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Innocent Civil Aircraft Shot Down in Conflict Zones

Korean Air Lines flight 007

Flight 007, shot down by Soviet air-to-air missiles on September 1, 1983, near Sakhalin Island, Russia, killing all 269 persons on board. It was en route to Seoul from Anchorage, Alaska, when it strayed more than 200 miles from its scheduled path and entered Soviet airspace.

Soviet authorities claimed that the plane was on an intelligence-gathering mission for the United States, though no evidence supported the allegation. The incident occurred during heightened tensions during the Cold War and further degraded U.S.-Soviet relations.

The flight originated in New York City and stopped in Anchorage to refuel. At approximately 4:00 AM local time on August 31, 1983, the plane, a Boeing 747, departed. Shortly thereafter the aircraft crossed the International Date Line, and the day changed to September. The plane’s path was already deviating to the north, and some three hours into its flight the aircraft appeared on Russian radar. At this time, a U.S. Air Force plane, a Boeing 707, was on a reconnaissance mission nearby, attempting to monitor the Soviet testing of a missile on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It was being tracked by the Soviets, but at some point the civilian aircraft was misidentified . Soviet fighter jets scrambled but failed to reach the South Korean aircraft, the jet then left Russian airspace.

However, the passenger jet again entered Soviet airspace as it passed over Sakhalin Island. This time Soviet fighter jets began trailing the South Korean plane. A Soviet pilot noted that the aircraft’s navigational and strobe lights were blinking, which would suggest that it was not a spy plane. He apparently fired warning shots, but they were not seen by the pilots of the civilian plane. By this time the South Korean plane had received permission from Tokyo air traffic control to increase its altitude, and the aircraft slowed as the flight adjustments were made. The Soviet pilots interpreted the Korean plane to be engaging in evasive

manoeuvres. With the aircraft fast approaching international airspace, a Soviet plane fired two air-to-air missiles. Although the Soviet pilot declared that the target was destroyed, the crippled plane continued to fly—estimates vary from 90 seconds up to 12 minutes—before crashing into the Sea of Japan (East Sea) approximately 30 miles from Sakhalin Island.

U.S. officials immediately claimed that the Soviets had knowingly downed a civilian plane, and U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan decried it as “an act of barbarism.” The Soviets, in turn, initially denied responsibility until the United States presented intercepted Soviet radio communications. Faced with such evidence, they admitted downing the plane but claimed that it had been conducting a spy mission for the United States. Although no corroboration was presented to support this assertion, the Soviets continued to claim that their response was justified. Among many Soviet officials, the incident was seen as a “political provocation". In October 1983 Soviets discovered the plane’s black box but kept its recovery secret.

The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) launched an investigation of the incident, but, with limited information, it was able to produce only an interim report later that year. One of the biggest mysteries was why the plane had strayed so far from its scheduled route. The ICAO produced two theories, both of which involved human error concerning the navigation system. One proposed explanation involved the autopilot being set to “heading” mode when it should have been on Inertial Navigation System (INS). On the former setting, the plane’s route would not have been adjusted for wind conditions, among other issues. The second theory concerned the pilot’s entering of a wrong number into the navigation system.

The ICAO also held that there was no evidence to support the Soviet assertion that the passenger plane was on an intelligence-gathering mission, and it later condemned their “use of armed force.” Furthermore, the ICAO recommended an amendment (Article 3 bis) to the Convention on International Civil Aviation that banned the use of military weapons against civilian aircraft in flight; after it was ratified by the necessary number of member states, it went into effect in 1998. In 1992 the ICAO resumed its investigation after Russia agreed to release various materials, and the tapes from the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder were turned over the following year. Later in 1993 the ICAO completed its investigation. It notably concluded that the theory involving the “heading” mode was the most likely explanation for the plane’s path. ICAO also found nothing in the recordings to suggest that the plane had been gathering intelligence.

Iran Air flight 655

Flight 655, shot down by the missile cruiser USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988, over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 people on board.

In July 1988 Iran and Iraq were in the midst of a war that included attacks on each other’s oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. The United States was among several countries that had warships in the area to safeguard the transport of oil. Various incidents, notably an attack on the USS Stark involving Iraq missiles in May 1987, had resulted in a revision to the U.S. rules of engagement, allowing U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf to undertake more protective measures.

