AINsight: Trigger Happy

 - August 28, 2020, 11:40 AM

New details are beginning to emerge from the shootdown of a Ukrainian Boeing 737-800 by Iranian missiles in January. In a report released this week by Iran’s Civil Aviation Authority, both the flight data and voice recorders functioned for 19 more seconds after the initial missile strike. During that period, all aircraft systems reportedly were functioning normally, and the flight crew were uninjured. Six seconds later, a second missile would hit the aircraft, causing it to plummet into the ground and kill all 176 aboard.

Unanswered in the report are why the airspace around Tehran was open, why the missiles were launched, and why an airline would opt to fly in a conflict zone in the first place.

In each decade, for the past 50 years, there has been an average of around one civilian aircraft shot down, unintentionally, by military forces. In the first six months of this year, there have been two.

In addition to the downed Ukrainian 737 in January, on May 4 an African Express Embraer Brasilia, on a medical supply mission, was shot down over Somalia. Ethiopian soldiers on a peacekeeping mission “mistakenly believed the aircraft was on a suicide mission,” since they were not informed of its arrival; three crewmembers died.

Combined, these “accidental” shootdown events have killed 179 this year. In each case, a civilian aircraft was misidentified, targeted, and attacked by military forces. These inadvertent shootdown events are always fatal. Operators can no longer look at these as one-off or freak events. Civilian operators must recognize this threat and develop mitigation strategies, both for overflights and operating within a country.

Common elements during each of these events point to poorly trained soldiers operating lethal air defense systems combined with weak communications between military command and control elements and air traffic services. The latter element—communications—has historically been a major problem.

Since 1973, there have been a total of seven fatal military errors, including the two from this year, that resulted in more than 1,200 deaths. Other events include:

• February 1973: Libyan Airlines Flight 114, a Boeing 727-200, was shot down by Israeli F-4s after it became lost in bad weather, experienced flight instrument failures, and entered airspace over the then-Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula. A crash landing followed; 108 people perished, there were only five survivors.

• September 1, 1983: during the height of the Cold War, Korean Airlines Flight 007, en route from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, Korea, strayed into Soviet airspace following a gross navigation error and was shot down by a Su-15 Interceptor. The Soviet Air Force misidentified the Boeing 747-200 as a USAF RC-135 (based on the Boeing 707 airframe). After being struck by an air-to-air missile, the 747 continued to fly for more than five minutes before breaking up in-flight and crashing into the sea; 269 passengers and crew were killed.

• July 1988: the U.S. Navy shot down an Iran Air Airbus A300. The crew of the USS Vincennes mistakenly believed the A300 was a hostile aircraft and launched a surface-to-air missile at the aircraft, killing all 290 people onboard.

• October 2001: a Sibir Airlines Tupolev TU-154 was shot down over the Crimean Sea when a stray missile from a nearby military exercise missed a target drone and struck the passenger jet, killing 78 people.

• July 2014: Malaysia Flight 17, a Boeing 777-200 on a scheduled flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels using Russian-supplied anti-aircraft missiles. All 283 passengers and 15 crewmembers died.

The number of politically volatile and hostile areas around the globe are not only growing, but ever-changing. To keep track of all the hot spots around the world, the Safe Airspace Initiative offers a free conflict zone and risk database to users. This one source provides aircraft operators all risk warnings issued about any country that is independent of any political or commercial motivation. As a planning tool, Safe Airspace has a “live risk briefing” that can be downloaded and shared as a PDF.

In one report, ICAO studied airliner shootdowns and found that a risk assessment—a tool that is already in place within an SMS—is the best approach for operators to mitigate this risk. While governments, aviation authorities, and organizations all monitor where war zones or conflict exist, it is ultimately the responsibility of the aircraft operator to determine whether it is safe to fly. This should be no different than analyzing a route, as an example, for weather or Notams related to navaid outages. Operating within or over a war zone has clearly turned out to be a failure in risk management.

Pilot, safety expert, consultant, and aviation journalist Stuart “Kipp” Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for AIN. He can be reached at