SA-born pilot flies historic Israel – UAE voyage

  • TalBecker
When South African-born pilot Tal Becker, 64, touched down at Ben Gurion Airport on the return leg of the historic, first-ever direct journey from Israel to Abu Dhabi, he shut down the engines on El Al flight LY972 and was instantly flooded with emotion.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Sep 03, 2020

“All of a sudden it hit me. Wow! That was a little piece of history,” Becker told the SA Jewish Report this week.

“It was a moment I will never forget,” said the career pilot who has flown Israeli presidents and prime ministers among others for 40 years for the Israeli Air Force before flying for El Al.

The SA Jewish Report touched base with the humble pilot soon after he flew the inaugural Israeli passenger plane through Saudi Arabian airspace for the first time on Monday. This was the first direct non-cargo flight between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I did not allow myself to think about the historic moment until it was over. I stayed focused on being a pilot,” he said.

His plane, carrying high-level Israeli and US delegations, flew south-east down the length of Saudi Arabia to reach its destination in Abu Dhabi.

“It was the first time an Israeli plane was given permission by the kingdom to use its airspace. It was a very special moment for me. Usually I pass next to Saudi Arabian airspace and I talk to someone on air traffic control to alert them and there is no reply. Now for the first time they replied.”

Just as the plane readied for take-off from Tel Aviv, Becker (with a hint of a South African accent) spoke to the passengers from the flight deck. He confirmed the route over Saudi Arabia and read out a speech, which he had helped to write, to the passengers. “Shalom and welcome on El Al flight 971 from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi. We are very pleased to host you on this historic inaugural flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi.

“This flight records two significant events in the history of the State of Israel and in the region heralding another step towards regional peace – for the very first time an Israeli-registered aircraft will overfly Saudi Arabia and, after a non-stop flight from Israel, land in the UAE.

“The duration of the flight with the shortened route over Saudi Arabia will be three-and-a-half hours, instead of what would have been approximately eight hours as we fly eastbound,” the pilot explained. “At the end of this historic non-stop flight, the wheels of this aircraft, with the flag of the State of Israel on its tail, will touch down on the runway in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. This will be another significant event in our history, just as El Al was when peace was signed between Jerusalem, Cairo, and Amman.

“We are all excited and look forward to more historic flights that will take us to other capital cities in the region, advancing us all to a more prosperous future,” Becker said.

“Wishing us all salaam, peace, and shalom,” he concluded, using the Arabic, English, and Hebrew words.

He referred to that moment before take-off, saying: “It was quite an amazing feeling. I felt something in my stomach.”

Becker, who retires in December, was born in Johannesburg. He remembers finishing Grade 1 at King David Primary School Linksfield before making aliyah with his family in 1962. As a young boy, he dreamed of becoming either a firefighter or a pilot, and recalls playing with aeroplanes in the garden of his Orange Grove home. By the time he was in high school, he knew that he was going to be a pilot.

His strong links to South Africa continued to flourish when he started flying for El Al. He would visit his late grandmother in Berea, Johannesburg during his layover in the city once a month.

He had been at home in Modi’in, Israel since March due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. He was excited to receive a call from the vice president of operations at El Al asking him whether he would like to pilot this special flight.

“I told him I don’t understand the question. There is only one answer: ‘Of course!’”

Asked why he was chosen he humbly replied: “It’s simple, I’m the most senior pilot in the fleet.”

The plane brought senior officials from Washington and Jerusalem to the Emirati capital to lay the groundwork for the so-called Abraham Accord between Israel and the UAE, which was brokered by the US and announced last month.

Meanwhile, a South African couple residing in Dubai, Ross and Elli Kriel, were heavily involved behind the scenes of the historic visit.

Ross is the President of the Jewish Council of the Emirates (JCE), while his wife Elli is the founder of Elli’s Kosher Kitchen which provided all the kosher meals for the delegates throughout their stay.

According to Ross, the Jews of the Gulf nation have spent years building their special, unique community from scratch. Having arrived in Dubai in 2013 as the only religiously observant Jewish family, the Kriels are now among other families that anchor the community.

For several years, Ross has been the de facto leader of the tiny community, which, following the announcement of the Abraham Accord, was thrust into the international limelight.

“In previous years, our members have been informal ambassadors of the Jewish people through hundreds of acts of friendship, courage, and loyalty to their Jewish identity. At this moment, and always, we feel proud to be Jews of the UAE. We wish the delegations success in their work, and give thanks for the decisive and visionary leadership [from] the UAE that has allowed for friendship with Israel,” said Kriel.

“It was an honour to pray with Meir Ben Shabbat and members of the Israeli delegation. His dedication to Torah combined with his work at the highest level as National Security Advisor is truly inspiring,” he added.

He said that Rabbi Yissachar Krakowski, senior kashrut supervisor of the Orthodox Union, was flown in to supervise the catering. “Hospitality is at the core of Emirate culture, so Elli worked very closely with all the relevant authorities to make things just right for the delegates,” said Kriel.

“The JCE feels proud that we have played a role in confidence-building in our small way. It’s an extraordinary achievement.”

6 Comments

  1. 6 Hazel Pflaum 03 Sep
    Mazaltov on your wonderful and fabulous achievement. My husband Dr Peter Pflaum and I visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi two years ago. We had no idea there was a Jewish presence in the country. We plan to come again when the pandemic is over. I am originally Hazel Bruss from Sea Point, Cape Town and my husband is an American. Today we live in Newport Beach California. My children immigrated here (all from Herzliya Jewish Day School and UCT.) We all live here now. Kol Hakavod to the Kriels. I hope one day our paths will cross. What an incredible achievement you both created and also assisted with the food etc., for the Israel-Emirates historic meeting. Amazing !    Sincerely Hazel and Peter Pflaum. 
  2. 5 Celia Levy 04 Sep
    Kol kavod
  3. 4 Lynette Levinrad 04 Sep
    An historical mission assigned to a very special man and richly deserved.  Kudos Tal Becker!!  xxxxxx
  4. 3 Geoff Phillips 04 Sep
    Kol Hakovod !!! Yasher Koach !!!
  5. 2 Richard Kushlick 06 Sep
    Absolutely fantastic dedication as a pilot, a loyal servant of ELAL, Israel and as a humanitarian. Proud of his SA roots. The UAE / Israeli interaction shows what can be achieved under the most difficult circumstances. 
  6. 1 Marilyn Levin 09 Sep
    Kol HaKavod!!

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