The World

Passenger Planes in the Cross Hairs

Relatives of victims of the Iranian Airbus shot down by the U.S. Navy cruiser USS Vincennes in 1988 over the Persian Gulf stand under a painting depicting the scene during a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the downing of the plane, in 2003. 

Photo by STF/AFP/Getty Images

The warning in my last post about thinly sourced news coming out of Israel applies doubly to the crash of a Malaysia Airlines passenger flight in eastern Ukraine, which Ukrainian officials are strongly suggesting was shot down. Both the Ukrainian government and Russian separatists deny having shot down the plane, though it would be a fairly incredible coincidence for a plane to go down in a region where a Ukrainian military fighter jet and a military transport plane were both shot down in the past week.

In any event, this would certainly not be the first case of a passenger jet being mistakenly shot down by military forces on high alert. These events were far more common the Cold War era, when airspace was more tightly controlled.

In 1955, for instance, an El Al flight from Vienna to Tel Aviv to London was shot down by Bulgarian fighter jets when it inadvertently veered into the country’s airspace during a thunderstorm, killing 58 people on board.*

Israeli military jets shot down a Libyan Airlines flight from Tripoli to Cairo in 1973 when it drifted into Sinai, then under Israeli control, as the result of a sandstorm. One hundred and eight people were killed.

Korean Airlines twice found itself in the cross hairs of the Soviet military. A KAL 707 flying from Paris to Seoul was brought down but not destroyed by heat-seeking missile near Murmansk in 1978 when it was mistaken for a military plane.* Five years later, KAL Flight 007, from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, was shot down by Soviet jets when it mistakenly crossed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people on board, including U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald, were killed.

In 1988 a U.S. naval warship in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian Airlines flight to Dubai after mistaking it for an F-14, killing nearly 300 passengers. The incident loomed over U.S.-Iranian relations for years. While President Ronal Reagan initially called the shootdown a “proper defensive action,” the U.S. later agreed to pay compensation to the victims following a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice. 

Today’s crash would not even be Ukraine’s first experience with an incident of this type. In 2001 a Siberian Airlines flight en route from Tel Aviv crashed into the Black Sea, killing 78, many of them Russian émigrés to Israel.* While the Ukrainian military initially denied responsibility, President Leonid Kuchma later accepted the findings of a report that said the plane was brought down by Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles fired form the Crimean coast during an air defense exercise.

All of these tragedies exacerbated already tense political disputes. Though in the case of the current situation in eastern Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse.

*Correction, July 17, 2014: This post originally misstated that an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to London was shot down in 1952. The 1955 flight was from Vienna to Tel Aviv. The post also misstated that a downed Siberian Airlines flight was en route to Tel Aviv. It was en route from Tel Aviv. It also misstated that a KAL flight was a 747. It was a 707.