When Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine last Thursday, tragically killing all 298 people on board, the world responded with cries of outrage. This disaster, one of the highest-casualty airliner shootdowns in the history of aviation, is also one of the most shocking ever to have taken place. Flight MH17 was headed from the Netherlands to Malaysia, between two nations that have nothing to do with Ukraine-Russia relations – yet it was unsuspecting civilians from all over the world, travelling between these two countries, that paid the price of the recent escalation of the Ukrainian civil war.
After the crash, the victims’ bodies lay in rebel hands, scattered amongst debris in a zone of conflict. In recent days they were retrieved, and were sent back to the Netherlands to be repatriated. With 193 Dutch fatalities, the Netherlands has been given the lead role in investigating the causes of the crash. The world holds its breath in anticipation of the truth, as accusations of responsibility for the shootdown fly between Russia and the Ukraine. International trust has been compromised and authorities around the world are coming to their own conclusions about the tragedy, with the United States currently pointing the finger squarely at Russia.
It’s hard to predict how repercussions of this tragic event will pan out. However, it’s worth looking at similar incidents that have taken place in the past to understand how such situations are dealt with. The following list ranks five of the most catastrophic airline shootdowns ever to have taken place, chronologically from the oldest to the most recent. Placing the blame for these tragedies has never been easy. Indeed, disagreement over responsibility for shootdowns is a recurring problem which has usually ended up unsatisfactorily settled by monetary compensation for victims’ families, sometimes with – but sometimes without – an official acknowledgement of wrong-doing and a public apology for the incident.
The past shows that events such as these, where the blood of unsuspecting civilians has been spilled, have tainted relations between countries for decades to follow. We are left questioning how this incident will pan out, between Ukraine and Russia but also the Netherlands, Malaysia, and the greater international community.
5. Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 (1973)
Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 from Tripoli to Cairo via Benghazi was a regularly scheduled flight. But on the 21st of February 1973, the aircraft failed to make its destination. An unlucky combination of factors led to the aircraft’s tragic downfall. A fierce sandstorm over northern Egypt blocked all visibility, forcing the crew to rely solely on navigational instruments for direction. It soon became clear to the pilot, however, that the compass was malfunctioning – he realised that he was out of the range of air traffic beacons, and unable to determine the aircraft’s location. He decided to land the plane in Cairo, but the aircraft was pushed east by strong winds and found itself crossing the Suez canal to Sinai, which had been under Israeli Occupation during the Six-Day War in 1967. Kept on high alert ever since, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) spotted the plane. At war with Egypt, the IDF found it suspicious that Egyptian missiles had not been fired at the mysterious aircraft.
Two Israeli Air Force F-4 fighters intercepted the airliner. Israeli fighter pilots attempted to make visual contact with the passenger airliner’s crew using hand signals, dipping their wings, and firing warning shots, but the passenger aircraft crew’s response was misinterpreted as a denial of their requests. As the Libyan aircraft turned back towards the west, the Israeli pilots interpreted the movement as an attempt to flee, and fired bursts of 20mm rounds at the aircraft with the F-4’s cannon. Flight 114 crashed despite attempts at an emergency landing, in an area covered with sand dunes. An explosion near the right main landing gear during the crash killed 108 of the 113 people aboard the plane. Of the 5 survivors, one was the co-pilot who was able to shed light on the tragically haphazard events.
The chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, David Elazar, took responsibility for ordering the shootdown. The Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan described the event as an ‘error of judgment,’ and the families of the victims were compensated by the Israeli government. Libya called the attack a ‘criminal act’ and the Soviets described it as a ‘monstrous new crime.’
4. Itavia Flight 870 (1980)
The strange tragedy of Itavia Flight 870 is the most mysterious in the history of airline shootdowns. The Italian commercial flight operated by a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15 was hit by a missile and plummeted into the Tyrrhenian Sea between Ponza and Ustica on a short flight from Bologna to Palermo in 1980. All of the 81 passengers were killed, leading to national outrage.
Senator Giovanni Pellegrino described the DC9 incident as having ‘occurred following a military interception action’ when ‘the DC9 was shot down [and] the lives of 81 innocent citizens were destroyed by an action properly described as an act of war, real war undeclared, a covert international police action against our country, which violated its borders and rights.’
This description of the event as an act of war has been under scrutiny ever since. The disaster led to a multitude of investigations, legal actions, and accusations, and is still a source of speculation. Those responsible for the disaster remain unidentified today, 34 years on. The Italian government has not been able to release a final report or official explanation regarding the tragedy. Numerous theories have been put forward – the first blaming a French Navy aircraft, another accusing Italian Air Force personnel of treason – but all have been discredited or dismissed.
