A Historical Look at Airplanes Shot Out of the Sky
In the wake of the MH17 crash, shot down by government separatists (we think) on the Ukrainian border, there has been an increased focus on how we operate civilian aircraft in war zones. Should we be flying over these areas? Is it safe? Well, as it turns out, the MH17 crash is not without precedent. Civilian aircrafts have been shot down more than once, so to better put the MH17 crash in perspective, let’s take a look at how the shooting down of commercial airliners have been handled throughout history.
Siberian Airlines Flight 1812
October 4, 2001, Siberian Airlines took off from Tel Aviv, Israel on its way to Novosibirsk, Russia. While flying 36,000 miles over the Black Sea, the Sochi ground control suddenly lost contact. Soon after a pilot nearby radioed in he had witnessed a plane explode and fall from the sky.
The timing of this couldn’t have been worse. Nearly a month past September 11, 2001, Americans were quick to judge it a terrorist attack. However, further investigations by Russian and American units went onto reveal it was a Ukrainian S-200 missile guidance machine. The drone the missile had been meant for had been overshot. Instead of the missile self destructing, as it should have done, it found the passenger airliner and exploded a ball of shrapnel 50 feet over the airplane. The Ukrainian government denied their involvement at first, saying they had aimed the missiles elsewhere. Yet, after overwhelming evidence was collected, they admitted their role in the shoot down.
The Ukrainian government was forced to pay the families of victims (around $200,000 each) and although lawsuits have been brought to the Ukrainian court for negligence, the Military Defense of Ukraine has ruled that they bear no liability. Further court cases went underway headed by Siberian Airlines but have been buried under appeal after appeal.
Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114
While flying a regularly scheduled route from Tripoli to Cairo via Benghazi, this passenger jet got lost when a severe sandstorm wiped out their equipment. Not knowing where they were, and noticing there were no traffic beacons in sight, Libyan Arab Airways radioed Cairo who told them to begin their descent.
The airplane, with strong tailwinds, drifted over the Sinai Peninsula, which at the time was occupied by Israel during the Six Day War. With immense fighting taking place recently, an airplane was not a welcome sight for IDF forces. Two Israeli Air Force F-4 Fighters made their way up to where the airplane was, which was cruising at 20,000 feet.
The Israeli pilots made attempts to communicate with crew, asking them to land at a nearby base. However, the crew decided that due to relations between Israel and Libya, it would be best to continue on their regular course to Egypt. Here’s where the two accounts diverge: Israel says their F-4 Fighters then fired warning shots, letting the aircraft know it had to follow orders. The Libyan Arab Airlines co-pilot, who was one of five who survived the crash, swears they did not.
Regardless, what happened next was clear; Israel opened fire and brought down the jet, killing all but five people. Although Israel has not apologized for their actions, which were censured by the UN at the time, they did pay the victim’s families compensation.
Iran Air Flight 655
One of the most contentious passenger/missile strikes in history, this downing took the lives of 290 people, on their way from Tehran to Dubai. On July 3, 1988, the Iraq-Iran war was raging in the Middle East. Attacks had recently expanded to include other countries, and US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf became a regular fixture.
The US Vincennes was passing through the Strait of Hormuz, while pursuing Iranian gunboats, when the airplane was spotted. Although the Airbus A300B2 used a commercial transponder code and spoke English as they passed through the Amber 59 air corridor, the US Vincennes never checked the traffic control frequencies Iran Air was using.
Instead, the crew of the US Vincennes mistook this airplane for a F-14A Tomcat, a fighter jet that Iranians did not actually have in their arsenal. Regardless, the 18-man crew fired two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles which both hit their mark on Iran Air Flight 655, killing every person on board. A later inspection of the onboard computer system, Aegis, showed the craft was recorded as a normal airliner that was climbing, rather than descending into some sort of attack formation.
However, tensions ran even higher as the United States refused to admit any wrongdoing. George HW Bush, then the vice president, defended the US actions in a UN meeting, later famously quoted as saying, “I will never apologize to the United States…I don’t care what the facts are.” When the crew aboard the US Vincennes returned home, some were awarded medals, and a large celebration was thrown for the crew.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the United States agreed to write a note ‘regretting the loss of life’ and paid $131.8 million to get the case dropped from the International Court of Justice. The shooting down of Iran Air Flight 665 is still memorialized in Iran today, with many believing it was a premeditated act of murder.
Korean Air Lines Flight 007
On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines was making its way from New York City to Seoul, via Anchorage Alaska. The first half of the flight went smoothly, but due to a small malfunction in the navigation system, after taking off from Alaska, the flight began to deviate just a few miles north of where it ought to have been. It wasn’t much at first, but slowly as the flight made its way across the ocean, what was once a 5 nautical mile deviation became 500 nautical miles.
By the time they reached the Soviet Union, which was embroiled in bitter relations with the west because of the Cold War, it accidentally flew into prohibited airspace. Soviets watched the airplane enter Soviet airspace, and leave Soviet airspace. When it entered again, Su-15 fighters and a MIG-23 were assembled to make a positive identification and bring down the craft.
Coincidentally, at this time, Korean Air Lines, looking to save fuel, requested to ascend to a higher altitude. Japanese traffic controllers approved, and soon they were climbing higher. The Soviets, however, took this as an evasive move. One pilot recalled that even though they could see it was a Boeing 747, a civilian plane, they couldn’t know if military was using it as a cover. The order came down the Soviet pipeline, and the pilots shot.
Later the flight data recorder would reveal that pilots of Korean Air had no idea they were violating Soviet airspace or that they were in imminent danger. Also, because the shooting occurred in international airspace, it put even more pressure on the world to react.
Strong condemnations were issued by countries around the world, and numerous words and gestures were exchanged at the UN. The United States, for a time, refused to let Soviets land in New York, cutting off UN access, and violating UN protocol. Missiles were deployed near the Soviet Union, as Reagan denounced the “Korean massacre.” A number of other measures, such as GPS and advanced radar, were deployed to help keep airplanes in their proper channels.
But when all the dust settled and the Cold War bravado was over, the reality was that one man, Hans Ephraimson-Abt, whose daughter was killed aboard KA007, helped broker a deal for compensation over 10 years after the initial shoot down.
Showing that when governments make these sorts of mistakes, the international community can issue all the statements they want, but the most that the families of those killed in tragedies like these can expect is a lump sum of cash sometime in the next few decades.