On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, under the command of Capt. William C. Rogers III, was involved in several skirmishes with Iranian vessels. According to various reports, Rogers, who had a reputation for aggressiveness, ignored orders to change course and instead continued to pursue the enemy gunboats.

The Iranian airliner, an Airbus A300, departed from Bandar-e ʿAbbās, Iran, at approximately 10:47 AM, en-route and via published airways, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Crewmen aboard the Vincennes began tracking Iran Air flight 655, which had taken off from an airport used by both military and commercial aircraft. There was confusion aboard the U.S cruiser over the identity of the aircraft, which was eventually determined to be a much smaller F-14 fighter jet. After several warning calls went unheeded, the Vincennes fired two surface-to-air missiles at 10:54 AM, destroying the plane and killing all those on board.

Immediately after the event, U.S. officials reported that the Iranian airliner had been rapidly descending and was headed toward the Vincennes. In addition, it was stated that Iran Air flight 655 was not within its normal route. However, a U.S. Navy report on July 28, 1988—released to the public in redacted form on August 19—refuted these claims. It concluded that the Iranian aircraft was actually ascending “within the established air route,” and it was travelling at a slower speed than reported by the Vincennes. Furthermore, the airliner’s failure to communicate with the Vincennes was dismissed; in contact with two air control towers, the Iranian pilot was likely not checking the international air-distress channel. Finally, U.S. officials concluded that it was “a tragic and regrettable accident.” In explaining how the state-of-the-art cruiser had misidentified Iran Air flight 655, authorities cited “stress…and unconscious distortion of data.” However, U.S. officials also claimed that Iranian aggression played a key role in the incident

Some, however, accused the U.S. military of a cover-up. It was noted that investigators failed to interview others near the Vincennes—notably the commander of the USS Sides, some of whose personnel had identified the aircraft as a commercial plane—as well as the surface warfare commander who had ordered Rogers to change course several hours before the incident. In addition, the report’s statement that the Vincennes was in international waters was later acknowledged as incorrect; the cruiser was in Iranian waters.

In Iran it was widely believed that the U.S. attack had been deliberate, and Iran filed a lawsuit against the United States at the International Court of Justice. As the case dragged on, a settlement was reached in 1996. The United States, which “expressed deep regret” for shooting down Iran Air flight 655, agreed to pay $61.8 million to the victims’ families, and Iran dropped its suit. In 1990 the U.S. Navy notably awarded Rogers the Legion of Merit for his “outstanding service” during operations in the Persian Gulf.

Siberia Airlines Flight 1812

Flight 1812 was shot down by the Ukrainian Air Force over the Black Sea on 4 October 2001, en route from Tel Aviv, Israel to Novosibirsk, Russia. The aircraft, a Soviet-made Tupolev Tu-154, carried an estimated 66 passengers and 12 crew members. The passengers were mainly Israelis visiting relatives in Russia.

There were no survivors. The crash site is about 190 km west-southwest of the Black Sea resort of Sochi and 140 km north of the Turkish coastal town of Fatsa and 350 km south-southeast of Feodosiya in Crimea. The accident took place at the time of the combat missile launches during the joint Ukrainian-Russian military air defence exercises. The exercises were held at the Russian-controlled training ground of the 31st Russian Black Sea Fleet Research centre on Opuk cape near the city of Kerch (Crimea)

Flight 1812 departed Tel Aviv with destination Novosibirsk. It proceeded at an altitude of 36,000 ft over the Black Sea when the Russian ground control centre in Sochi suddenly lost contact with the airliner. Shortly thereafter, the pilot of an Armenian plane crossing the sea nearby reported seeing the Russian plane explode before it crashed into the sea about 1:45 pm Moscow time (9:45 am GMT).

Occurring less than a month after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the crash was initially suspected by Russian officials to be an act of terrorism, and they denied American reports that it was caused by an S-200 missile. American military officials said the crash was caused by a S-200 missile that overshot its target drone—which had been destroyed successfully by an S-300 fired at the same time—and instead of self-destructing, locked on the passenger plane about 250 kilometres further away and detonated 15 metres over the plane.

Russian officials dismissed the American claim as "unworthy of attention" and Russian President Vladimir Putin told the press the next day that "the weapons used in those exercises had such characteristics that make it impossible for them to reach the airway through which the plane was moving". Ukrainian military officials initially denied that their missile had brought down the plane; they reported that the S-200 had been launched seawards and had successfully self-destructed. Indeed, Defence Ministry spokesman Konstantin Khivrenko noted that "neither the direction nor the range of the missiles correspond to the practical or theoretical point at which the plane exploded".

