The world reacted with horror over the mistaken shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by the Iranians. The shootdown killed 176 people including 82 Iranians. What made that tragedy even worse was the fact that Flight 752 had just taken off from Tehran’s international airport.
This highlighted a common problem among disasters of this type: poor command and control among air defense units that in many cases misidentified commercial aircraft for military targets. In this case, the pucker factor was unusually high with Iranian ADA units as they had just launched a missile attack on the U.S. bases in Iraq and were expecting a quick response.
But this was far from an isolated incident. Our recent history is littered with civilian aircraft that were shot down mistakenly… and in some cases on purpose. Below are some major tragedies of civilian airliners that have been shot down by military forces.
Ukraine Flight 752
As we mentioned above, this was a tragedy made worse by the fact that the aircraft wasn’t just overflying Iranian airspace: it had just taken off from Tehran just a few minutes before being shot down.
We covered more of the details of the incident here.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17
In July of 2014, a Boeing 777 flying over eastern Ukraine was shot down about 30 miles west of the Ukraine/Russian border. All 298 people on board (283 passengers and 16 crew) were killed.
The aircraft was later deemed to have been downed by a Buk surface-to-air missile manned by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. According to the official Dutch investigation, the Buk missile (SA-11) that was used originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Federation. It was a radar-guided, rather than heat-seeking, missile and it hit the cockpit of the plane.
The missile had been transported from Russia on the day of the crash and was fired from a field in a rebel-controlled area. As soon as the shootdown occurred the launcher returned to Russia. The Russian government of President Putin has steadfastly denied any involvement in the downing of the aircraft. It was a horrible year for Malaysia Airlines. In March of 2014, Flight 370 disappeared with all 272 passengers and 13 crew and was never heard from again.
Siberia Airlines Flight 1812
On October 4, 2001, Siberian Airlines Flight 1812, a Tupolev Tu-154, was shot down over the Black Sea while traveling from Tel Aviv, Israel to Novosibirsk, Russia. Investigators learned that the plane was hit by an S-200 surface-to-air missile. All 78 people on board the aircraft (66 passengers, 12 crew) died in the crash.
The missile was fired from the Crimea during a Ukrainian military exercise, and this was confirmed by the Moscow-based Interstate Aviation Committee. The Ukranian government apologized to the victims and paid a total of over $15 million dollars in restitution ($200,000 for each victim) after the investigation.
Lionair Flight 602
In late-September 1998, Lionair Flight 602 was shot down off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka. All 55 people on board (seven crew and 48 passengers) died in the crash. Later it was learned that the Antonov An-24RV twin-engined turboprop had been shot down by rebels belonging to the Tamil militant organization called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Rwandan presidential airliner
A double assassination of both Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira occurred on April 6, 1994. A Dassault Falcon 50, a luxury mid-size business jet carrying both presidents was shot down as it was preparing to land in Kigali, Rwanda.
No one really knows who was responsible for the shootdown. Both the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and government-aligned Hutu Power extremists have been blamed. The double assassination was the catalyst for the Rwandan Genocide that killed upwards of close to a million people and led to the rape of 200,000 to 500,000 women.
Transair Georgian Airline Attacks
Between 20-23 September 1993, five different attacks on the Georgian Transair Airlines occurred both on the ground and in the air by separatists from Sukhumi, Abkhazia. A total of 150 people were killed.
On 20 Sept. an empty Tu-134B was destroyed on the ground by Abkhaz ground fire. On the 21st, another Tu-134 was hit by a Strela 2 surface-to-air missile. It crashed into the Black Sea killing 27 people, 22 passengers, and five crewmen.
On September 22, a Tu-154B was approaching Sukhumi-Babusheri airport when it was hit by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. The plane crashed and in the resulting fire, a total of 108 out of a total of 132 passengers and crew died. On the 23rd, a Tu-134 while boarding was hit from an Abkhaz BM-21 Grad rocket. One crewman was killed.
T&G Aviation DC-7
On December 8, 1988, a chartered DC-7 carrying members of the United States’ Agency for International Development (USAID) was en route to Morocco when it was shot down over Western Sahara by members of the Polisario Front. Five people were killed. The Polisario Front is a Sahrawi rebel group determined to end Moroccan influence in Western Sahara.
Iran Air Flight 655
On July 3, 1988, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655. The flight was en route to Dubai from Bandar Abbas, Iran. All 290 of the passengers and crew were killed.
IAF655 was a regularly-scheduled flight and the crew of the Vincennes mistook the ascending airliner for a descending Iranian F-14 and fired a Standard surface-to-air missile. The U.S. denied liability but agreed to pay $61.8 million dollars in restitution to the families of the victims.
Bakhtar Afghan Airlines Antonov An-26, Afghanistan
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, two different civilian airliners were shot down by mujahadeen rebels. In September of 1985, an An-26 carrying 52 people (47 passengers, 5 crew) was shot down on its approach to Kandahar airport. There were no survivors.
In June of 1987, a Bakhtar Afghan Airlines Antonov An-26, flying from Kabul to Kandahar was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Khost, Afghanistan. A total of 53 of the 55 people on board were killed.
1983 Korean Air Lines Flight 007
Many people alive during the Cold War will remember this tragic shootdown. On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines flight 007, known as KAL 007 was shot down over the Soviet Union’s Sakhalin Island. All 269 passengers and crew, including U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald, were killed in the shootdown.
Pilot error caused the jumbo jet 747 to veer off course and wander into Soviet airspace. The Soviets scrambled a Su-15 fighter jet whose pilot mistook flight 007 for a spy plane. He unleashed an air-to-air missile and destroyed the plane.
Itavia Flight 870
On June 27, 1980, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15 broke up mid-air and crashed into the sea off the Italian island of Ustica, while en route to Palermo Sicily. All 81 people on board were killed.
The crash of the plane began a decades-long controversy. No one knew exactly how the plane was brought. There were speculations that it was hit by a missile or that a bomb exploded on board. It wasn’t until 33-years later in January 2013, that Italy’s top criminal court ruled that there was “abundantly” clear evidence that the plane was shot down by a missile.