Prior to the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 Lebanon was a diverse prosperous democratic state with a strong economy based upon tourism, agriculture, commerce and banking. In fact it was known as the 'Switzerland of the East' during the 1960s with the capital Beirut known as 'Paris of the Middle East'. Middle East Airlines (MEA) was the premier airline in the Middle East and by 1962 had a modern fleet of Vickers Viscounts and de Havilland Comet 4Cs.
During 1963 passenger emplanements grew by 20% to 379,776 and revenues reach $30.1 million. When Air Liban was fully merged into MEA in 1965 the fleet stood at 3 Caravelle VINs, 4 Comet 4Cs, 2 DC-3s, a DC-4 and 3 Viscount 754Ds. By 1965 half a million tourists visited Lebanon, with 85% going by air, half of which flew with MEA.
Sheikh Najib was surprised and disappointed and had little option but to turn to the Americans. A deal was made with Douglas for the lease of 3 DC-8-62CFs for delivery in late 1967 but only a few months after the deal MEA's main shareholder Intra Bank collapsed and so did the Douglas deal. MEA's ownership was stabilised by the Lebanese government with the creation of the Intra Investment Company but the DC-8 deal was dead.
On January 1, 1966 a Boeing 720B was leased from Ethiopian Airlines to operate to Addis Ababa via Jeddah and Khartoum and the following year the last of the piston-liners were retired. From 1966 all 3 of Ethiopian's Boeing 720Bs would see service with MEA.
In the meantime aircraft were needed to fill the gap made by the failure of the orders. A BOAC Comet 4, ex-G-APDM, was leased and became OD-AEV whilst the VC10 got its chance to be seen in MEA colours when the under-utilised Ghana Airways aircraft 9G-ABP was leased on April 1, 1967. The impact of the 1967 Six-day War between Israel and Egypt/Syria/Jordan saw passenger numbers decline, however freight revenues rose and MEA was still profitable. Unfortunately 1968 got off to a bad start when one of three leased Ethiopian Boeing 720Bs, ET-AAG 'The Blue Nile', crashed on landing at Beirut in bad weather. Though the airframe nosegear collapsed backwards and there was a small fire there were no fatalities and the aircraft was evacuated. Unfortunately the 720 was destroyed when a second fire ignited.
The loss of the 720 gave the VC10 another opportunity and G-ARTA was leased from Freddie Laker becoming OD-AFA. By 1968 Lebanon was increasingly being adversely impacted by the fallout of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian problems. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had become refugees in neighbouring states including Lebanon. These poor and displaced people became a fertile breeding ground for radicalisation aimed towards Israel, and Israeli actions hardly enabled peace. Various Palestinian militant groups used South Lebanon as a base from which to launch cross border strikes and the Lebanese military and government struggled to control them.
Despite the growing problems MEA had finally been able to secure new jet aircraft. A deal was signed with Boeing in August 1968 for 4 new 707-3B4Cs. These would begin arriving in November but the speedy delivery wasn't to prove as useful as it at first seemed.
EL AL, the Israeli national carrier, had itself been suffering from a string of hijackings undertaken by Palestinian terrorists and towards the end of the year on Boxing Day 1968 one of its Boeing 707s operating a Tel Aviv-New York via Athens service was attacked on the ground by a pair of terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The attack was not very successful but attracted a typically disproportionate response from the Israelis, targeted at Lebanon.
Two nights later Operation Gift was undertaken by Israeli special forces, carried in a pair of helicopters. Landing at Beirut International Airport they systematically destroyed 14 aircraft on the ground including the bulk of MEA's fleet. Losses included the leased Ghanaian VC10 (9G-ABP), a Boeing 707-320 (OD-AFC), 2 Caravelles (OD-AEE, AEF), 3 Comet 4Cs (OD-ADR, DQ, DS) and a Vickers Viscount (OD-ACT). In addition to these aircraft Lebanese International Airlines lost the majority of its fleet (2 DC-7s and 2 CV-990s) and TMA a DC-4 and DC-6.
Fortunately there were no casualties in the raid however MEA's fleet was reduced to only 5 aircraft - a Boeing 707-3B4C (OD-AFB), two Comet 4Cs (OD-ADT and 9K-ACA), a VC10 (OD-AFA) and a Viscount 754D (OD-ADD).
MEA's remaining leased VC10 survived the attack but was returned to her lessor (by now British United Airways) at the end of her lease only three weeks later. Of course the 707 that had been destroyed was one of the 4 new aircraft ordered in place of the Super VC10s. Only two of the four had been delivered at the time of the attack with OD-AFD and AFE not arriving until October 1969. MEA would need more permanent replacements for its lost fleet if it was to stay in business into 1969. In part 2 we'll look at how it came back from the brink with its Cedar Jets.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: