Category Archives: Airspace violations

Russian MiG-29K from Adm. Kuznetsov aircraft carrier has crashed in Mediterranean sea

Pretty embarrassing incident for the Russian aircraft carrier at its debut in the air war in Syria. Fortunately, the pilot ejected safely according to the first reports.

As reported by Combat Aircraft a Russian Navy Mig-29KUBR embarked aboard Adm. Kuznetsov aircraft carrier has crashed on Nov. 13.

The aircraft is one of the four naval Fulcrums operated by the 100th Independent Shipborne Fighter Aviation Regiment.

According to our sources, the incident occurred around 14.30Z and involved a two-seater Fulcrum in a formation of three Mig-29s operating from the carrier in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Syria: whilst one of the remaining aircraft recovered aboard the Kuznetsov the third one diverted for unknown reasons to Syria.

Footage allegedly showing Mig-29s in the skies over Aleppo had happered earlier on the same day.

The pilot of the doomed aircraft ejected safely and was rescued by a helicopter while the Russian Navy radioed all the nearby vessels to remain 5NM away from the crash point.

Needless to say the incident unfolded while several NATO aircraft and warships closely monitored the operations aboard Russia’s only carrier.




Airspace violations – Episode 8 – Iran Air Flight 655 shot down by USS Vincennes

Previous episodes: Archive

The following episode took place about 24 years ago. However, it occurred  in the Strait of Hormuz, saw the direct involvement of U.S. warships operating in the 5th Fleet Area Of Operations amid heightened tensions, and involved also an Iranian F-14 (one of those has recently crashed during a mysterious night scramble).

Hence it is also quite topical since it gives an idea of what the above mentioned contributing factors can produce.

Iran Air Flight 655 shot down by USS Vincennes

On Jul. 3, 1988, an Airbus A-300 (registration EP-IBU) operating as Iran Air Flight 655 from Tehran Bandar Abbas to Dubai was shot down by two ground-to-air missiles fired by the USS Vincennes, a Ticonderoga-class warship that was cruising in the Persian Gulf waters to keep a closer eye on the bloody and consuming war that involved Iraqi and Iranian armed forces.

Both missiles struck the fuselage, breaking off part of the tail and one wing and causing the death of all 290 people on board.


During the Iran-Iraq war in the ’80s, the U.S. presence in the region was significant and aimed to protect oil tankers threatened by both countries. Just one year before this incident, in May 1987, the guided missile frigate USS Stark was attacked by an Iraqi Mirage F-1 jet and 37 American sailors perished during the clash. Further  investigation led Captain Glenn Brindel to be blamed not to have defended its frigate against the attack.

Therefore, the U.S. Navy agreed that new and more strict rules of engagement (ROE) were needed in order to allow Captains to get a more powerful right to defend themselves and “fire before being fired upon”.

These premises constitute the roots which gave birth to the root causes of the tragedy.

The event

On Jul. 3, 1988, three U.S. ships were patrolling the Persian Gulf: USS Vincennes, USS Montgomery and USS Sides. Suddenly, the second one reported enemy fire coming from small boats belonging of theIRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps).

Responding the request of support from the USS Montgomery, the Captain of USS Vincennes ordered to step in the battlescene and engaged some IRGC boats for half an hour.

In a few minutes, some missiles were also launched and shortly after an Iranian F-14 was shot down in a great ball of fire.

In the meantime, in the more peaceful but busy environment of the Bandar Abbas airport, the doomed Airbus A-300 was ready for a short flight to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

After take-off, flight 655 was instructed by the ATC to activate the transponder (on the Airbus, the transponder ‘squawks Mode III’ identified the aircraft as neutral and civilian) and was requested to reach an altitude from 7,000 to 12,000 feet.
At the same time the USS naval ships in the Strait of Hormuz got another warning signal on their radar devices and identified it as a possible and serious threat.

During the seven minutes between take-off of of flight 655 and the launch of missiles, the U.S. naval units made several attempts to get in contact with the Iran Air A300: USS Vincennes tried to use the military radio channel of frequency 243.00 MHz used for emergency purposes and four other attempts on the civil channel at 121.5 MHz.

So how this incident occurred if many attempts to communicate were made?

First of all ICAO final investigation report proved that the A-300 was not able to receive communication on the military emergency frequency 243MHz with onboard radio equipment.

Instead, dealing with the attempts made on the civilian radio frequency 121.5MHz, the board of inquiry ascertained that the Iran Air crew did not pay the due attention during the first phases of the flight or did not realize to be a possible target of naval units.

The crew was in continuous communication with ATC and was therefore unable to hear the warnings issued on the civil aviation distress radio frequency. ICAO also determined that of the four warnings issued on this distress frequency, only one was considered clear enough to be recognizable by the flight crew as directed to them.

Forty seconds past this last recognizable transmission, the USS Vincennes crew fired the missile.

More in details ICAO stated that:

  1. The aircraft weather radar was probably not operating during the flight nor would normal procedures have required its operation in the prevailing weather conditions.
  2. The radio altimeters were probably functioning throughout the flight;
  3. Apart from the capability to communicate on the emergency frequency 121.5MHz, United States warships were not equipped to monitor civil ATC frequencies for flight identification purposes.
  4. Four challenges addressed to an unidentified aircraft (IR655) were transmitted by United States ships on frequency 121.5MHz.
  5. There was no response to the four challenges made on 121.5MHz, either by radio or by a change of course. This indicated that the flight crew of IR655 either was not monitoring 121.5MHz in the early stages of flight, or did not identify their flight as being challenged.
  6.  The aircraft was not equipped to receive communications on the military air distress frequency 243MHz. There was not coordination between United States warships and the civil ATS units responsible for the provision of air traffic services within the various flight information regions in the Gulf area.

Final statement summarised that: “The aircraft was perceived as a military aircraft with hostile intentions and was destroyed by two surface-to-air missiles.

After stating that the environment on board the civilian plane contributed to the incident, the ICAO inquiry led to a more bewildering truth on the chaos and strain that reigned onboard the US naval units.

During the seven minutes between the take-off and the shot down of flight 655, excited communcation were made among the Captains of US naval units in the area, clearly stating the doubtfulness of identifying the approaching aircraft.

The US Department of Defense admitted that “…there was growing excitement and shouting in the Combat Information Centre of the USS Sides about a commercial flight.”

In the very first moments the radar operator of USS Vincennes identified the radar track as “unknown-assumed enemy” as the “Combat Information Center” of the same unit identified it as an enemy F-14 fighter jet.

Two minutes later the Captain of USS Sides, assumed the non-threating nature of the aircraft but a minute later USS Vincennes Captain ordered the shot down.

The Aftermath

The US Navy never blamed its crew for the incident and excused it with the need of defending the crew itself and their ships from any possible threats.  On the same day of the incident, US President Ronald Reagan stated that USS Vincennes followed all the requirements for the interception of foreign aircraft and that the Captain on duty ordered the launch of missiles only for defense purposes.

On Jul. 13, 1988, Vice-Secretary Williamson declared before the ICAO Counsel how high the level of danger was during the event. He noted that on Jul. 3 all the US naval units were engaged on a large operation of pursuit against Iranian vessels and it could have been considered a real war theatre.

On the extraordinary session of ICAO Counsel (Jul. 13-14, 1988), the ICAO President stated that: “…fundamental principle that States must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft must be respected by each State”.

Representatives agreed to blame the U.S. act and some pushed for a rapid approval of Article 3bis of Chicago Convention – at that time not yet ratified. In particular, USSR and Nigeria blamed the US to lead a barbaric and brutal campaign against free and innocent people.

At the end of the technical investigation, on Mar. 17, 1989 the ICAO Counsel adopted the following Resolution:

Having considered the report of the fact-finding investigation instituted by the Secretary General…and the subsequent study by the Air Navigation Commission of the safety recommendations presented in that report;
Recalling that the 25th Session (Extraordinary) of the Assembly in 1984 unanimously recognized the duty of States to refrain from the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight;
Reaffirming its policy to condemn the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight without prejudice to the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations;
Deeply deplores the tragic incident which occurred as a consequence of events and errors in identification of the aircraft which resulted in the accidental destruction of an Iran airliner and the loss of 290 lives;
Notes the report of the fact-finding investigation instituted by the Secretary General and endorses the conclusions of the Air Navigation Commission on the safety recommendations contained therein;
Urges States to take all necessary measures to safeguard the safety of air navigation, particularly by assuring effective co-ordination of civil and military activities and the proper identification of civil aircraft.”

“Deplores”, “Notes”, “Urges”: nothing really effective to avoid repeating the incident.

24 years later the tension between US and Iran is at its highest peak ever. Let’s hope we are not going to witness another similar episode in the Persian Gulf. For sure, we would not feel very comfortable flying across the Strait of Hormuz these days.

© David Cenciotti & Simone Bovi

Image credit: wiki

Airspace violations – Episode 7

Tragedy on the way home

(Korean Airlines B-747 vs. Soviet Sukhoi Su-15)

On Sept. 1, 1983, a civilian B-747 flying with registration HL7442 as Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL 007, KE 007) was shot down by Soviet fighters over the Sea of Japan, in an area located west of the Sakhalin Island. All the 269 people on board (crew comprised) were killed. The plane was enroute from New York to Seoul via Anchorage when it flew into the Soviet airspace due to a navigational error and was fatally intercepted by the local fighters. Initially the Soviets denied the episode and their involvement but, following the international pressures, they admitted they had shot down the liner, suspecting it was conducting spying activities on a prohibited territory under the umbrella of a civil plane. It is worth pointing out how this incident brought to a common anti-Soviet sentiment that spread out all over the world, but also led to dozens of hypothesis, some of them bound to conspiracy theories, more or less based upon real facts and figures. But how could such a tragedy happen?

The analysis conducted by the ICAO stated that the reason that brought the KAL 007 many miles off course was a crew error that failed to set and check correctly the navigational route. However, as underlined each time we discuss an aviation accident, there a long list of factors that contributed to the mishap.
After take off from Anchorage (Alaska), the B747 was instructed by the ATC (Air Traffic Control), to turn and maintain a heading of 220 degrees and thereafter proceed to BETHEL, a waypoint located approximately between the Alaskan and Japanese coasts. In order to better understand the type of navigational error, it is worth explaining how the Boeing 747-200 autopilot works. It is equipped with four basic control modes: HEADING, ILS, INS and VOR-LOC. The HEADING mode maintains the plane flying at a constant nose-pointing direction regardless of geographical start or end points. The VOR/LOC mode maintains the plane flying over a given straight ground course relative to a fixed radio beacon ground station. The ILS mode is similar to the VOR/LOC mode but includes additional vertical guidance for landings. Finally, the INS mode has the capability of maintaining a given route without external aids or references, by continuously calculating the aircraft’s ground track since it begins moving away from an arbitrary start fix. When the INS navigation systems are properly programmed with the filed flight plan waypoints, the pilot can turn the autopilot mode selector switch to the INS position and the plane will then automatically track the programmed INS course line, provided that the plane is headed in the proper direction and within 7.5 nautical miles of the INS course line. Since the Wikipedia page dedicated to Korean Air Lines Flight 007 is quite detailed and, unlike some other Airspace Violations we have already commented on this site, there are many documents available, the in-depth description of the flight that follows is an abstract of the above mentioned Wiki page:

