Lara Prendergast

Spectator archive: A history of passenger planes shot down

Spectator archive: A history of passenger planes shot down
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Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in Ukraine after being hit by a missile. It's not the first civilian flight to have been shot down in error though. Here are four other times mistakes have been made in the past 60 years, and the Spectator's responses to them:

Iran Air Flight 655 (1988)


On 3 July 1988, as the Iran-Iraq war was drawing to a close, a US military ship, the USS Vincennes, mistook Iran Air Flight 655 for a fighter jet and launched a missile at the plane. 290 people were killed:

It is ironic that the nation which has done most in the world to further the idea of inalienable human rights should have destroyed 290 innocent lives by shooting down a civilian aircraft on the very eve of the anniversary of its foundation. There were extenuating circumstances: a warship in a zone of conflict is not a propitious environment for calm ethical debate. The killing was a mistake and not one made callously. But such is the scale of the tragedy that a thorough re-examination not only of the events themselves but of the policy that led to them is surely required.

This does not mean that the protestations of the present regime in Iran have to be taken seriously in any moral sense. A government that sends 12-year-old children to an unnecessary war is not one that can plausibly claim much concern for the welfare of its citizens, even if it had not also systematically violated their rights in almost every conceivable way. The labeling of the victims as martyrs by Iranian statements demonstrates that their deaths are seen largely as a political and propaganda tool against the Americans: for martyrs are people who choose avoidable death for the furtherance of a cause, not migrant labourers accidentally shot down in a commercial aircraft while returning to work.

The Spectator

9 July 1988

Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (1983)

jaoOn 1 September 1983, the USSR shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, en route from New York City to Seoul.  It is believed to have strayed north of its scheduled course towards the Soviet island of Sakhalin. All 269 people on board the flight died:

Washington president Reagan leaped on the shooting down of the Korean aeroplane with the zest and celerity of a younger politician. The news had barely reached here before he had told a group of reporters that 'words can scarcely express our revulsion at this horrifying act of violence'. Not even deep burrowing rodents on the Wyoming prairie could escape knowing how the administration viewed this particular mass murder.

The Secretary of State gave a statement heavily weighted with snippets from our intelligence agencies which conveyed the idea that the Russians get their kicks by shooting down loaded airliners. Then the President, taking wing from Santa Barbara, flew back to his capital to talk to various politicians and get on the television to the nation to play tape recordings of the Russian air force pilots talking to their base. Since no subtitles were provided as Mr Reagan and one hundred million of his fellow citizens listened to this Slavic gibberish, it was difficult to know if this was indeed the smoking gun proving the true nature of the ursine brutes who dwell on the banks of the Moskva.

What was omitted was a discussion of why they murdered 269 people with malice aforethought. What Mr Reagan has not been telling us is why the communists shot down that plane. Another Korean Air Lines plane flying within a few minutes of Flight 007 had no less than four United States Senators on board. Why didn't the Russians shoot that one down?

Nicholas von Hoffman

9 September 1983

Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 (1973)

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="320"]Libyan Arab Airlines Boeing 727 (Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi) Libyan Arab Airlines Boeing 727 (Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi[/caption]

On 21 February 1973, a Libyan Arab Airlines flight en route from Tripoli to Cairo flew into the Sinai peninsula. The area was under Israeli control, and after sending signals to land and firing warning shots, Israeli jets shot the plane down. Of the 113 people on board, 108 died (although this was originally reported lower):

Does Israel seek to provoke a new war with the Arabs? Is its policy to wreck any chance of an American-negotiated Middle Eastern peace settlement? Whether or not Israel's commando strike at an Arab guerrilla training camp in Lebanon, north of Beirut, was designed with no more than its stated objective in mind, we will not know soon, if ever; nor will we know for sure whether the interception by Israeli fighter aircraft of the Boeing 727 of Libyan Airways, and its consequent crash with the loss of seventy lives, was a horrible coincidence; whether it was shot down; or whether it accidentally crashed in bad weather after interception, warning and a request to land. This last explanation is difficult to credit, as is the Israeli claim that similar passenger aircraft have been used for aerial reconnaissance. It is possible that, as a consequence of the Lebanon raid, Israeli security forces were on full alert, anticipating some kind of retaliation, and over-reacted.

What is quite clear is Israel's pride in its deep strike into Lebanon. Technically the exercise seems to have been most expert, with troops landed by sea and taken off by air, and greeted on their return by Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff David Elazar. The Israelis claim that by attacking this particular camp they have frustrated nine planned Palestinian terrorist operations including an attack on an Israeli embassy in Europe. Be this as it may, the Lebanese strike certainly will have the triple effect of jeopardising President Nixon's peace efforts; of damaging the prospects of an Arab-Israeli reconciliation held out by King Hussein's recognition that Jordan and Egypt 'accept not only the presence of an Israel but of an Israel enclosed behind secure and recognised borders '; and of further weakening President Sadat's internal position vis-à-vis the Egyptian armed forces following the sending of Dr Hafiz Ismail, his Kissinger, to Washington for talks with Nixon. This triple effect was calculable, and must have been calculated, by Israel.

The crash, whether deliberately brought about or not, of the Libyan Airways aircraft, with Egyptian passengers the main casualties, cannot but reinforce the political effects of Israel's strike deep into north Lebanon. As a consequence, war in the Middle East might break out at any time; and the prospects of any peace, other than one imposed by the chief powers, have become as remote as they have ever been. For this, on the facts available, Israel must bear the blame, whether Israeli aircraft actually shot down the Libyan plane, as seems probable, or not; and whether the Israeli action was jittery or was taken, as Mrs Golda Meir claims, after 'due consideration'.

The Spectator

24 February 1973

Cathay Pacific Airways (1954)

On 23 July 1954, fighters belonging to China’s People’s Liberation Army shot down a Cathay Pacific Airways flight (the airline of Hong Kong, then under British control). Out of the 19 passengers on board, 10 died. The Chinese apologized to the British for the attack, and said they had believed the plane was a military aircraft from Taiwan.

[caption id="attachment_8829591" align="alignright" width="320"]A Douglas DC-4 similar to the aircraft shot down A Douglas DC-4 similar to the aircraft shot down[/caption]

In the wake of the attack, two US planes searching for survivors shot down two Chinese fighters, which had attacked them during the search for the Cathay Pacific airliner:

The letter of apology which the Chinese deputy Foreign Minister sent on July 26 to the British Chargé d'Affaires in Peking began with an expression of rejoicing at 'the easing of international tension through the recent holding of the Geneva conference.' The Chinese contribution to this 'easing of tension' in the past week has consisted of one attack by fighters on a British Skymaster airliner, resulting in the loss of ten lives, one attack by fighters on an American aircraft searching for survivors, one 'inspection' by fighters of a French civil aircraft 75 miles off Hainan island, and one message from the Canton airfield that any aircraft, except one Sunderland, searching for survivors of the attack on the Sky- master would be fired on without warning if they approached land.

It was, of course, the sheer barbarity of the Canton message which removed any lingering doubts that the Chinese Government might manage (by means of apologies, explanations, compensation and great forbearance on the part of the Governments representing the victims) to avoid responsibility for the actions of its servants. Nothing short of the disowning of that message, the punishment of those who sent it, and the complete abandonment of the policy which appears to lie behind it can now suffice to restore the more cordial atmosphere which, it is said, was created in Geneva. In the meantime we can only believe that the iron curtain which surrounds the Communist area in Asia is quite as thick and even more dangerous than that which cuts Europe in two.

The Spectator

29 July 1954