The Moscow-based Interstate Aviation Committee ruled that the crash was caused by an accidental Ukrainian S-200 missile strike during military training exercises, staged off Cape Onuk (or Chuluk) in Crimea. Ukraine reportedly banned the testing of Buk, S-300 and similar missile systems for a period of 7 years following this incident.

S-200 Missile

On 7 October 2001, it was reported that the main fuselage of the aircraft, believed to contain the black box recorder, was thought to be at a depth of 1,000 metres (3,300 ft), which was too deep for divers to retrieve.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17

A passenger airliner that crashed and burned in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. All 298 people on board, most of whom were citizens of the Netherlands, died in the crash. For Malaysia Airlines it was the second disaster of 2014, following the disappearance of flight 370 on 8th March. It had a devastating effect on Malaysian Airlines and they struggled for years to recover from these 2 incidents. (to date there has been no definite evidence of what happened to MH370 and many theories and conspiracies abound)

Flight MH17 was from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The aircraft—a Boeing wide-body 777-200, 9M-MRD—departed Schiphol at 10:31 UTC , with a crew of 15. The 283 passengers on board represented at least 10 nationalities, including 193 Netherlanders, notably scientist Joep Lange, who was en route to an AIDS conference in Melbourne.

The flight plan took the aircraft across the entire breadth of Ukraine, including the eastern part of the country, where Russian-backed separatists and government forces were engaged in combat. Flight 17 flew over this region at an altitude of about 33,000 feet (10,000 metres), in accordance with a minimum-altitude restriction put in place by Ukrainian Civil Aviation Authorities, bearingin mind that only three days before a Ukrainian military transport plane was shot down while flying at a lower level. The Malaysian airliner was not alone; three other foreign passenger jets were also in the same radar control sector. As flight 17 approached the Russian border, the cabin crew engaged in routine communication with air traffic controllers in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro), Ukraine, and Rostov-na-Donu, Russia, until just before 13:20 UTC. After that, verbal communication from flight 17 ceased, but no distress signal was received. Shortly before 13:26 the aircraft disappeared from radar screens.

Wreckage was scattered over an area of 20 square miles (50 square km), but the largest concentration was found in farmlands and a built-up area just southwest of the village of Hrabove, Ukraine, in separatist-held territory. Rescue workers arrived promptly, but the armed conflict greatly complicated access to the site and the subsequent investigation. A mission organised by the Dutch Ministry of Defence did not reach the site until November, some three and a half months after the event.

The researchers analysed recorded data and debris and partly reconstructed the fuselage skin of the aircraft. After ruling out bad weather, pilot error, mechanical failure, or onboard fire or explosion, they concluded that the crash was caused by the detonation of a warhead from a radar-guided missile fired from a Buk (also called SA-11) surface-to-air system that was more than capable of reaching the cruising altitude of flight 17. The missile never struck the aircraft directly. Instead, as intended, its warhead exploded a few feet away from the cockpit, propelling hundreds of shrapnel fragments through the fuselage. The cabin crew was killed instantly, and the forward section of the aircraft broke off. The wings, passenger compartment, and tail remained in the air at least a minute longer before separating and dropping to the ground.

Buk SA-11 Surface-to-Air Missile System

Immediately after the crash, the Ukrainian government produced intercepted audio transmissions which alleged pro-Russian separatists talked of having shot down a plane. The separatists and their Russian backers denied culpability while offering a shifting series of alternative explanations. Russia later vetoed a United Nations resolution to create a tribunal that would have assigned blame for the incident. But video evidence belatedly surfaced that purported to show rebels combing through the still-smoking wreckage, seemingly dismayed at finding a civilian aircraft

In September 2016 a Dutch-led proprietorial team presented evidence that the fatal missile was launched from separatist-held territory in Ukraine using weaponry brought in from Russia and returned to that country on the same day. The following year an international team of prosecutors announced that any suspects in the case would be tried in the Netherlands. However, the possibility of a trial seemed remote given the difficulty of extraditing suspects.

Nevertheless, on June 19, 2019, Dutch prosecutors filed charges against four men—three Russians and a Ukrainian—in connection with the downing of flight 17.