At the time of the incident, Anchorage VOR beacon was out of service because of maintenance. The crew had been properly informed by means of a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen), which was not seen as a problem, as the captain could still check his position at the next VORTAC beacon at Bethel, 346 miles (557 km) away. However, the aircraft required to maintain the assigned heading of 220 degrees, until it could receive the signals from Bethel, then it could fly direct to Bethel, as instructed by ATC, by centering the VOR “to” course deviation indicator (CDI) and then engaging the auto pilot in the VOR/LOC mode. Then, when over the Bethel beacon, the flight could start using INS mode to follow the waypoints comprising route Romeo-20 around the coast of the U.S.S.R. to Seoul. The INS mode was necessary for this route as after Bethel the plane would be mostly out of range from VOR stations. About 10 minutes after take-off, KAL 007, flying on a heading of 245 degrees, began deviating to the right (north) of its assigned route to Bethel; it would continue flying with this heading for the next five and a half hours. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) simulation and analysis of the flight data recorder determined that this deviation was probably caused by the aircraft’s autopilot system operating in HEADING mode past the point where it should have been switched to the INS mode. According to the ICAO, the autopilot was not operating in the INS mode for one of two reasons: either the crew did not switch the autopilot to the INS mode (shortly after Carin Mountain) or they did select the INS mode, but it did not activate as the aircraft had already deviated off track by more than the 7.5 nautical miles (13.9 km) tolerance permitted by the inertial navigation computer. In both scenarios, the autopilot remained in the HEADING mode, and the problem was not detected by the crew. At 1551 UTC, according to Soviet sources, KAL 007 entered the restricted airspace of Kamchatka Peninsula. The buffer zone extended 200 kilometres (120 miles) off Kamchatka’s coast and is known as a Flight Information Region (FIR). The nearest to Soviet territory – 100 kilometre (62 mi) radius part of the buffer zone had the additional designation of prohibited airspace. When KAL 007 was about 80 miles (130 km) from the Kamchatka coast, one MiG-23 and three Su-15 Flagon fighters were scrambled to intercept the Boeing 747. Significant command and control problems were experienced trying to vector the fast military jets onto the Boeing before they ran out of fuel. In addition, pursuit was made more difficult, according to Soviet Air Force Captain Alexander Zuyev, who defected to the West in 1989, because Arctic gales had knocked out Soviet radar ten days before. The unidentified jetliner therefore crossed over the Kamchatka Peninsula back into international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk without being intercepted.
The Commander of the Soviet Far East District Air Defense Forces, General Valeri Kamensky, was adamant that KAL 007 had to be destroyed (even if it was overflying neutral waters) provided it could positively identified as not being a passenger plane. His subordinate, General Anatoly Kornukov, commander of Sokol Air base (later, to become commander of the Russian Air Force), was adamant that there was no need to make positive identification as “the intruder” had already flown over Kamchatka.

Soviet Air Defence Force units that had been tracking the Korean aircraft for more than 1 hour while it entered and left Soviet airspace considered the aircraft as a military target when it re-entered their airspace over Sakhalin Island. After the protracted ground-controlled interception, the three Su-15 fighters (from nearby Dolinsk-Sokol airbase) and the MiG-23 (from Smirnykh Air Base) managed to make visual contact with the Boeing.

In a 1991 interview with Izvestia, Major Gennadi Osipovich, pilot of the Su-15 interceptor that shot the 747 down, spoke about his recollections of the events leading up to the shootdown.
Contrary to official Soviet statements at the time, he recalled telling ground controllers that there were blinking lights….” He continued, saying that “I saw two rows of windows and knew that this was a Boeing. I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use…” He furthermore did not provide a detailed description of the aircraft to his ground controllers: “I did not tell the ground that it was a Boeing-type plane; they did not ask me.”

