June 18, 2011
By Stephen Miller
“In 1948, Al Schwimmer smuggled unused U.S. warplanes to Israel and helped found the new country’s air force by assembling a motley array of castoff planes from around the world.
Five years later, at the invitation of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Mr. Schwimmer founded what grew to be Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. The company developed Israel’s first home-built jet and sells munitions and civilian planes around the globe as the country’s largest industrial exporter.
Mr. Schwimmer, who died June 10 at age 94, was raised in Bridgeport, Conn., and became a flight engineer for Trans World Airlines.
During World War II, he joined the U.S. Air Transport Command, ferrying planes from the U.S. to Europe. After the war, he set up an airplane-maintenance operation in Burbank, Calif. He became interested in Zionism after learning about the Holocaust and that war loomed in newly established Israel.
Recruited by representatives of Mr. Ben-Gurion in the months leading up to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Mr. Schwimmer began overhauling U.S. warplanes at his California company for shipment to the nascent Israeli air force. He used shell corporations to help conceal his efforts to aid the Jewish forces.
Pursued by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who had discovered his operations, Mr. Schwimmer flew to Israel, where he ferried in vintage Messerschmitts from Eastern Europe. “On one of our flights from Prague, we actually flew over Egypt and dropped a couple of bombs,” Mr. Schwimmer told the Boston Globe in 2001.
After Israel prevailed in the war, Mr. Schwimmer returned to Los Angeles, where in 1950 he was convicted on conspiracy charges for violating U.S. laws against exporting arms to Israel. He was fined but not sentenced to prison. A personal appeal from Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in 1951 persuaded him to immigrate to Israel and found IAI, a maintenance operation turned into a high-tech manufacturer.
In 1967, the company produced the first fighter jet made in Israel, a version of the French Mirage III C. “Ben-Gurion did not know a screw driver from a slide rule, but he had a vision of what the state would need,” Mr. Schwimmer told Time magazine in 1974.
At his death, Mr. Schwimmer was hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by President Shimon Peres, an old friend Mr. Schwimmer had worked with buying surplus U.S. aircraft in the 1950s. In 2001, President Bill Clinton granted Mr. Schwimmer a pardon for his 1950 convictions, despite his not having sought one. At that time, Mr. Schwimmer told the Jewish Journal that he had no plans to write a memoir. “Who would be interested?” he asked.”