The Pilgrim Airlift

March 1, 2007

Few ever mention it now. Whenever talk turns to important airlift operations, the subject usually is the Berlin Airlift, or Operation Nickel Grass in the 1973 Mideast War, or the Gulf War effort. Today, virtually no one recalls the time that the Air Force helped bring Muslim pilgrims to Mecca.

The time was August 1952. Over a period of four days, and operating on an emergency basis, USAF lifters picked up thousands of pilgrims stranded in Beirut and brought them to Jeddah, the Saudi Arabian gateway to Mecca—birthplace of the Prophet, site of the holy Kaaba, and location of the al-Haram Mosque.

This airlift was important because of the importance of Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. It is a religious obligation that every believer is supposed to fulfill at least once in a lifetime. Today, nearly two million followers of Islam each year make the pilgrimage. These journeys are often costly and require arduous travel over long distances.

Each pilgrim must obtain Saudi clearance to enter the kingdom. Air travel has greatly eased the task of traveling, but, in 1952, mass air movement of the pilgrims was new. In late August, a crisis of serious proportions started to develop.

Three relatively new Mideast airlines—Air Lebanon, Middle East Airlines, and Saudi Arabian Airlines—found themselves overtaxed and overbooked as eager ticket sellers in all parts of the Islamic world sold far more tickets than the airlines could handle. Travelers had purchased tickets and gotten to Beirut, but then found to their dismay that they did not actually have reserved seats for the most important leg of the journey.

Closing Gates

An initial count showed that at least 1,000 pilgrims were stranded at or near the Beirut airport, 850 miles short of their destination. Unless something was done quickly, these travelers would not be able to reach Mecca by Aug. 27, the date set by the Saudi government for closing the gates to all seeking to enter.

This was deeply troubling to Saeb Salaam, president of Middle East Airlines, member of Lebanon’s parliament, and future prime minister of Lebanon. Salaam knew many of the stranded travelers were poor, some having spent their entire savings on the ticket for a once-in-a-lifetime journey. Many, if they did not complete their pilgrimage on this trip, probably would never again have an opportunity to do so.

Salaam was also concerned that a large number of the stranded pilgrims might wind up stuck in Beirut for a long time. For these unexpected visitors, food, water, and accommodations all were in short supply during Lebanon’s sweltering summer months. The two major languages spoken in Lebanon—Arabic and French—were foreign to many of the pilgrims, a large number of whom came from Farsi-speaking Iran or from African nations. This only complicated matters further.

Because it backed the newly created nation of Israel four years earlier during the 1948 Mideast War, the United States was not popular in the Mideast. Salaam, however, looked past that problem and, on Aug. 21, 1952, contacted the US ambassador in Beirut, Harold B. Minor. Salaam asked the US diplomat about the possibility of Washington offering assistance.

Minor was new to his post, but he had long experience in the Foreign Service, and he was intrigued by the request. When Salaam suggested to him that the United States Air Force fly the pilgrims to Mecca, Minor was quick to see political benefits in doing so.

Minor knew the Air Force had the capability. USAF was still basking in the glow of the Berlin Airlift that it concluded only three years earlier. The Air Force had hauled into the divided German capital 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, and medicine and, in the process, defeated the Soviet Union’s land blockade of Berlin’s Allied sector. The Korean War was under way, and it required much airlift, but there was no question USAF could divert enough for the pilgrim detail.

The ambassador immediately agreed to investigate the situation. Minor cabled Henry A. Byroade, then assistant secretary of state for near eastern, south Asian, and African affairs, recommending a positive response. Byroade referred the matter to Thomas K. Finletter, the Secretary of the Air Force, who then took it up with Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett.

Situation Worsens

With each day, the situation in Lebanon deteriorated, and time was running out. Finletter and Lovett, realizing the urgency, gave quick assent to Minor’s proposed airlift. Lovett added a proviso. It was this: The United States would refuse to accept any payments for pilgrim flights to Jeddah.

The Berlin-hardened Military Air Transport Service (MATS) was well-experienced in the conduct of emergency airlifts. On Aug. 23, alerting orders were sent out to two US wings: the 1602nd Air Transport Wing near Wiesbaden, West Germany, and 1603rd Air Transport Wing at Wheelus AB, Libya.