In September 2011, the Palermo civil tribunal ordered the Italian government to pay 100 million euros ($137 million) in civil damages to the families of the shootdown victims for failure to protect the flight, as well as for concealing the truth and destroying evidence.
3. Korean Flight 007 (1983)
Korean Air Line Flight 007 was set to fly from New York City to Seoul via Archange on the 1st of September 1983. The aircraft had made it as far as the Sea of Japan when it was fatally shot down by as Soviet Su-15 interceptor and sent plummeting to the ground, killing all 269 passengers and crew on board. Lawrence McDonald, member of the United States House of Representatives, was amongst the passengers. The Georgian Congressman was on his way to attend a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the United States–South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty.
President Reagan condemned the shoot-down as a ‘crime against humanity which must never be forgotten.’ Although they denied all responsibility at first, eventually the Soviet Union recognised that it was to blame for the shootdown, claiming to have had reason to believe that the aircraft was on a spy mission. The aircraft was said to have been shot down for having flown through prohibited Soviet airspace around the same time as a US reconnaissance mission.
The US responded to Soviet intransigence by releasing substantial amounts of classified material to back up the charge that the Soviets were responsible for the shootdown. This backfired, as it had the effect of weakening the US’s ability to monitor Soviet communications through Japan. The US also decided to alter tracking procedures for aircraft departing from Alaska, redesigning the interface of the airliner autopilot so as to make it more ergonomic. It was one of the most important single events that prompted the Reagan Administration to allow worldwide access to the United States military’s GNSS system, which is widely known as GPS today.
The tragic shootdown resulted in an escalation of anti-Soviet sentiment all around the world. In the immediate wake of the incident over a dozen nations boycotted flights to and from Moscow. It was one of the tensest moments of the Cold War, bringing home to people how easily innocent civilian lives could be lost to the hands of US-Soviet tension.
2. Iran Air Flight 655 (1988)
Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes on the 3rd of July 1988 as it flew from Tehran to Dubai. The civilian aircraft was following the usual air route and was shot down in Iranian airspace, over waters in the Persian Gulf. The 290 passengers on board were killed when the Airbus A300 B2-203 was destroyed by SM-2MRsurface-to-air missiles fired from the American cruiser ship Vincennes.
President Reagan described the shootdown as a terrible human tragedy, stating ‘we deeply regret any loss of life,’ and insisting that the event was the result of a tragic misunderstanding. Vice President George H.W. Bush, however, exacerbated the situation by saying that any suspicion that the US deliberately attacked the aircraft was ‘offensive and absurd,’ and going so far as suggesting that Iran had acted irresponsibly by allowing passenger flights out of an airport whilst a naval battle was underway.
The US Government claimed that the Vincennes crew mistook the Iranian Airbus A300 for a F-14A Tomcat Fighter plane operated at that time only by the US Navy and the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. Despite the fact that the Iranian F-1s had no known anti-ship capabilities, it was shot down.
The United States had still not apologised to Iran in 1993, and the incident has tainted relations between the countries ever since. The closest the US has come to an apology was in 1996 when the United States and Iran reached an agreement as a result of which the US recognised the aerial incident as a terrible human tragedy, and expressed deep regret over the casualties caused by the incident. Although the US did not admit legal liability and refused to issue an apology, the government agreed to pay US $61.8 million in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims.
Iran Air still uses flight number IR655 today on the route between Tehran and Dubai as a memorial to the victims of the shootdown.
1. Siberian Airlines Flight 1812 (2001)
Just a few weeks after 9/11, on the 4th of October 2001, Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 was shot down over the Black Sea on its way from Israel to Russia in what was at first feared to be another terrorist attack. Flight 1812 was a commercial flight carrying an estimated 66 passengers and 12 crew members. Russian officials at first pinned suspicion on Chechen Rebels. However, this notion was soon dismissed as it became clear that the disaster came as a result of a fatal military error. Indeed, the Moscow-based Interstate Aviation Committee reported that the accident was caused by an accidental Ukrainian S-200 missile strike during military training exercises, when an S-200 missile overshot its target drone which had been destroyed successfully by an S-300 fired at the same time. Rather than self-destructing, the missile hit the passenger plane 150 miles further away and exploded in a ball of shrapnel shells. All of the passengers, most of whom were Israelis visiting relatives in Russia, were killed.
The Ukraine eventually admitted responsibility for the disaster and the testing of S-300 and similar missile systems was banned in the country for a period of 7 years. The Ukrainian President of the time, Leonid Kuchma, accepted the resignation of his Minister of Defense, Oleksandr Kuzmuk, following the admission that the military was at fault. Between 2003 and 2005, $15 million was also paid out to surviving family members of the 78 victims – amounting to $200,000 per victim.