Al Schwimmer, a former aircraft engineer who smuggled American planes to Israel for its 1948 war of independence, founded its aerospace industry and later became a figure in the Iran-Contra affair, died in Tel Aviv on Friday, his 94th birthday.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, according to a spokesperson for Israel Aerospace Industries, the company Schwimmer developed and led for more than 25 years.
Schwimmer was a 2006 recipient of the Israel Prize, considered the state’s highest honor.
“He was a leader that was not deterred by dangers or wars” who “laid the foundations for Israel’s superiority in … advanced technology,” President Shimon Peres said in a statement after Schwimmer’s death.
Born in New York in 1917, Schwimmer was a TWA flight engineer when he was approached by Jews from Palestine to help them obtain U.S. planes for the coming Arab-Israeli conflict, which began after the Jewish state of Israel was declared in May 1948.
A veteran of World War II who had flown missions over Europe, Schwimmer recruited fellow Jewish veterans to help him. He established two aircraft companies, one of which was in Burbank, and bought and refurbished a few dozen used transport planes, including some that were Air Force surplus from the war.
The planes were modified in a Lockheed terminal by Schwimmer and his associates and flown to the nascent Jewish state via Florida and Czechoslovakia.
The FBI suspected that Schwimmer was part of a ring that was violating a U.S. embargo on the shipment of planes and arms and nearly apprehended him several times. He fled to Canada and then to Israel, where he joined other volunteer engineers and pilots in the war effort there.
In 1949, he returned to the U.S. to face charges that he had violated the U.S. Neutrality Act by transporting planes to Israel. Tried in Los Angeles federal court and convicted in 1950, he did not go to prison but was stripped of many of the rights he had held as a U.S. citizen.
“I could no longer vote, I was barred from holding any federal job. I was kicked out of the Air Force reserve. It was quite stiff,” he told the Washington Post in 2001.
In 1951, he accepted Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s invitation to immigrate to Israel and established Israel Aircraft Industries, the state-run company that later was renamed Israel Aerospace Industries.
Over the next 2 1/2 decades, Schwimmer guided the company from an initial focus on repairing and maintaining aircraft for the Israeli air force to producing military and commercial planes. It employed 13,000 workers when he stepped down as president in 1978.
In the 1980s, Schwimmer was a consultant on technology and industry to his close friend, then-Prime Minister Peres, when he joined the secret Iran-Contra operation that became a political scandal for the Reagan administration when it was exposed in 1986.
Congressional investigators said Schwimmer served as a middleman in the operation, which involved trading arms to Iran to free an American-held hostage in Lebanon.
The Israeli government stymied U.S. attempts to question Schwimmer, who lived in Tel Aviv and held Israeli citizenship.
In 2001, Schwimmer was pardoned by President Clinton for his role in smuggling planes to Israel 50 years earlier. The request had been made by Brian Greenspun, a Clinton supporter whose father, Hank, also had been convicted in 1950 of ferrying airplanes to Israel. The elder Greenspun was pardoned in 1961 by President Kennedy.
Schwimmer said he had never sought a pardon because he did not regret his crimes.
“I guess I should be happy,” he told The Times in 2001 after learning of President Clinton’s action. “I’ve lived most of my life without a pardon, so don’t expect me to throw a party now.”
He is survived by his wife, two children and grandchildren.