Commenting on the moment that KAL 007 slowed as it ascended from flight level 330 to flight level 350, and then on his maneuvering for missile launch, Osipovich said: “They [KAL 007] quickly lowered their speed. They were flying at 400 kilometers per hour. My speed was more than 400. I was simply unable to fly slower. In my opinion, the intruder’s intentions were plain. If I did not want to go into a stall, I would be forced to overshoot them. That’s exactly what happened. We had already flown over the island [Sakhalin]. It is narrow at that point, the target was about to get away… Then the ground [controller] gave the command: ‘Destroy the target…!’ That was easy to say. But how? With shells? I had already expended 243 rounds. Ram it? I had always thought of that as poor taste. Ramming is the last resort. Just in case, I had already completed my turn and was coming down on top of him. Then, I had an idea. I dropped below him about 2,000 meters… afterburners. Switched on the missiles and brought the nose up sharply. Success! I have a lock on.”
“We shot down the plane legally… Later we began to lie about small details: the plane was supposedly flying without running lights or strobe light, that tracer bullets were fired, or that I had radio contact with them on the emergency frequency of 121.5 megahertz.” At the time of the attack, the plane was cruising at an altitude of about 35,000 feet. Tapes recovered from the airliner’s cockpit voice recorder demonstrate that the crew were unaware that they were off course and violating Soviet airspace. Immediately after missile detonation, the airliner began a 113-second arc upward because of a damaged cross-over cable between the left inboard and right outboard elevators. At 18:26:46 UTC, at the apex of the arc at altitude 38,250 feet, either the pilot was able to turn off the autopilot or the autopilot tripped and the plane began to descend to 35,000 feet. From 18:27:01 until 18:27:09, the flight crew reports to Tokyo Radio informing that KAL 007 to “descend to 10,000” [feet]. At 18:27:20, ICAO graphing of Digital Flight Data Recorder tapes shows that after a descent phase and a 10 second “nose-up”, KAL 007 leveled out at pre-missile detonation altitude of 35,000 ft. Yaw (oscillations), begun at the time of missile detonation, continued decreasing until the end of the minute 44 second portion of the tape. The Boeing did not break up, explode or plummet immediately after the attack; it continued its gradual descent for four minutes, then leveled off at 16,424 feet, rather than continue descending to 10,000 as previously reported to Tokyo Radio, continuing at this altitude for almost five more minutes. The last cockpit voice recorder entry occurred at 18:27:46 while descending. At 18:28 UTC, the aircraft was reported turning to the north. ICAO analysis concluded that the flight crew “retained limited control” of the aircraft. Finally, the aircraft began to descend in spirals over Moneron Island before coming down 2.6 miles (4.2 km) , killing all 269 on board. The aircraft was last seen visually by Osipovich, “somehow descending slowly” over Moneron Island. The aircraft disappeared off long range military radar at Wakkanai, Japan at a height of 1,000 feet

The ICAO report, after months of harsh investigation, often obstructed by several attempts of red herring, published his final conclusions:

1) The crew inadvertently flew virtually the entire flight on a constant magnetic heading (in the heading mode) due to its unawareness of the fact that ‘heading’ had been selected as the mode of navigation rather the ‘inertial navigation system’ (INS).
2) An undetected 10 degree longitudinal error was made in inserting the ‘present position’ co-ordinates of the Anchorage gate position into one or more of the INS units.
3) Interceptions of KE 007 were attempted by USSR military interceptor aircraft, over Kamchatka Peninsula and in the vicinity of Sakhalin Island.
4) The USSR authorities assumed that KE 007 was an ‘intelligence aircraft’ and, therefore, they did not make exhaustive efforts to identify the aircraft through in-flight visual observations.
5) ICAO was not provided any radar recordings, recorded communications or transcripts associated with the first intercept attempt or for the ground-to-interceptor portion of the second attempt, therefore, it was not possible to fully assess the comprehensiveness or otherwise of the application of intercept procedures, signaling and communications.
6) In the absence of any indication that the flight crew of KE 007 was aware of the two interception attempts, it was concluded that they were not.

On Mar. 10, 1986, two years and half after the tragedy, the ICAO Council adopted the Amendment 27 of the Annex 2 of the Chicago Convention. In particular, some intercepting rules measures were enhanced regarding the visual signals, the intercepting maneuvers, the coordination with ground units and most important the principle of the interdiction of the use of force against civil aerial intruders was strengthened.

On the operations side, as a result of the incident, the interface of the autopilot used on airliners was redesigned to make it more ergonomic.