Both wings began to plan. Their officers determined that the 41st Air Transport Squadron at Wheelus and the 86th ATS and 1629th Support Squadron at Rhein-Main AB, West Germany, would provide airmen and aircraft.

The alert order called for the airlifters of the two wings to carry some 1,000 to 1,500 pilgrims from Beirut to Jeddah, about 50 miles from Mecca. The execution order on Aug. 24 designated Brig. Gen. Wentworth Goss, the commanding general of the 1602nd ATW, as the task force commander.

After distinguished wartime service, Goss became commander of the 1602nd in July 1952—just weeks before the start of the airlift. Col. Arthur C. Rush was designated deputy commander of the task force.

Within an hour of receiving its execution order, the 1602nd ATW dispatched its first Douglas C-54 Skymaster transport from Rhein-Main. It flew to Wiesbaden, picked up Goss, and proceeded to Khaldi Airport in Beirut. Rush had already arrived there and had begun preparations.

The mission wasn’t easy. The 41st ATS at Wheelus had a total of eight available C-54s. One was out of commission. Three were in the midst of major inspections. One was inbound to Tripoli from some other location. Nonetheless, the squadron managed to dispatch four transports from Wheelus to Beirut. Two more aircraft followed on Aug. 25. For its part, the 86th ATS sent C-54 aircraft from Rhein-Main and dispatched from Orly Field in Paris a C-54 mobile maintenance aircraft carrying a spare engine and a load of parts.

By the evening of Aug. 25, all 12 C-54s had arrived in Beirut. Each of the big transports carried double crews. The C-54s brought in 209 flight, operation, maintenance, and traffic personnel—80 officers and 129 enlisted personnel.

Goss directed that the squadron assets be mixed to operate as an integrated task force. The 42 maintenance men were initially split into two 12-hour shifts of 21 men, providing round-the-clock maintenance capability.

Crews were billeted in local hotels. Transportation to and from the airfield was provided by Middle East Airlines. The lessons learned from the pressures of the Berlin Airlift were applied to the newest venture; as was the case there, operations personnel prepared flight plans in advance, and crews went directly to their aircraft.

Even before all of the C-54s had arrived, the Air Force commenced the airlift. It was dubbed Operation Hajji Baba, which was a fairly whimsical selection of names. Hajji Baba was the fictional hero in The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, written in 1824 by British diplomat and adventurer James J. Morier. Morier’s book—a kind of combined Arabian Nights-style fantasy and Don Quixote-style picaresque novel—relates the tale of a charming rogue who wanders far and encounters many interesting situations. This name, of course, had nothing to do with the actual situation.

The Start

The airlift was activated at 7 a.m., Beirut time, on Aug. 25.

Initially, flight operations were delayed because local authorities had failed to properly process the departing travelers for the American aircraft. This created huge passport and security delays—all of which were rectified by a simple expedient. The Lebanese director of civil aviation, made aware of the flight departure schedule, simply assigned processing for each C-54 flight to one of the three local airlines. Each airline had all the necessary documentation completed so that a block of 50 passengers and their baggage could be brought to each USAF aircraft as a group.

The local airline officials also supervised loading the passengers, who were mostly seated in the aircraft’s bucket seats but sometimes on the floor.

To avoid the need to refuel at Jeddah (and thus lose time), the C-54s used a “canned load” of 2,700 gallons of fuel for a load of 50 passengers, which allowed for a round-trip flight with minimal time on the ground in Saudi Arabia. Aircraft based in Beirut began to take off on the hour.

Maj. Bill Voigt of the 86th ATS, a pilot and veteran of the Berlin Airlift, was pleased to be taking part in this special operation. He recalled that there were incidental conversations with the passengers as the flight engineer passed back through the cabin to check the rear door. Other than that, though, there were no exchanges between the crew members and the pilgrims.

Voigt noted that, after takeoff from Beirut, he would climb to altitude almost directly over the airfield, fly to Damascus, Syria, turn south to Amman, Jordan, and then angle toward a point on the Red Sea just north of Jeddah. This meandering route was chosen because Israel refused to allow the C-54s to traverse Israeli airspace.

