US Downing of Iranian Jet

Q: Your August 29th list of terrorist atrocities neglects to mention the Iranian passenger jet shot down by the United States of America!

I smell the slow, sulfuric burn of leftist anger.

The incident in question is the July, 1988 downing of an Iran Air jetliner over the Straits of Hormuz. The crew of the US Navy destroyer Vincennes, distracted by an ongoing gunbattle, mistakes the A300 for a hostile aircraft and destroys it with two missiles. None of the 290 occupants survive.

Sadly, the annals of aviation include numerous shoot-downs of civilian airliners by various militaries, both accidental and otherwise. I left these out of the article because they’re tough to qualify as acts of terrorism. The T word is a slippery one these days, perhaps harmfully devalued, and is best avoided in this context.

Eerily reminiscent of the Iran Air incident was the 2001 downing of a Sibir Airlines Tu-154 (same company and make involved in the recent double bombing over Russia). The plane blew up over the Black Sea during a flight from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk, Siberia, after being struck by an errant surface-to-air missile fired from a Ukrainian gunnery during a live-fire exercise.

Perhaps the most infamous assault of all occurred in 1983, when Korean Air Lines flight 007, a Boeing 747 carrying 269 people from New York to Seoul, was shot from the sky by a Soviet fighter plane after drifting off course — and into Soviet airspace — over the North Pacific. http://www.airliners.net/open.file/314989/M/ Investigators blamed the deviation to “a considerable lack of alertness and attentiveness on the part of the flight crew.” (Their conclusion did little to stifle the conspiracy fables spawned from this tragedy, which rival or exceed those of any other event in aviation history.)

Five years earlier, another KAL flight, this time a 707 heading from Paris to Seoul, strayed over Soviet territory and was fired upon. Two passengers were killed and the airplane crash-landed on a frozen lake.

Some others…

1993. A Transair (Georgian airlines) Tupolev Tu-134 was hit by a missile on approach to the Georgian city of Sukhumi.

1980. An Itavia Airlines DC-9 crashed mysteriously off the Italian coast killing 81 people. The accident went unsolved, though it was widely believed that a Libyan fighter jet had intentionally destroyed the plane. Then, nearly a decade later, evidence surfaced blaming a rogue air-to-air missile fired at a target drone during NATO maneuvers.

1973. A Cairo-bound 727 operated by Libyan Arab Airlines was fired on over the Sinai by the Israeli Air Force. http://www.airliners.net/open.file/565009/M/ During approach, the plane had wandered slightly off course, a diversion deemed potentially hostile by the Israelis, and two F-4 Phantoms were scrambled to intercept. After misunderstanding the fighter crews’ commands to land, the Libyan airliner turned back towards Cairo, at which point the Phantoms attacked. More than a hundred people died when the burning jet belly-landed in the desert near the Suez Canal.

And others as well, including several events over Africa. (Skimping on the specifics isn’t to belittle these events, and I happen to despise peoples’ habitual and dismissive reference to “Africa” as if it were a single culture and country. But in researching the history of African air disasters, one discovers a continent heavy with armed conflicts and light on particulars. The details of shoot-downs — in Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere, are murky at best.

Both Iran Air and KAL 007 make the list of top 10 air crashes of all time, by the way, at numbers 7 and 10 respectively. You can see that list in my book or view it here.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.