Friday July 25 2014

Lessons from aviation history of tragic passenger airline shoot downs

By Augustine Ruzindana

Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in Ukrainian airspace and I wish to extend my condolences to the bereaved families and countries, particularly the Netherlands, the origin of most of the victims and Malaysia, which also lost many people and another plane so soon after another that just disappeared from the sky and its whereabouts are yet to be found.

However, similar tragic incidents have taken place in the past when military forces shot down civilian passenger planes and a look at a few examples can help to understand how these situations have been handled.

l. On July, 23 1954, a Cathay Pacific Airways (an airline of Hong Kong, then a British colony) plane flying from Bangkok to Hong Kong was shot down by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel. Ten out 19 passengers and crew died. The Chinese government apologised and explained that they had thought the plane was a military aircraft from Taiwan on an attack mission. The tragedy was compounded when two PLA fighters were shot down by US planes which were searching for survivors.

l On July 27, 1955, an El Al flight 402 from Vienna to Tel Aviv was shot down by Bulgarian fighters and all 58 passengers were killed. Bulgaria eventually admitted shooting down the plane and paid $195,000 to Israel, having already compensated non-Israeli passengers.

l On February 21, 1973, a Libyan Arab Airlines flight 114 from Tripoli to Cairo strayed due to bad weather into the Sinai, then under Israeli occupation, and Israeli jets shot it down, killing 108 of the 113 passengers and crew. The Israeli government called it an “error of judgement” and compensated the families of the victims.

l On June 27, 1980, Itavia Airlines flight 780 from Bologna to Palermo in Italy with 81 passengers and crew crashed near Sicily. Media reports at the time and a court in Italy said that there was clear evidence that a missile from an aircraft hit the plane but up to now there is no information about which country’s aircraft hit the plane or why. Francesco Cossiga, the Italian Prime Minister at the time, said decades later that the plane was shot down by French military personnel but these claims have not been proved.

l On September 1, 1983, a Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet fighter, killing all 269 passengers and crew, including a US Congressman. President Reagan described it as a “crime against humanity” which “must never been forgotten.”

l On July 3, 1988an Iranian Air Flight 655 was shot down by two missiles from an American cruiser stationed in the Persian Gulf, killing all the 300 passengers and crew. President Reagan called it a “terrible tragedy.” Iran’s UN ambassador condemned the act as a “criminal act,” an “atrocity” and a “massacre.” Vice President George Bush called the idea that the US had deliberately shot down the plane “offensive and absurd.” The US government eventually, in 1996, agreed compensation to the victims of $61.8 million, 1/30th of the compensation the US secured from Libya for the Lockerbie plane bombing.

l On October 4, 2001 a Siberian Airlines Flight 1812 from Novosibirsk to Tel Aviv was shot down by a Ukrainian missile, killing 78 passengers and crew. Ukrainian President Kuchma accepted that the Ukrainian military was at fault and the minister of defence resigned and $15.6 million compensation was paid to the victims’ families.

Clearly many militaries have shot passengers planes. At the beginning, the culprits first deny it but they eventually admit when evidence is produced and pay compensation. This particular tragedy in Ukraine should be handled rationally and everybody should wait for completion of independent investigations.

Mr Ruzindana is a former IGG and former MP.