MH17 is not alone. Commercial flights that got shot down

The world was shocked to learn that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine.  A big enough plane crash always makes the headlines. However the violent method involved in MH17’s crash is what people talk about most now and will remember for a long time. But how long will the world remember?

Not the first time

Do you remember any other commercial flights that have been shot down? Because, unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. The good news is that it doesn’t happen often. Including MH17 I’ve found 6 flights that have been shot down. And one of them is a very special case that the world seems to have forgotten …

4 October 2001 – Siberia Airlines Flight 1812

The plane left from Tel Aviv and was heading to Novosibirsk. It crashed in the Black Sea, not that far from where MH17 crashed. Because it happened just a month after the 9/11 attacks it was suspected to be a terrorist attack by Chechen rebels. The following investigation showed that this was not the case. It found that the flight was shot down by accident during a Ukrainian military training exercise.

A drone had been launched and the point of the exercise was to shoot it down using an S-200 surface-to-air missile (SAM). However, at the same time of launching the S-200 an S-300 SAM had been launched. The S-300 destroyed the drone, so the S-200 continued it’s flight. Instead of self destructing, the S-200 locked on to flight 1812 and ultimately destroyed it. All 66 passengers and 12 crew members perished.

29 September 1998 – Lionair Flight LN 602

You may remember Lionair from the previous post. It was a Lionair flight that ended up in the water while attempting to land in Bali. Luckily nobody died during that crash.

The 48 passengers and 7 crew on board LN602 weren’t so lucky. The plane left Jaffna Airport in the North of Sri Lanka and was heading to Ratmalana Airport in the South West of the same country. Sri Lanka is a small country and the Antonov AN-24 wasn’t a huge plane. So it didn’t need to climb to great heights.

Since the beginning it was suspected that Tamil rebels had shot down the flight. Initial reports also state this, however technically this event is still under investigation. The rebels had sent a letter to the airline office at Jaffna airport saying that if the airline did not stop carrying military personnel they would shoot down a plane. The letter was ignored, as it was believed to have come from a competitor.

Sadly the rebels kept their word and the plane was shot down using a shoulder-launched SAM (MANPADS). This is not a hugely powerful rocket with a long reach. But as it was a smaller plane that didn’t fly very high, it was sufficient.

Example of a MANPAD system

Example of a MANPAD system

Even though this event occurred in 1998, the wreckage of the plane was only discovered in 2012.

1 September 1983 – Korean Air Lines Flight 007

A Boeing 747 carrying 269 passengers from New York to Seoul was shot down by a Soviet Sukhoi Su-15. Russians? Yes, the flight had a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. After leaving Anchorage it’s incorrect flight path put had put the plane in Soviet air space. Prohibited airspace as it turns out. As this was in the cold war era it didn’t help that the U.S. was doing a reconnaissance mission in the area at the time or that the Soviets were performing missile tests on the same day as the flight.

The official flight path was correct and outside of Soviet air spave. But the plane was far off course due to pilot error or because of incorrect use of the autopilot system. It was spotted by the Soviet Union but because of some problems it wasn’t caught before it got back over neutral waters. The Soviets however decided that because the flight had crossed into the prohibited zone it should be shot down. Even if it was back over neutral waters, and worse, without checking if it was a civilian plane.

Korean Air flight 007 – planned and actual flight path

Like with MH17 there was much politics involved. The Soviet Union first denied they had anything to do with the shooting. Then they stated that they shot down the plane, but that they were provoked by the U.S. deliberately to test their defenses and preparedness, and that the plane was a spy plane. The U.S. from their side blamed the Soviet Union of obstructing the investigation and hiding evidence, mainly the black boxes. The black boxes were finally handed over in 1993!

In a 1991 interview the Sukhoi SU-15 pilot said “I saw two rows of windows and knew that this was a Boeing. I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use…”

27 June 1980 – Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870

The remains of Itavia Airlines flight 870 in an aircraft hangar in Rome

The remains of Itavia Airlines flight 870 in an aircraft hangar in Rome

This one was an internal flight in Italy and a bit of a mystery. The Italians say it was shot down by a missile launched from a French navy airplane. But this was never really proven. There was no final report of the investigation and so all the Italians have is a claim.