The flying time was about five hours each way. At Jeddah, a small control team—two officers and two airmen—managed to turn aircraft in just 45 minutes. When the C-54s flew back empty to Beirut, they were turned again in 90 minutes if the aircraft was deemed serviceable. If not, a spare was immediately substituted.

Kashani’s Message

Not everyone was grateful. One dissatisfied traveler was the 1952 Hajj’s most prominent pilgrim—Ayatollah Sayed Abdul Ghassem Kashani, a Shiite Muslim cleric from Iran. In addition to providing religious leadership for the faithful in his nation, Kashani served as speaker of the Iranian Parliament.

Kashani, a Persian, saw in the airlift an opportunity to score a significant political point concerning the role of the West and the United States in Iran. As he was about to step aboard the American aircraft that was to transport him to Jeddah, Kashani stopped and began to speak. His statement, widely quoted in the region’s press, was that the West needed Iran’s oil far more than Iran needed the West’s money.

Kashani had a long history of confrontation with foreign powers. He had been imprisoned at one time or another by the occupying forces of both Britain and the Soviet Union. Most importantly, Kashani vigorously opposed foreign influence over Iran’s petroleum resources. He had organized a political movement against the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., which, in 1951, had brought about nationalization of the oil industry.

The Air Force air and ground crews were indifferent to Kashani’s statements as they labored to make the trip tolerable for passengers. Each pilgrim was given an in-flight lunch consisting of bread, cheese, olives, and fruit, all provided by the American Friends of the Middle East organization.

Before long, American officers got an unpleasant surprise: The maximum number of pilgrims in need of air transport was not 1,500, as they had been led to believe; it was at least twice that number. If Saudi Arabia held to its plan to close the gates to Mecca on Aug. 27, it would be impossible to get them all there in time.

The State Department cabled Saudi authorities with an urgent request: Keep the gates to Mecca open for one additional day, until Aug. 28. Later, the Lebanese government made a similar request. The rulers of the kingdom not only met but also exceeded the request, delaying the closing of the gates until Aug. 29. That gave USAF a precious two additional days.

In every 24-hour period, the Air Force operation averaged more than 18 C-54 departures, each flight carrying about 50 passengers. This meant that USAF each day was delivering to Jeddah nearly 1,000 pilgrims. The last flight to Jeddah left at 5:22 a.m. on Aug. 29, and the last group of pilgrims arrived at Jeddah in time to reach Mecca only moments before Saudi officials finally closed the gates.

The airlifters had staged 75 round-trip Beirut-Jeddah flights. Not all of these, however, were of the nonstop variety. The Air Force sent three of the flights to Baghdad to pick up pilgrims stranded there and one to Jordan to do the same thing. They then continued on to Jeddah.

All told, the Air Force delivered to Jeddah a total of 3,763 passengers—nearly four times the original estimate.

The C-54 flights covered 117,000 miles, with some crews making the 12-hour round-trip four times. The very high daily utilization rate of the C-54s reflected their fine qualities as a transport and the professional skill level of the Air Force personnel.

The last of the American aircraft and air crew members departed Beirut on Aug. 30. Everyone returned to normal locations, and normal flight operations in the two wings resumed on Sept. 1.


Life published a four-page pictorial featuring photos taken in the operation. The State Department published a special booklet, titled Pilgrim Journey, and produced a documentary film recording various aspects of the event.

In the Islamic world, the response was generally favorable. Sami Solh, president of Lebanon’s Council of Ministers, officially delivered to Minor, the US ambassador, formal expressions of gratitude for the US assistance. The Saudi monarch, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, presented 86 sets of traditional robes, keffiyehs, and royal headbands to those Americans taking part in the operation. Even virulently anti-American elements of the press found some kind things to say about the airlift.

Operation Hajji Baba still ranks high on the list of Air Force humanitarian operations. USAF came to the aid of Muslim pilgrims who had no other way to reach Mecca, and it prevented a possible humanitarian disaster in Lebanon.

Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 600 articles about aviation topics and 40 books, the most recent of which is Roaring Thunder. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “That First Look,” appeared in the January issue.