© David Cenciotti & Simone Bovi



Airspace violations – Episode 6

Shot down over Sinai

(Lybian Arab Airlines B727 vs. Israeli F-4s Phantom)

On Feb. 21, 1973, the B-727 “5A-DAH” belonging to the Libyan Arab Airlines regularly scheduled as Flight 114 from Tripoli to Cairo via Benghazi was shot down by two Israeli F-4 Phantoms over the Sinai Peninsula. Of the 113 people on board, there were only 5 survivors, including the co-pilot.
After a technical stopover in Benghazi – Eastern Libya – the airliner continued its route to Cairo. As the aircraft started to overfly Northern Egypt, it seems that a large sandstorm forced the crew (mostly of French nationality under a partnership contract between Air France and Libyan Airlines) to navigate only by relying on the on-board instruments. The situation was also worsened by the inefficiency of the Egyptian radio navigation system: in other words, the whole VOR system of the Cairo area and its radar surveillance were out of service. At around 13:44 LT the crew started to suspect that they had made a navigational error since they could not find any navigation beacon and they could not establish the aircraft position. Actually, the aircraft was flying over the Sinai Peninsula, (at that time militarily occupied by Israel since the Six Days War of 1967) and, unfortunately, it was in bound to Bir Gafgafa Israeli airbase. The Israeli Defense Forces were on high alert at that time as Israel was in a state of war with Egypt since the Six Days War (the Yom Kippur war was a few month away). At 13:54, the Libyan 727 entered airspace over the Sinai desert at 20,000 feet. A few minutes later two Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-4s Phanthom Kurnas (in Hebrew “Sledgehammer”) were scrambled to intercept the intruder. The direct evidence from the surviving co-pilot seems to confirm how the Israeli fighters followed the international rules on the intercepting of civil aerial intruders: the Israeli pilots, in fact, attempted many times to make visual contact with the airliner’s crew and tried to communicate with them by waving their hands, dipping the wings and finally by firing warning cannon shots close to the wingtips. The 727’s crew, maybe because being under extreme pressure and space disorientation, did not give much importance to the fighters’ behavior and decided to turn back to the West. No worse decision could have been taken, since Israeli pilots interpreted this as an attempt to flee. Aiming directly at the airliner’s wingtips in order to damage but not destroy the plane, the couple of Phantoms fired short bursts with their 20mm cannon damaging the control surfaces, the wing structure and the hydraulic systems. The amount of damage suffered was instead higher than expected by the fighter pilots, and such to force the airliner to attempt an emergency landing in an area covered with sand dunes. During the emergency landing there was an explosion near the right main landing gear, causing the destruction of most of the airframe and the subsequent death of 108 people of the 113 on board. The surviving co-pilot, later stated that the entire crew knew the Israeli jets wanted to follow them but since relations between Israel and Libya were not very smooth, they decided to turn back despite the several warnings. From his words we can understand the situation: “When we spotted the fighters the Captain contacted Cairo approach frequency and communicated to have orientation troubles and of being intercepted by fighter jets. Then he lowered down the landing gear and slowed down the speed. At that time one of the jets put itself in front of us dipping its wings but we were so busy and concerned that our main and only goal was to reach Cairo airport. From now on it is very difficult to me to remember well since our right wing was in flames and we started our descend until crash down on a sandy terrain about 20 km east of Suez Channel”.
On the Extraordinary Session of ICAO held on Feb. 27, 1973, many Delegations fully condemned the Israeli action stating how Israel Government “had violated the fundamental legal norms and standards of international civil aviation which did not permit the use of armed force against a foreign civil aircraft clearly identified as such”.
But, on the other hand, Tel Aviv stated clearly how the fighters put every effort to minimize the use of force but the action had become necessary only because of the irresponsible behavior of the airliner crew: “…and for seven minutes (the Israeli fighters) flew around it, signalling to it in a clear and correct manner, with internationally agreed signs, to follow them so as to land…Since the Boeing aircraft did not comply with these instructions, suspicious grew concerning its mission. At this point, demonstratively and in full view of the crew, warning shots were fired…but the Libyan plane ignored them. The assumption therefore was that the plane had entered the area on a hostile mission…At this stage accordingly decided that the aircraft must be compelled to land by firing upon it…”.
The ICAO Assembly later with 105 favorable votes condemned Israel for such incident. Hereby the text of the Resolution:
RECALLING that the United Nations Security Council in its Resolution 262 in 1969 condemned Israel for its premeditated action against Beirut Civil Airport which resulted in the destruction of thirteen commercial aircraft, and recalling that the Assembly of ICAO in its Resolution A19-1 condemned the Israeli action which resulted in the loss of 108 innocent lives and directed the Council to instruct the Secretary General to institute an investigation and report to the Council;
CONVINCED that such actions constitute a serious danger against the safety of international civil aviation;
RECOGNIZING that such attitude is a flagrant violation of the principles enshrined in the Chicago Convention;
HAVING CONSIDERED the report of the investigation team…and finding from it no justification for the shooting down of the Libyan civil aircraft;
1) STRONGLY CONDEMNS the Israeli action which resulted in the destruction of the Libyan civil aircraft and the loss of 108 innocent lives;
2) URGES Israel to comply with the aims and objectives of the Chicago Convention
During the course of this Session, many delegates called for a deep change of the rules on the intercepting of civil foreign aircraft in order to minimize the risk of being shot down but this proposal was not considered too much by the States.

