Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114
|Date||21 February 1973|
|Description||Forty two years later, in another case of mass murder in Sinai, Russian Airbus Metrojet Flight 9268 exploded on 31 October 2015 killing all 224 passengers and crew|
Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 (LN 114), a Boeing 727–224 aircraft registration 5A-DAH, was a scheduled flight from Tripoli to Cairo via Benghazi and was shot down on 21 February 1973 by two Israeli F-4 Phantom II jets over the Sinai Peninsula, killing 108 passengers and crew. There were five survivors.
Thirty five years after the event, Australian journalist Steven Katsineris wrote:
- "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."
Air France crew
On 21 February 1973, Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 left Tripoli at 10:30 on its regular trip to Cairo. The crew of nine on board the aircraft were contracted to Air France and the pilot-in-command, Jacques Bourgès (aged 42) was French, as were four other crew members. The co-pilot was Libyan. 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. Captain Bourgès then became very anxious that he may have made a navigational error after realising the compass was malfunctioning. He received permission from Cairo air control tower to begin descent, but 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 the 1967 Six-Day War and so entered Israeli airspace.
As the Libyan airplane flew over the Sinai Desert, cruising at 20,000 feet, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) were on high alert; Israel was in a state of war with Egypt at the time, and thought it suspicious that no Egyptian missiles had been fired at the plane, nor MiGs scrambled to intercept it. Also, the aircraft was approaching the airspace over the highly secretive Negev Nuclear Research Centre at Dimona, where Israel was producing nuclear weapons. A few minutes later, two Israeli F-4 Phantom II jet fighters intercepted the plane. The Israeli fighter pilots radioed and signalled 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 fired two 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 came down 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 signalled the aircraft, Captain Bourgès and the 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 air base. 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 afterwards 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 a mission 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.
Dayan talks tough
The next day, while Egypt was insisting that the pilot had had an instrument failure and had thought he was over Egyptian territory — and after the surviving Libyan co-pilot claimed there had been no warning shots — Israel's attitude stiffened even further. Defence Minister Moshe Dayan announced that the decision for Israeli fighter planes to fire at the airliner had been taken at the military level, that he had not been consulted, but that he had reviewed the decision made and found no fault with it. He denied that there was any need at all for a formal inquiry.
General Dayan added that if he had been a pilot of one of the Israeli planes:
- "I certainly would have been suspicious of the pilot's intention when he failed to heed warnings and elected — for whatever reason — to risk the lives of all his passengers rather than to follow the instructions to land ... I haven't the slightest doubt that the captain heard the order to land and understood it. I don't like to blame a dead man for what happened, but he is the only one to be blamed."
Two days later, on 24 February 1973, General Dayan's case fell apart completely when the discovery of the "black box" containing records of the pilot's conversations with Cairo's control tower revealed that the Egyptian version of what had happened was the right one. In a new communique, Israel conceded that the pilot of the plane had "apparently thought that the plane was flying in Egyptian skies. When the Israeli planes appeared, the pilot thought that those were Egyptian MIGs circling around the plane." There was no conclusive evidence in the black box that any warning shots had been fired, or that if they had, the crew of the plane had heard them.
General Dayan then made the first acknowledgment by any Israeli leader that Israel might bear at least a tiny part of the responsibility for the incident — although no more than a tiny part. The acknowledgment came in rather a backhanded way, as he announced why Israel would refuse to pay any compensation to the victims. His explanation:
- "In this case, we erred — under the most difficult of circumstances — but that does not put us on the guilty side."
The next day, 25 February 1973, Israel's government changed its mind about the compensation — but not about the guilt. It announced it would pay compensation voluntarily, out of "humanitarian considerations" — but that it had determined that the Israeli airforce had acted "in strict compliance with international law" in firing on the airliner.
The Israeli government claimed that given the tense security situation and the erratic behaviour of the Libyan jet’s crew, the actions that the Israeli government took were proper and consistent with Israel’s right of self-defence. Israel's air force believed Flight LN 114 posed a security threat, and that among the possible tasks it could have been undertaking was an aerial spy mission over the Israeli air base at Bir Gifgafa.
The Israeli leader at the time, Prime Minister Golda Meir, and Defence Minister General Moshe Dayan were responsible for 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. (Victor Ostrovsky claimed in his 2009 book "By Way of Deception" that General Elazar could not be found and the decision to shoot down the airliner was actually taken by a captain.)
Egypt complains to the UN
- “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 defenceless 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 organisation. 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 1973, 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.”
Censured by ICAO
The United States showed no interested in taking disciplinary action against Israel and did not bring the issue to the United Nations. And when the 30-member International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) voted on 5 June 1973 to censure Israel for its attack, the US and Nicaragua — then under the dictator Somoza's regime — abstained.
- Would Israel have extradited the two pilots for trial in Libya? Of course not - you see, there is a difference between certain countries among the members of the United Nations. Some have to follow international law - some don't.
Remembering Flight LN 114
On 16 February 2008, the Tripoli Post published an article entitled "Remembering the Day Flight LN 114 was Downed" by Dr Amin B. Marghani, the former Chairman of Libyan Arab Airlines.
- On Wednesday 21 February 1973, I was on an Air Algerie flight returning from Algiers, where I accompanied my Chairman, late Haj Abdulgader Al Jibani, to talks with Air Algerie and the inauguration of Libyan Arab Airlines offices at Avenue Didouche Mourad in central Algiers the capital.
- On the flight I had with me a bear of exquisite Deglet Nour (dates), given to my wife and my boss courtesy of Air Algerie, those looked golden, sweet and translucent that one could see the fine borders of the stones and anticipate their delightful taste once they reached home and consumed.
