When airliners get shot down, facts get skewed quickly


Smoke rises from wreckage at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Thursday. The plane is believed to have been shot down by pro-Russian militants, killing all 295 people on board, Ukrainian officials said. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

The suspected shootdown of a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine on Thursday brought quick denials from two camps: pro-Russian separatists said they had nothing to do with it, and so did the Ukrainian government.

That’s hardly a surprise. Rather, it simply reinforces the basic playbook that has been used when other commercial airliners have been shot down by military forces over the last three decades. Those involved in other high-profile incidents have covered up key details, only for the truth to emerge later when the immediate pressure of the moment had subsided.

(Map by Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)
(Map by Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

One obvious example involves the United States. On July 3, 1988, a helicopter from the USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser, came under fire from Iranian gunboats while over the Persian Gulf. Seeing an aircraft speeding their way, the ship’s crew opened fire with two surface-to-air missiles — and brought down a commercial jet, Iran Air Flight 655, carrying 290 people. Navy officials said the Vincennes crew thought it was an Iranian fighter jet, and a threat to their safety.

As outlined in The Washington Post the next day, the Pentagon at first denied Iranian accusations that the Navy had shot down an airliner. Within hours, however, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., said the United States had confirmed the incident.

Even then, Crowe moved quickly to to back the skipper of the ship, Capt. William C. Rogers III.  He said the Airbus had flown four miles west of the usual commercial airline route, that the pilot ignored repeated radio warnings from the Vincennes to change course, and that its altitude was decreasing as it got closer. U.S. officials also said repeatedly the ship was in international waters, which would put the Iranians in the wrong for opening fire on the ship in the first place.

Few of those details turned out to be true. The Vincennes and helicopter were actually in Iranian waters and airspace, subsequent investigations found. ABC News, among others, later reported that the plane actually was flying where it should have been and had already turned away from the Vincennes when it was shot down. U.S. officials also said the helicopter that came under fire was checking on a vessel that had issued a distress call, but later investigations show the ship did not exist.

In another airliner shootdown, the Soviet Union targeted Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on Sept. 1, 1983, over the Sea of Japan while the Boeing 747 airliner was flying from New York to Seoul, South Korea, with a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska. Two hundred sixty-nine people were killed. In that case too, the responsible party — the Soviet Union — initially denied being involved. Officials in Moscow eventually acknowledged that the plane was shot down by an Su-15 fighter jet, but insisted the commercial aircraft was involved in “espionage activities.”

In 2001, another shootdown involved Russia and Ukraine and stoked tensions between the two nations. In that case, Siberian Airlines Flight 1812 crashed into the Black Sea on Oct. 4, 2001, after being struck by a Ukrainian missile. The plane was carrying 78 people at the time, and was flying from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Novosibirsk, Russia.

Within days, Russian officials said they had discovered pieces of S-200 anti-aircraft missile at the crash site and accused the Ukrainians of taking the aircraft down. Ukraine denied it for more than a week before finally acknowledging it and saying it was a training mistake by the country’s military.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.

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