Aside from some conspiracy theories there are also a few real theories that the investigators came up with. One of them was a terrorist bombing, another was a missile strike during training exercise and lastly a missile strike during a military operation.

In 1994 the British and Italians performed a joint investigation and found serious evidence that a bomb had exploded in the rear lavatory. They also found some evidence for an outside explosion. So, all in all, the case has been archived with no real conclusive report. As with all the incidents, none of the 77 passengers and 4 crew survived.

24 March 1968 – Aer Lingus Flight 712

Flight 712 may not belong in this list because the final reports concluded that the Vickers Viscount carrying 57 passengers and 4 crew crashed due to structural failure or a bird strike. Though initially it was suspected that the flight from Cork to London was shot down by a British experimental missile.

Over the years different people have come forward with different stories. Some claim to have evidence that it was in fact shot down by a missile. Another person claims that the plane was hit by another plane which was sent to check the landing gear which failed to lock into position.

3 July 1988 – Iran Air Flight 655

So far we’ve been going from more recent to old incidents. But this one was worth keeping for last. This flight from Tehran to Dubai carrying 275 passengers and 15 crew was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf.

The USS Vincennes

The USS Vincennes

This time it was the Americans who did the shooting. What makes this one different is that they made an ugly mess of things. The U.S. tried to cover it up, lied in reports, lied in statements, lied about the flight transponder frequencies (military vs civilian mode), lied about the plane’s actions and tried to blame the pilot. The truth came out in the form of a 53 page report which found that nearly all the initial details about the incident to put all the blame on Iran Air’s pilot were wrong. To make things worse, the Vincennes was in Iranian waters when they fired the missile. When asked at the time they lied about that as well and stated the ship was in international waters.

Nevertheless, two years after the incident the captain of the Vincennes received the Legion of Merit “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service”. An apology from the U.S. never came. Even worse, George Bush senior who was Vice President at the time, and trying to run for president, said in his campaign “I will never apologize for the United States – I don’t care what the facts are.”

It was only in 1996 that president Bill Clinton’s office expressed deep regret for what happened, but still not an apology. They said “…the United States recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident…”.  Furthermore the United States did not admit legal liability but did pay $131.8 million in compensation, of which $61.8 million went to the victims’ families. In exchange, Tehran agreed to drop its case against the United States in the International Court of Justice.

And others …

While researching I found 25 flights that fall into the category of commercial flights having been shot down. The earliest one being in 1940 which was a flight from Tallinn to Helsinki. Almost all of the incidents have in common that they happened during war time or over a conflict zone. And they all got shot down by the military by accident, or by rebels on purpose.

If there is anything to learn from this unfortunate history it’s that it’s a bad idea for civilian flights to be anywhere near a conflict zone. When the two collide, lives tend to get lost.

Still no reason to be afraid of flying!

In Belgium the number of calls to help lines for fear of flying have doubled due to the recent incidents. But as mentioned in the previous article, flying is still the safest way to travel. Airlines generally avoid flying over conflict areas.

MH17 did fly over a conflict area, but outside (above) restricted air space. In the previous days more than 70 flights flew the same path as MH17 did. On the same day a Singapore Airlines plane was at the same spot just two minutes before MH17 was attacked and six Heathrow flights were among 55 planes over Donetsk on same day. Any of those flights could have been the one that got shot down. It’s sad to say, MH17 was very unlucky.

It should be noted that most of the 25 incidents that came up happened somewhere in the Middle East or Africa. These areas have more conflict zones and uncontrolled rebels, militia or just military. This increases the chances of something bad happening.

But by far most flights go just as planned, taking off and landing without issue. Getting people to their vacation spots, business places and families unharmed, perhaps just slightly annoyed by the long flight or neighbour passenger 🙂

So book that flight, go and as always, enjoy!

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