The following F-4 profiles are a courtesy of Ugo Crisponi,

Another incident took place years later, with the loss of B747 Korean Airlines in 1983; this drew again the focus on changing the interception rules.

© David Cenciotti & Simone Bovi

Airspace violations – Episode 5

“Dragon Lady 360 missing”

On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, near the city of Sverdlovsk. This episode is remembered as the most famous aerial incident of Cold War, since it created a large debate all over the world and a great embarrassment for the United States and Eisenhower’s Presidency. At first Washington Government denied the episode but was forced to admit both its responsibility and the purpose of the mission when the Soviet Government showed the remains of the wreckage and the survivor, pilot Francis Gary Powers.

The Plane

The involved plane was a Lockheed U-2, a single engine reconnaissance aircraft mainly used during Cold War for night and day high-altitude reconnaissance missions. It could fly at 70,000 feet since it had been built with the specific purpose of flying well above any fighter or missile. However, the aircraft could be reached by SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) as the episode described in this article shows, and even by interceptors: in 1984, during a NATO exercise, Flight Lieutenant Mike Hale of the RAF (Royal Air Force), flying with a Lightning F3 intercepted a U-2 flying at 66,000 feet. Anyway, the aircraft was more or less safe at stratospheric altitudes and it allowed CIA and US Air Force to perform flights over a country’s airspace to take aerial photographs with fewer risks than any other asset. The unique design, similar to a glider, brought it to be nicknamed “Dragon Lady” but on the other hand its remarkable performance also made it a difficult aircraft to fly with. For its purposes, it also carried a variety of sensors on the nose, Q-bay (behind the cockpit, also known as the camera bay), or wing pods. The U-2 was simultaneously able to collect signals, imagery intelligence and air samples. Imagery intelligence sensors included either wet film photo, electro-optic or radar imagery – the latter from the ASARS-2 system.

The Incident

During the late 50s, with the approval of Pakistani Government, the US President D. Eisenhower established a secret intelligence facility in Badaber (Peshawar Airbase), equipped with a runway that allowed U-2 spy planes to perform secret missions over the majority of the Soviet airspace.

On May 1st, 1960, fifteen days before the scheduled opening of an East-West summit conference in Paris, pilot Francis Gary Powers left the US base in Badaber on board its “Dragon Lady” Item 360 for a mission over the Soviet Union, photographing ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) sites in and around Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk and then, as by schedule, landing onto Bodo, Norway.

