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Spectator archive: A history of passenger planes shot down

18 July 2014

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)

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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)

Libyan Arab Airlines Boeing 727 (Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi)

Libyan Arab Airlines Boeing 727 (Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi

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.

A Douglas DC-4 similar to the aircraft shot down

A Douglas DC-4 similar to the aircraft shot down

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

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Show comments
  • Chris Pattison

    And what about the Rhodesian airliners shot down over the old Rhodesia?

  • fathomwest

    In relation to the present Ukrainian crime. I find the silence of the leader of the EU, Mrs Merkel, and her EU puppets deafening. Is she a Soviet sleeper?

  • brian swift

    Dear Alex
    There was a TV programme recently entitled “Lockerbie. What really happened” , which covers the salient points.
    Iran swore they would get revenge, and I fancy they did.

    In regard to your point about illuminati, that is somewhat less likely than a surface to air missile.
    If your Malaysian crash was referring to MH 370, we may never know, but the hot betting is on pilot suicide, ( see Egypt Air 990 or Silk Air 185 for precedents).

  • brian swift

    Dear Alex
    Of course everyone knows the Iranians organised Lockerbie, and the Americans wanted to divert attention from their trigger happy Captain of the Vincennes. The Airway map information was only discovered later, when another US warship threatened on 121 .5 ( the pilots emergency radio frequency) to shoot down a BA 747 approaching Dubai. The BA investigation team that went out to Dubai the next day, showed the US exactly where the BA aircraft was on the Airways map, only to discover that the US navy had no knowledge whatever of airways, and standard civilian aircraft routings.
    Brian Swift ……and of course Iran took revenge by blowing up a Pan Am 747 over Scotland six months later. The original article was quite good, but could have added the Airbus was on schedule on an airway, and the USS Vincennes was illegally in Iranian territorial waters
    Like · Reply · 8 minutes ago

    • Alex

      Dear Brian
      I appreciate the information on the BA incident. However my problem is when sentences like this are put forward :”Of course everyone knows the Iranian organised Lockerbie”. We cannot throw out idea without evidence and what you are suggesting is against all evidence presented in the trial. Also what you are suggesting means that American and British security services have been colluding with Iran on Lockerbie. So of course it is not a matter of course that Iran was involved and the whole justice system in this country and British-American governments cannot be vicious to this degree to their own people and victims unless you believe in conspiracy theories. They say that illuminati were behind the Malaysian Airline Crash!

  • artemis in france

    So it seems that thèse dreadful things happen from time to time. I, for one, would never use a Malaysan Airlines plane. Of course it shouldn’t have been shot down but the fact is this wasn’t the first plane shot down recently over the area and this plane diverted from the regular route taken by other MH17s to stray into Ukrainian airspace. This was a catalogue of errors of judgement and has led to a tragic and unnecessary outcome. Will we ever discover what happened to the other Malaysian plane which also seems to have diverted for no explicable reason? Is there a culture of indiscipline among their pilots?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    UA93, the elephant in the room. Make the comparison, Britisher pals.

  • FrankS2

    “Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 [is} not the first civilian flight to have been shot down in
    Do we know that it was shot down in error?

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Mistaken identity would appear to be the front runner, but it’s a tight field.

      • Makroon

        Isn’t “Putin, the evil manipulator who planned and executed the whole thing” the front runner ?
        That’s what the BBC and John McCain are saying.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Don’t rush to judgement, Mak. Step back. MH370 and MH17 were exactly the same plane, a Boeing 777. Ask yourself, “What are the odds?”

  • brian swift

    Brian Swift ……and of course Iran took revenge by blowing up a Pan Am 747 over Scotland six months later. The original article was quite good, but could have added the Airbus was on schedule on an airway, and the USS Vincennes was illegally in Iranian territorial waters. In addition the USS Vincennes, in common with other US naval ships, was not provided with details or maps of civilian Airways, and hence were less able to differentiate civil from military aircraft.

    • Alex

      Why you have been withholding your evidence from British and American authorities for such a long time? If you had provided this information that Iran blew up Pan Am 747 you had saved so much tax payer’s money spent on Lockerbie trial and later invasion of Libya. You have such strong evidence and did not release?

  • Gizzard Puke

    Israel is the real victim.

