My father recently told me a story which helped me appreciate how much the Libyan people value their olive trees. Libya is located in North Africa with a coast boarding on the Mediterranean Sea. Libyans have grown olives in this region for thousands of years. They rely on the olive staple to provide food, fuel and commerce. An olive tree can live for 2,000 years and produce olives for a farmer and his family for several generations. When they lose an olive tree, regardless of the circumstance, it’s a big deal!
In 1959, an era of Arabic Kings and before Muammar Qaddafi, my father, who was in the United States Air Force (USAF), was stationed at Wheelus AFB near Tripoli, Libya. Fighter pilots stationed at the Air Force base would routinely conduct flights to practice air to air target practice out over the Mediterranean Sea about 100 miles from the base. During an air to air gunnery flight an F-100 fighter plane (the target tow plane) would take off from the base and fly to the air to air gunnery range towing a wood airplane as a target. A few minutes later four F-100 fighter planes would take off after the wooden airplane target. They would position themselves above and behind the target airplane and take turns firing machine gun bullets at the target. Occasionally, a pilot would shoot off a wing to the wooden target being towed 1500 feet behind the target tow plane and as a result the wooden airplane would drop 100ft below the target tow plane. The pilot of the target tow plane, not realizing what had happen, would return to the base after the mission to drop the wooden target. On the way to the target drop area the target tow pilot would drag the wooden airplane through an olive grove during a target drop destroying 2 or 3 precious olive trees in the adjacent area.
Inevitably a furious Libyan farmer would complain to the United States authorities at Wheelus AFB about the loss of his trees. To appease the farmer, the US would compensate him several thousand dollars for each olive tree. This was both very costly and a major concern of the Wheelus base commander who wanted not only to satisfy the farmer’s loss but to maintain good relations with the Libyan government.