The flight was expected, since Soviet defenses were pre-alerted by the U-2 unit “10-10” piloted by Bob Ericson: some weeks before he had overflown some of the top secret military installations such as the Semipalatinsk Test Site, the  SAM test site, the Tyuratam missile range and the Dolon airbase with its Tu-95 strategic bombers.

According to some Russian sources, just after the U-2 was detected, Lieutenant General of the Air Force Yevgeniy Savitskiy ordered all the air unit commanders on duty “to attack the violator by all alert flights located in the area of foreign plane’s course, and to ram if necessary (see for details: – Russian language only).

Some fighters took off immediately but like the previous alerts all the attempts to intercept the foreign plane failed. Eventually the U-2 was hit and shot down by the first of three S-75 Divna surface to air missiles fired by a defense battery.

According to Russian sources, it is interesting to know how Pilot Gary Powers, after successfully bailing out from the plane, was soon captured by the Russians and was found with a modified silver coin which contained a lethal saxitoxin- tipped needle…to be used in case of being captured!

After the event, the whole Soviet air defense system was obviously in red code but the lack of coordination brought to a curious incident often hidden by the ordinary tale of facts. The SAM command center was unaware that the foreign plane had been destroyed for more than half so that at least 13 further anti-aircraft missiles were fired, one of them shooting down a Mig-19 and killing his pilot, Sergei Safronov.

The episode became of an outstanding relevance among the international community and represented one of the higher peaks of the face off between the two nuclear superpowers.


On a juridical basis, the incident became notorious for the arising problem related to the limits permitted by the international law to the use of the high altitude flights in foreign airspace.

At the time of facts, US were bounded by the Chicago Convention, therefore the whole chart contents were applicable, particularly article 3 stating that: “No State aircraft of a contracting State shall fly over the territory of another State or land thereon without authorization by special agreement or otherwise, and in accordance with the terms thereof.”

Obviously the U-2 involved had to be considered as a State aircraft, although not having a military code it was operated by US intelligence agency and armed forces for secret military flights (the US never doubted the nature of the aircraft and admitted the activity was part of a long term activity started four years before).

Another relevant debate was related to the altitude the U-2 was flying and the applicability or not of the principle of the sovereignty above the air space. In other terms, where the point of separation between the national airspace and the outer space is located? (since the latter is out of the State’s sovereignty)

This problem arose since the U-2 was flying at around 27,000 metres and according to many analysts all the flight activities at this altitude were to be considered as space operations, where sovereignty of the States is null. The debate is still open and no written charts resolve the doubt, even if the practice adopted by the States in the course of history seems to confirm that flights conducted by common aircraft within the atmosphere limit has to be considered as a fly that, when operated without permission, commits a violation of foreign airspace.

The Pilot

And which were the consequences for Gary Powers? He was pleaded guilty and therefore convicted of espionage and convicted to 3 years prison and 7 years hard labour. One year after being sentenced, in February 1962, he was exchanged for Rudolf Abel.

Living U-2s

If you are a buff for this aircraft, a number of retired U-2s are currently on display all around US and United Kingdom (Laughlin AFB TX, Davis-Monthan AFB Arizona, Imperial War Museum Duxford UK, just to mention some).

At the “Museo de l’Aire” in Havana (Cuba) you can also make a real visit of the wreckage of Major Rudolf Anderson Jr’s U-2, shot down and killed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Also relics from Cold War can be found at Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow where the wreckages of Gary Powers’U-2 are displayed.

However, many are still flying after 55 years since its first flight within Area 51. The aircraft was used to provide aerial imagery following the Haiti earthquake. U-2s belonging to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing (RW), based in Beale AFB, Ca, are common visitors of RAF Fairford, in UK. A derivative of the U-2 known as the ER-2 (Earth Resources -2) is based at the Dryden Flight Research Center and is used by NASA for high-altitude civilian research including Earth resources, celestial observations, atmospheric chemistry, etc. Before, during and after the war in Serbia and Kosovo, in 1999, U-2 detachments were also based in Aviano airbase, Italy, and Istres, France.

© David Cenciotti & Simone Bovi