A situation like this is a nightmare for Israel’s top decision makers.
The unsolved mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 recalls such a nightmare – a passenger aircraft approaching Israel over the Mediterranean. It does not answer air traffic controllers, and does not obey orders given by Israeli air force (IAF) F-16s scrambled to meet it. A decision has to be made in seconds, because this aircraft may be part of a terror attack on central Israel.
However, this potential nightmare is based on tragic fact. Such incidents have happened many times – and once ended in tragedy.
On 21 February 1973, Libyan Arab Airlines flight 114 left Tripoli, and after a brief stopover in Benghazi began its journey to Cairo with 113 people on board. The Boeing 727-224 drifted into Israeli airspace over the Sinai peninsula – then under Israeli control – and was shot down after ignoring repeated requests to change its flightpath while under escort by Israeli fighter aircraft.
When the unidentified airliner was discovered flying over Israeli territory, two IAF F-4 fighters were scrambled to identify the aircraft – as is standard procedure. The IAF pilots attempted to contact the plane both visually and through radio communications.
The fighter aircraft then instructed the Libyan passenger aircraft to follow them back to an IAF base. In response, flight 114’s pilots changed course once again.
Data from the plane’s black box later showed the pilots believed at first that the Phantoms were actually Egyptian MiGs. As a last resort, the Israeli jets fired warning shots.
Believing that flight 114 was ignoring and defying the order to land at an IAF base, a decision was made to fire 20mm cannons at the Libyan passenger aircraft. The cannon fire damaged the aircraft’s control systems and wing structure, forcing the 727 to make an emergency landing in the desert.
With damaged wings, hydraulics and control systems, the Libyan 727 and most of its passengers were unable to survive the crash into the Sinai’s dunes. Of those on board, 108 were killed on impact, with only five people surviving. The casualties were primarily Libyan and Egyptian, but one American was also on the downed flight.
The investigation that followed showed that at a certain stage the Libyan pilots understood the signs made by the IAF’s F-4, but decided not to land at an Israeli air base as instructed.
This traumatic incident was instrumental in shaping procedures to avoid a terrorist act using a hijacked aircraft.
In the years after, IAF fighter aircraft have been scrambled dozen of times to intercept passenger aircraft that failed to make contact with Israeli controllers. In all these instances the mistake was corrected, and the aircraft was allowed to land.
The ongoing mystery of flight MH370 has again raised the issue of how to handle an aircraft approaching Israeli airspace, while not responding to any communications from the ground or air.
Israeli sources said on 18 March that there was no need for additional precautions, but confirmed that until the mystery is solved, every little indication of an anomaly will generate an immediate action to verify that everything is under control.