Over the years many articles have been written about terrorist attacks against civilian airlines and the ensuing awful loss of civilian lives. These commentaries usually only discuss insurgent groups using surface to air rockets or other small weapons and ignore the issue of state terrorism against such targets. One recent article focused on missile attacks since the early 70s that had resulted in the downing of 28 civilian aircraft and the deaths of over 700 people. This article mainly focused on the downing of jets by terrorist groups using portable rockets in Africa and cited some other attempted rocket attacks against airliners. The earliest attack mentioned in the article was the crash landing of an Air Rhodesia passenger airliner after being hit by a rocket fired by rebels on September 3, 1978. Forty-six crew and passengers died in that attack.
But this was not the first commercial airliner to be shot down by missiles, or the worst incident of its kind to happen. While some incidents of aviation carnage are well recorded and thus well remembered, others are conveniently ignored. An event occurred earlier in the 1970s that is constantly omitted from articles written about attacks on civilian aircraft and seems to have been largely forgotten by the media and aviation history and therefore has basically lapsed from the public’s consciousness.
On February 21, 1973, Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 left Tripoli at 10:30 on its regular trip to Cairo. A French captain and flight engineer piloted the plane, a Boeing 727 along with a Libyan co-pilot, under a contractual agreement with Air France. The jet had 113 people on board. After a brief stop over at Benghazi in eastern Libya the flight continued towards Cairo.
But en route it encountered a severe sandstorm and lost its course over northern Egypt. The crew was forced to switch to instrument control because they were not able to make out landmarks in the blinding storm. The pilot then became very anxious that he may have made a navigational error after he realised their compass was malfunctioning as well. The pilot received permission from Cairo air control tower to begin descent, but he was unable to find an air traffic beacon. The pilot was unaware that by this time the aircraft, pushed by strong tailwinds had drifted significantly to the east and was now flying over the Suez Canal. At 13:54, the plane flew over Sinai, Egyptian territory that had been occupied by Israel since 1967 and so entered Israeli airspace.
As the Libyan airplane flew over the Sinai Desert, cruising at 20,000 feet Israeli forces went on high alert. A few minutes later, two Israeli F-4 Phantom jet fighters intercepted the plane. The Israeli fighter pilots radioed and signaled the airliner’s crew to follow them. The plane’s crew responded with hand gestures, but it is not known if they properly understood the instructions. The Israeli jets headed for the Israeli military base at Refidim, followed by the airliner. At this time the Libyan aircraft’s crew contacted the Cairo airport and reported their inability to find the airport beacon.
According to the Israeli account, after the Israeli jets fired tracer shells at the Libyan airliner it started to descend. Then it turned back towards the west and increased altitude. The Israelis thought that it was circling for a second landing attempt, but when the airliner headed further west the Israeli pilots thought it was trying to escape.
At this point evidently the Israeli military decided the plane was on a terrorist mission to Israel. The Israeli fighters were instructed not to let it escape and to force the airliner to land. The pilots then to fired warning shots as the Boeing continued to fly west. The Israeli F-4 jets fired at the Libyan aircraft’s wings. The airliner attempted a crash landing, but hit a large sand dune, killing 108 of the 113 passengers and crew. The airliner was near Ismailia, a minute away from Egyptian territory.
The perception of the airline crew to the situation was markedly different. When the Israeli F-4 jets arrived the Libyan co-pilot incorrectly identified them as Egyptian jets. When the pilots of the fighters signaled the aircraft, the captain and flight engineer complained about the rudeness of the ‘Egyptian’ pilots. There are two airfields around Cairo: Cairo West, which is the international airport and Cairo East, which is a military airbase. The Libyan airliner’s crew understood that the presence of the assumed Egyptian fighters was an escort back to Cairo West. As the airline descended towards what they thought was the international airport at Cairo West, they realised it was a military base and turned back. The confused crew of the Libyan aircraft thought it was Cairo East, but it was in fact Refidim. Soon after the airliner was fired upon by the Israeli jet fighters. According to the black box recorder the crew couldn’t understand why they had been fired at, but then realised the fighter jets were Israeli, not Egyptian. Shortly afterward the Libyan plane was hit and crashed. It should be remembered that before being shot down the Libyan civilian airliner was heading west. So even if the airliner had been on an operation to strike at Israel as the Israelis supposed, at the time it was moving away from Israel and of no imminent threat. And in such circumstances the Israeli military should have deferred taking action, rather than risk making a dreadful mistake. As it turned out, the real situation was that the airliner was merely off course and in distress.