- Landing at Tripoli Airport that spring day, the afternoon was sunny and pleasant. Soon after the aircraft engines stopped as we reached the tarmac opposite the old airport terminal, the integrated air steps of the Boeing 737 were activated by the flight attendant and I walked down the steps behind my boss and in front of my wife as etiquette requires.
- As I reached the bottom of the steps, and set my foot on tarmac, an LAA senior traffic officer, Mahmoud Laroussi, was visibly uncomfortable and agitated as he approached us and alarmingly said "the Israelis shot down our plane."
- Instantly I realised something grave had happened and what initially streamed through my mind was, possibly a Libyan military plane was involved in an incident with an Israeli military aircraft.
- A moment later the words "Our Boeing 727" – "flight to Cairo" and "attacked by air to air missiles", were banging on my ears to open up my mind on a catastrophe of huge dimensions. Something many folds more serious than a conflict between two military planes (though that would have serious consequences too).
- Only then it occurred to me that one of our two Boeing 727s in the fleet had been attacked by the Israeli Air Force while in flight. All passengers and crew on board must have been killed. Flight LN 114 from Benghazi to Cairo had met with a fatal occurrence. My wife was taken home while I and the chairman were rushed to the airline’s headquarters.
- There, as we arrived, the emergency teams had already been formed, and a huge amount of information had been pouring in. The aircraft had strayed off course due to a number of circumstances. Some are clear and some deserve querying. A huge sand storm covering most of the northern Egyptian airspace had obscured any land marks throughout most of the flight.
- A combination of failures and circumstances may have contributed to the aircraft veering off course. Strong tail wind; an apparent unserviceability of some of the navigation aid stations on the ground; an instance of possible malfunction of the aircraft instruments that may have been caused by electronic interference from Israeli aircraft, were all inputs into the scene.
- These circumstances may have singularly or collectively led the plane to stray over restricted zones south of Suez in Egypt missing its destination by some 70 miles to the east. The first instance when the pilot realised that he was not where he was supposed to be was when he had reported to have identified a coastline, and asked the Cairo tower over the radio link to assist with identifying his location. That coastline was the Eastern side of the Gulf of Suez.
- Before long Israeli interceptor jets appeared and became visible to the crew to order the pilot to follow them, which he did, and as he was in the final approach to land at the chosen military land strip near Bir Jafafa, his aircraft was hit by two AA missiles. The aircraft was at 400 feet above sea level when the missiles struck.
- One of the missiles hit the aircraft wing root where the wing joins the fuselage and where the fuel is stored, the other hit engine no 2 (the middle engine on a Boeing 727). The aircraft caught fire and split in two. The few passengers who survived were seated on the row of seats where the aircraft broke up so they were miraculously ejected on impact of the aircraft on the ground. The rest of the passengers died mainly from inhaling smoke. I knew the captain (Captain Bourgès) who was on secondment from Air France. At the time Air France was assisting Libyan Arab Airlines in operations and aircraft maintenance.
- An investigation team including the Airline’s General Manager, the late Haj Hassan El Cuniali, and Engineer Fat’hi Ben Taher, the airline’s assistant technical director, had gathered to take an executive jet to Cairo the same evening. The team was in the odd situation of not being able to directly investigate the incident as the aircraft had been shot over and crashed in the then Israeli-occupied Sinai.
- The Chairman handled matters of the Media and Government. My task was as hard if not harder. I had to face the relatives of the victims, answer to their enquiries and share their grief. As company commercial director, the dead were my clients who chose to fly with us. For 72 hours I have not moved to go home to rest.
- Only after the stream of queries died down, as the relatives lost hope and directed their attention to receiving the bodies of their loved ones who were buried in a collective grave at a cemetery in Benghazi, it became possible for me to go home for a long sleep.
- Most of the passengers were either Libyan or Egyptian. The passenger list contained 114 passengers and crew, fifty victims were Egyptian among them a notable TV presenter and fifty were Libyans including a journalist and ex foreign minister. There were four Americans among the dead.
- On the same day the Libyan airliner was shot down, Air Algerie sent one of their Boeing 727s with full crews to assist Libyan Arab Airlines to resume the full schedule. Royal Air Maroc offered to do the same. Those were noble and practical acts of support that made the operational situation of the airline much more tolerable.
- The Israelis were quick to justify the attack on the civil aircraft. They made an array of false statements. For example, the aircraft window curtains were drawn down so the fighter crews were suspicious of who or what was on board; similarly false, they had warnings that a terrorist group was planning to crash an aircraft on Tel Aviv and all the bull shit of foul cries usually accompanying the explanation when the thugs commit atrocities and heinous crimes.
- In this category the instances of crimes and massacres are countless. International rules oblige states to treat a civil aircraft flying off course and entering prohibited zones as aircraft in need of help and assistance. The flight was a regular scheduled passenger service announced to the world and the general public many months before.
- The service to Cairo was performed and had been operating for many years on the route. It was also well known to all that Libyan Arab Airlines aircraft were mainly piloted by Air France personnel on secondment. An attachment of foul play or "terrorism" is unimaginable.
- Guess what? No action was taken against Israel. Not in the Security Council and not by any international organisation. Needless to guess who prevented any condemnation of Israel at the UN Security Council!
- Today flicking through the pages of any book on aviation accidents in bookstores shelves, the story never condemns this Israeli State crime nor describes it honestly. I condemn both that crime and those who twist the truth. I am sure many of you would too.
François Bourgès commented five years later on 25 February 2013:
- Many thanks to Dr Amin B. Marghani for remembering this tragedy after 40 years. Captain Bourgès was my father and there is not a single day since 21 February 1973 without a thought about him, and the drama in which he and the entire crew and passengers were tragically involved. Many thanks.
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