July 30, 2014 00:00 By Vijay Verghese
Using civilian airliners for target practice and then claiming an "error of judgement" is both unconscionably evil and disingenuous
The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17 on July 17 over eastern Ukraine opens a new chapter in cavalier warfare and its tragic consequences for non-combatant populations, even 30,000ft aloft. As grim-faced coal miners – the first responders – beat their way through forlornly beautiful sunflower fields to pick through debris for survivors and clues, it was clear that this was no accident or act of god. It was an act of war.
The argument that MH17 may have strayed off course or chose a “hostile” northerly passageway to save money on jet fuel by taking the shortest route, is facile. Commercial aeroplanes operate along routes created and cleared by relevant air traffic control authorities. Other planes were flying within this airspace as well. As MAS bluntly put it, “MH17’s flight plan was approved by Eurocontrol, who are solely responsible for determining civil aircraft flight paths over European airspace”.
With the exception of the Israeli El Al, which carries a suite of anti-missile decoy countermeasures for heat-seeking weaponry, passenger planes are not built to deal with such exigencies. A surface-to-air missile attack on a commercial airliner may appear extreme, even implausible, yet it has happened time and again.
In the relative space of a few decades, the shooting down of commercial jets has reached near epidemic proportions. As many as nine civilian aircraft have been downed in recent history through missile strikes, accidental or calculated. As international opprobrium mounts, the favoured response is to pin the blame on errors of judgement and identification, the calculation being that all is forgiven in the heat of battle. This is entirely specious and akin to confusing a lumbering elephant for a small, agile, and threatening panther. Military aircraft and civilian aeroplanes are easy to tell apart, even by the untrained eye.
The canard about passenger jets being mistaken for hostile entities, is an old one.
It is worth recalling the case of Iran Air 655, which disappeared from the skies on July 3, 1988, after US Navy cruiser, the USS Vincennes, despatched surface-to-air missiles at the passenger plane causing the loss of 290 lives, including 66 children and a great many Iranian pilgrims headed for Mecca. The A300 was flying from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. The Americans claimed, somewhat disingenuously, they had confused it with an Iranian F14 fighter plane, which presents a dramatically different visual signature. An attempt was made to pin the blame on the Iranian pilots who were said to be “descending” from 9,000ft at great speed and flying “directly at” the Vincennes. In actual fact, as proven later by official transcripts, the plane was plodding along at 12,000ft and ascending. It also transpired the Vincennes was in Iranian waters at the time. Eight years later “regrets” (if not apologies), were offered along with some compensation. Clearly, the military machine can and does make mistakes.
Ironically, Ukraine was the scene of an earlier outrage in 1983 when Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 was shot down, purportedly by accident during a military drill, while en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk. On that occasion too, a surface to air missile was responsible for blowing up the Tupolev Tu-154, killing all 78 on board.
In 1955, El Al 402 with 58 souls on board was intercepted by Bulgarian Air Force jets while flying from Vienna to Tel Aviv. The jets shot down the passenger plane, with Bulgaria later describing this as a grievous accident and agreeing to some limited compensation to the airline. There were no survivors.
In 1973, a Libyan Arab Airlines B727 flight en route from Tripoli to Cairo via Benghazi found itself radar-blind and visually disoriented as a sandstorm raged below. Further complicating matters, a compass problem caused the French captain to veer over the Suez Canal and then farther east over the Sinai, close to a highly sensitive Israeli nuclear facility. Israeli jets were scrambled and attempted to make contact and escort the plane to the ground. The B727 turned away, seemingly ignoring warning bursts from the pursuing fighters, and was shot down. Miraculously, there were five survivors as the plane crash-landed in the dunes with 108 fatalities.
In April 1978, Soviet Su-15 fighter jets near Murmansk shot at Korean Air Lines Flight 902 that had hugely deviated from its Paris to Seoul route (via Alaska), forcing it to make an emergency landing on a frozen lake near Finland. Miraculously, just two passengers died. Soviet authorities claimed the aircraft had failed to follow instructions to land and believed it to be a US reconnaissance operation to test air defence readiness. This drama was re-enacted with far more tragic consequences that ratcheted up cold war tensions on September 1, 1983, when KAL007 en route from New York to Seoul (via Anchorage) strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down near the Sakhalin peninsula by a Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 fighter, killing all 269 passengers and crew. Again it was argued that that the unresponsive and off course B747 was on a US spying mission.
More mysterious was the crash off the Sicilian coast on June 27 1980, of Itavia 870, flying from Bologna to Palermo. Air crash investigators determined the Italian DC9 was struck by a missile. Conspiracy theories attributed this to Nato and French forces – an accidental strike during a NATO aerial dogfight, or a plot to assassinate Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
And civil war in Mozambique took its toll in November 1987 when a small Air Malawi plane was shot down.
It’s not just missiles that down planes. On June 24, 2014, gunmen opened fire on a Pakistan International Airways jet coming in to land at Peshawar, killing one passenger and injuring two crewmembers. Terrorist bombs accounted for the destruction of an Air India B747 (Flight 182) on June 23, 1985, while en route from Montreal to Delhi, and a Pan Am B747 (Flight 103), that crashed near Lockerbie in Scotland on December 21, 1988. Four airborne flights (operated by United and American Airlines) were commandeered for the infamous 2001 “9/11” attacks where the planes themselves were transformed into deadly “guided” weapons.
In commercial terms, the loss of a B777 aircraft – purportedly downed by a Russian supplied Buk missile over Ukraine, and close on the heels of the missing MH370 – pinned embattled Malaysia Airlines right against the bankruptcy wall. Yet the airline generously offered free cancellations for tickets in an effort to soothe public disquiet. This is a case of a single missile downing not just one plane but an entire airline.
The fact is that no amount of countermeasures in-flight and pilot derring-do can avert a disaster when a rogue missile gets airborne. Safety in the air depends on handshakes on the ground and “collateral damage” is a cowardly term for cold-blooded murder.
Vijay Verghese edits Smart Travel Asia (www.SmartTravelAsia.com) – a travel website based in Hong Kong.