After the Libyan airplane was shot down, Israel initially denied involvement in the crash. But when the Boeing’s black box was recovered with the crew’s recorded conversations with Cairo control tower, the Israeli government eventually admitted their involvement in the disastrous incident. The Israelis further revealed that the aircraft was shot down with the personal approval of David Elazar, the then Israeli Chief of Staff.
According to documents from United Nations Security Council records, the Egyptian Ambassador made the following statement about the slaughter of the crew and passengers on the Libyan airliner.
“Upon urgent instructions from my government and in view of the seriousness of the situation arising from the most brazenly criminal act perpetrated by Israeli fighters over the occupied Egyptian territory of Sinai against a Libyan civil Boeing 727 Airliner in distress and carrying civilian passengers of different nationalities, I would like to bring the following points to your attention, as well as to the attention of the members of the Security Council.
On 21 February 1973, a Libyan airliner proceeding on a scheduled flight from Benghazi to Cairo deviated from its original course owing to navigational difficulties as well as to bad weather conditions.
The airliner, therefore accidentally over flew the occupied Egyptian territory of Sinai. Thereupon the civil aircraft was intercepted by four Israeli fighters and in spite of the fact that the aircraft was unmistakably civilian, the Israeli fighters, upon instructions, cleared with the highest authorities in Israel, treacherously and without warning attacked the airliner with cannon fire and missiles while it was heading west. This flagrant premeditated and barbaric act of aggression resulted in the crash of the civil aircraft and caused the death of 108 helpless and defenseless victims.
It is worthwhile to note that the aircraft deviated into Sinai, which is illegally occupied by Israel, in defiance of the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations and the numerous resolutions of the world organization. Had Israel respected and implemented its obligations under the Charter and the United Nations resolution, the said massacre would have been avoided and the innocent lives would have been spared.
The Egyptian Government considers the Israeli act of shooting down a civilian aircraft to be another aggression carried out by Israel to new heights, as well as a crime committed in cold blood against a civil air transport vehicle and as such, it is a flagrant and serious threat to the safety of international aviation.
The Egyptian Government draws attention to the fact that Israel is callously engaged in a premeditated campaign of massacre and mass killing in the occupied Arab territories in particular and in the region in general.
The recent unprovoked aggression against Lebanon, which resulted in the killing of tens of civilians, is a case in point. It occurred on 21 February, the day that the horrible crime against the civil aircraft occurred. Other official Israeli terrorist operations in the Middle East need not be enumerated in this respect. It is a matter of criminal record and common indignation.”
The Israeli government claimed that given the tense security situation and the erratic behavior of the Libyan jet’s crew, the actions that the Israeli government took were proper and consistent with Israel’s right to self-defense.
The Israeli leader at the time, Prime Minister Golda Meir and the then Israeli Minister of Defense, General Moshe Dayan were responsible for the giving the orders to shoot down the civilian aircraft.
But the final decision to shoot down the Libyan airliner was made by then Chief of Staff of the IDF General David Elazar, acting on flawed intelligence data supplied by Mossad. General Zvi Zamir and Head of Military Intelligence General Eli Zeira also bear responsibility for their part in the mass murder of these innocent airline passengers and crew.
The United Nations after heated debate decided not to take any action against Israel, citing the right of sovereign nations to self-defense under international law. The thirty member nations of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), however, voted to censure Israel for the attack. During the vote the USA typically abstained.
This was an utterly appalling response by these organizations to such a vile and immoral act. And to add further affront to those innocent people who lost their lives, influential authorities and the prevailing powers have deemed it best that the incident be overlooked and forgotten. Consequently, it is of course important that we remember them and this tragic injustice.