All four were associated with the Russian-backed military operation in eastern Ukraine, and the three Russians had ties to Russian intelligence agencies. The most prominent suspect was Igor Girkin, whom prosecutors identified as a former colonel with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Girkin, who used the nom de guerre Strelkov, was commanding the Russian-backed forces in Donetsk, but he abruptly returned to Russia within a month of the crash of flight 17. The Dutch investigation team also stated conclusively that it possessed “evidence showing that Russia provided the missile launcher” that shot down the airliner.

Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752

Iran has admitted its military made an “unforgivable mistake” in unintentionally shooting down a Ukrainian jetliner and killing all 176 people onboard, after days of rejecting western intelligence reports that pointed to Tehran being responsible. It was followed by an apology from Iran’s president and condolences from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 57 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians and three Britons. The jetliner, a Boeing 737-800, went down on the outskirts of Tehran during takeoff a few hours after Iran had launched a barrage of missiles at US forces in Iraq in the early hours of Wednesday 08Jan 2020. Iran had initially stated the plane had technical issues. This was disputed by the airline, as the aircraft had just come out of a service and was only manufactured in 2016. Of course, the social media “experts” were fast to blame Boeing and claimed it was a defective aircraft. This was immediately denied by both Boeing and Ukraine Airlines – subsequently proven to be correct

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, responded on Saturday morning demanding that Iran must make an official apology and agree to a full investigation and compensation, as well as cooperating with Ukraine’s own investigators. “Our 45 professionals should have full access and cooperation to establish justice,” a statement from the presidency said. The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau ,also said his country’s focus remained on “closure, accountability, transparency and justice” for the families of the 57 Canadian victims.

The plane was mistaken for a hostile target after it turned towards a sensitive military centre of the Revolutionary Guards, according to the military statement, carried on the official IRNA news agency.“The military was at its highest level of readiness” amid the heightened tensions with the US, it said, adding: “In such a condition, because of human error and in an unintentional way, the flight was hit.”The military apologised for the disaster and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent such mistakes in the future. The responsible parties would be referred to a judicial department within the military and held accountable, it said.

The strikes on two US bases were in retaliation for the US drone strike that killed the al-Quds force leader, Qassem Suleimani, in Baghdad on 3 January – the culmination of a recent series of tit-for-tat attacks that threatened to push Washington and Tehran into war.

Iran’s acknowledgement of responsibility renews questions of why authorities did not shut down the country’s main international airport and its airspace after launching ballistic missile attacks, when they feared US reprisals were possible.

It also undermines the credibility of information provided by senior Iranian officials so far. As recently as Friday, Ali Abedzadeh, the head of the national aviation department, told reporters with certainty that a missile had not caused the crash. On Thursday, the cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei had also dismissed reports of a missile strike.

Zelenskiy said: “Even before the termination of the International Commission, Iran has pleaded guilty to crashing the Ukrainian plane. But we insist on full admission of guilt. We expect from Iran assurances of readiness for full and open investigation, bringing those responsible to justice, returning the bodies of the dead, payment of compensation, official apologies through diplomatic channels.”

The acknowledgement inflamed public sentiment inside the country against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders following Suleimani’s killing. The general was seen as a national icon and hundreds of thousands of people turned out for funeral processions across the country. “This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility, and it gives people a step toward closure with this admission,” said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada who lost a number of friends in the crash. “I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face.”

Iran had denied for several days that missiles could have downed the aircraft and instead blamed a mechanical malfunction.

Western security officials began briefing on Thursday afternoon that intelligence suggested the plane had been accidentally shot down by two surface-to-air missiles fired by the Iranian military.Preliminary report released by Iran’s civil aviation authority the day after the crash found that the pilots of the doomed plane did not make radio contact but had attempted to turn back to the airport before the plane went down.

Experts raised serious concerns over the handling of the crash site, such as over the removal of debris, prompting fears that Tehran had sought to eliminate evidence from the area.

Iran has invited investigators from Canada and Ukraine and from Boeing to visit the crash site on the outskirts of Tehran and said it would also welcome representatives of other countries whose citizens were killed. However, they have resisted all attempts to get hold of, and hand over the two black boxes.

Iran had said on Thursday it would download information from voice and flight data recorders, known as black boxes, to determine what had happened, although it said the process could take up to two months. The Ukrainian foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said on Friday that Kyiv had been given access to the flight recorders and planned to start analysing their content.

A consequence of this action had led airlines to re-route their flights, increasing flight times, but they had all stated that safety could not be compromised. – read below for more info


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