on how to prosecute hate crimes. In her free time, she creates the pro-Israel comic strip on social media called “Zionist Pugs” ( and was recognized for this work by the organization Combat Anti-Semitism. Anastasia recently developed and co-led a Fashion, Food, Wine & Design Hadassah tour to Israel and visits the country – and her dear friends there - often.
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