On February 21, 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. Tragically, the plane drifted into Israeli airspace over the Sinai Peninsula, then under Israeli control, and was shot down after ignoring repeated requests to change its flight path while under fighter escort.
Six years after the 1967 war and only months before the Yom Kippur War, Israel was on a high state of alert in February of 1973. Flight 114, finding itself without visual references as a result of a sandstorm, was forced to rely on its instruments to navigate its way to Cairo. However, due to navigational and instrument error, it drifted off course and drifted into Israeli airspace. Unfortunately, the pilots did not relay their fears that they were lost to Egyptian air traffic control and began their descent into what they must have assumed was Cairo’s airport.
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When the unidentified aircraft was discovered flying over Israeli territory, as is standard procedure, two Phantom fighter jets were scrambled to identify the aircraft. The Israeli Air Force jets attempted to contact the plane both visually and through radio communications. The fighter jets instructed the Libyan plane to follow them back to an IAF base. However, Flight 114’s pilots did not understand the commands and instead changed course once again. Data from the plane’s black box later showed that the pilots believed 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 Israeli Air Force base, the IAF made the decision to fire 20mm cannons at the Libyan passenger plane. The bursts of cannon fire damaged the plane’s control systems and its wing structure, forcing the Boeing 727 to make an emergency landing in the desert.
With its wings, hydraulic and control systems severely damaged, the plane and most of its passengers were unable to survive a crash landing into Sinai’s sand dunes. One hundred and eight of those onboard Flight 114 were killed in the impact, with only five people surviving. The casualties were primarily Libyan and Egyptian, but one American was also on the downed flight.
Although eventually admitting that some error was to blame for the incident, Israel maintains to this day that it acted prudently on that day over Sinai. The state did, however, pay compensation to the families of those killed on Flight 114.
The incident, widely understood to have been the result of pilot error and miscommunication, for the most part led to little international blowback. Israel's actions were vindicated in the context of the state of war at the time and the United Nations did not issue any criticism of the affair. The only international condemnation came from the International Civil Aviation Organization, whose 30 members censured Israel for the incident (with the United States and Nicaragua abstaining).
Since that time, there have been several other incidents in which aircraft were intercepted, although not shot down, over Israel’s southern airspace. The area, housing the Dimona reactor is restricted to aircraft and is well protected by the IAF as well as surface-to-air missile systems.
In one such incident two years ago, an Ultra Light aircraft was escorted by two IAF fighter jets in the skies above Arad after the plane accidentally entered the airspace above the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Another instance last year saw a weather balloon drifting towards Dimona shot down by IAF jets.
There continue to be several incidents a year in which unidentified civilian aircraft approach Israeli airspace and fighter jets are scrambled. Today, scheduled commercial flights that miss the required communications checkpoints when approaching Israel are intercepted and escorted by IAF jets. A Delta flight in 2009, which experienced communications equipment failures was just one of many cases in which jets were scrambled to ensure the plane was still under complete control of its pilots.
Most of the time, visual contact between the commercial and Air Force pilots is enough to relay fears of a hijacked or hostile plane but the combined fears of a 9/11-type attack and the memory of Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 make such situations especially tense and dangerous for Israel as well as airliners landing in it.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this story.