  • Adam Carter

    The Israelis did all they could NOT to shoot the airliner down.
    This shows their mindset and is relevant to the current conflict in Gaza; to stop the killing just stop firing roclets into Israel.

    • Peter Leighton

      What a deluded world you must inhabit. Either that or you’re an idiot. Which is it?

      • Adam Carter

        That’s not an argument; that’s just abuse.
        Why don’t you either expand or f*** o**?
        Or are you so stupid as to think that I was referring to yeserday’s atrocity? Normal people understood that I was referring to the incident from 1973 described in this article.
        So, over to you, either you’re incapable of argument or you’re a moron.
        Which is it?

        • Peter Leighton

          Thanks for answering the question. The assumptions you incorrectly and arrogantly make in your rant prove , beyond doubt, you’re an idiot.

          • Adam Carter

            Wow! It only took you 8 days to come up with that stunning rejoinder.
            And you didn’t answer the question, did you?
            Did you think I was referring to the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner?
            That’s the only possibility I can think o.f And you haven’t offered another.. A decent person would just have come back and admitted his mis-interpretation.
            You, however, go into abuse-mode again.
            Look at the upticks.
            You started the abuse and I’m better than you in both logic and insults.

    • artemis in france

      The comment below sinks to insult instead of reasoned debate. Adam Carter, I agree with you.

    • dramocles

      It doesn’t matter how hard you try. Killing innocent civilians – whether Israeli teenagers, Palistinian children or drone-killed guests at a Pakistani wedding doesn’t qualify you for the moral high ground.

      • Adam Carter

        I’m not sure about that.
        Sam Harris in his book ‘The End Of Faith’ uses the concept of the ‘perfect weapon’. Briefly and in paraphrase: if there was a weapon that would destroy or kill the desired target in its entirety, but have no collateral damage at all, e.g you could annihilate the munitions factory and the weapons cache but leave the hospital and the school either side completely unscathed would Israel or the West use the same targetting policies as the mohammedans?
        But with current weapons the only way to completely avoid killing innocent civilians would require never even striking at miltary targets.
        I reject that level of restraint.

  • Alex

    Terrible, terrible words by the author on the Iranian victims of the crime committed by the American warship. Please re-read what you have written here!

    • Span Ows

      It is quoted from the Spectator edition in 1988.

    • HookesLaw

      It was a mistake, a pretty incompetent one. The plane was shot after take off. The USN captain never commanded another ship and retired 3 years later. His wife survoved when her car was blown up by a pipe bomb.

      • Alex

        If a US warship is that incompetent to recognise an American fighter from an Airbus then you will certainly accept the same excuse from a bunch of pro-Russia rebels playing with their new toys! Captain Rogers remained in command of that warship for another year and he was later decorated. FBI ruled out any terrorist activity in the pipe bomb incident. So better to get all facts right. Trying to take the blame away from US by the way the article describes or you portray is incompressible. Also it’s important to note that Iran was under attack from Saddam supported by all major powers and Iranians were defending their homeland. It was not the government forcing 12 years olds to fight, these were young people forging their birth certificates to sneak into the fronts to defend their country, and yes there are countries that patriotism still has a meaning!
        It would be interesting to monitor the media in coming days and see how Russians are portrayed compared to the Americans back in 1988 unless we believe that whatever “we” do is always right and whatever “they” do is always wrong!

        • andagain

          Perhaps the Americans were unable to distinguish between an Airbus carrying passengers and an Airbus on a kamikaze mission against a crusier that was already in a running battle with Iranian gunboats?

          BTW – the Iranian regime regarded it as a holy duty to conquer the non-Shi’ite world in the name of God. They were in a poor position to complain that they were under attack. That is what happens to you when you want to conquer the world.

          • Alex

            Thank you Sir for this very well-written and intelligent argument! May I suggest that you also look at Wikipedia and YouTube as a starting point to broaden your knowledge on the established facts with respect to this incident? I can later direct you to more sophisticated reports and research by ICAO, DoD and ICJ as well as that of Congress which provides shocking evidence to you beyond what you normally read in the Sun or Daily Mail. However to save everyone’s time and energy google is also another available tool on these occasions with vast number of websites providing information and data which you may not like to use but is available to the more inquisitive audiences.

  • Richard M Skelton
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