Ukrainian 737 Crashes Near Tehran

UPDATE: January 11, 2019

AFTER THREE days of denials, Iran has admitted that its military was accidentally responsible for last Wednesday’s downing of a Ukrainian 737 outside of Tehran. Now the politics will kick in, with calls for formal apology, restitution, and so on. As these things tend to go, expect a lot of drawn-out diplomatic haggling while the story fades from the headlines.

So there you have it. Ukraine International flight 752 becomes history’s fourth-deadliest military shoot-down of a civilian jetliner:

1. in 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight 17, a Boeing 777 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, is blown from the sky over Ukraine by a rocket fired by pro-Russia separatists. All 298 passengers and crew are killed.

2. In 1988, the crew of the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes accidentally shoots down Iran Air flight 655 over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people aboard.

3. In 1983, 269 are killed when Korean Air Lines flight 007 is shot down by a Soviet fighter jet after straying off course — and into Soviet airspace.

4. In 2020, an Iranian military battery mistakes Ukraine International flight 752 for a cruise missile and destroys it, killing 176 passengers and crew.

5. In 1973, Israeli Air Force jets fire on a Libyan Arab Airlines 727 over the Sinai. The plane crash-lands in the desert near the Suez Canal killing 108 of the 113 people on board.

It’s ironic, if that’s the right word, to see both Iran and Ukraine as unwitting partners in this latest tragedy. Ukraine was the setting for the Malaysia Airlines catastrophe, while Iran was host to the Vincennes debacle.

And this is the second such incident in just five years. I wouldn’t call this a trend, exactly, but we’re liable to see it again. All around the world one finds increasingly dangerous hotspots, where twitchy triggermen are armed with extremely lethal weaponry. You also have more airplanes flying than ever before.

Several nations have announced they will, for the time being, no longer permit their carriers to operate in Iranian airspace. Lufthansa has canceled its Tehran flights altogether.

Commercial flights between the U.S. and destinations in the Middle East and India have, until now, routinely passed through Iranian airspace. I have several pretty out-the-window photos of the snow-dusted Iranian mountains, as well as the cities of Isfahan and Qom, taken during flights out of Dubai and Doha. Emirates and Qatar Airways are now re-routing their U.S.-bound flights over Iraq instead.

I remember piloting a flight to Mumbai a few years ago and passing just north of Tehran. It was striking how well the Iranian controllers spoke English. More clearly than most European controllers.

UPDATE: January 9, 2019

U.S. OFFICIALS now say that Ukraine International flight 752 was shot down by a pair of surface-to-air missiles presumably fired in error by the Iranian military. This was a suspicion from the start, and although nothing is definitive, things are trending strongly in this direction.

Authorities in Iran, for their part, aren’t being especially forthcoming, which is hardly unexpected.

Ordinarily in incidents where a 737 airliner is involved, Boeing and the NTSB would participate in the investigation. Tensions being what they are the moment, that’s not going to happen. However, the Iranians say they will share necessary information with Canada, Sweden, Ukraine, and possibly other nations whose citizens were aboard the doomed flight. whether this information will include the plane’s data and voice recorders isn’t clear.


UPDATER: January 8, 2020

EARLIER TODAY, a Ukraine International Airlines flight carrying 176 people slammed into the ground shortly after takeoff from Imam Khomeini International Airport outside Tehran. There were no survivors. The plane was a Boeing 737-800 — the most popular of the many 737 variants.

It is safe to say there is no connection between this crash and the 737 MAX disasters. The -800 is an older model and has no MCAS system. Otherwise, however, there’s little to go on.

News reports keep bringing up “engine failure.” This can mean different things, but a 737, like any commercial jetliner, is fully capable of flying with one engine, so a simple failure, strictly speaking, is very unlikely to be the cause. If an engine somehow was the culprit, it would need to have been an uncontained failure, whereby the engine’s internal components, which rotate at thousands of RPM, punctured the wing or fuselage, touching off a fire or loss of control.

It hardly needs saying, meanwhile, with the crash coming only hours after Iran launched a missile attack on a U.S. compound in Iraq, that something more sinister could be at hand. An errant shoot-down, an intentional shoot-down, a Russian sabotage — pick your poison. Iranian authorities are, for now, refusing to hand over the voice or data recorders, which means either nothing or everything.

On July 3, 1988, the crew of the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes, distracted during a skirmish with Iranian gunboats in the Straits of Hormuz, accidentally shot down an Iran Air Airbus A300 en route to Dubai, killing 290 civilians. The U.S. later awarded over $60 million to the families of the passengers. Most Americans don’t remember this, but it has never been forgotten in Iran, where some hardliners claim the shoot-down was intentional (no evidence suggests this, though the Vincennes crew clearly was negligent).

Could Wednesday’s crash in Tehran be some kind of revenge? It’s doubtful, as there were no Americans on board. Unless that too is part of the deadly geopolitical chess match we seem to be playing now. Still, there’s no denying the crash — the timing, the location, the seizing of the recorders — is suspicious.

Ukraine International operates 36 aircraft, most of them Boeings, including roughly two dozen 737s.


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20 Responses to “Ukrainian 737 Crashes Near Tehran”
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  1. Bruce says:

    So, it was the Iranians who shot down PS752. As I said before, this is clearly a terrible accident. But I’m sure the international community won’t treat it as such.

    Iran Air 655, MH17 and PS752 are all dreadful cases of mistaken identity. They’re all surface-to-air shots, and they’re all clearly mistakes: no-one was planning to shoot down these civilian planes and kill all of these people. Of course, they’re each treated differently, depending on how much Western media hate the government of the country whose people shot the plane down.

    The Korean Air and Libyan Arab Airlines incidents seem a lot harder to justify. Shooting down a plane you can’t see properly, from the ground, during a time of extremely high tension when you’re expecting a missile attack is one thing. Shooting down a plane when you’re in a plane, close by, and can see exactly what it is, at a time of “normal” levels of tension (which I know are always high in Israel, but still) is quite another.

  2. Ducky Boi says:

    Replying to noname
    Water is not not wet. You have a good reason not to believe them if they said that, because it would be another lie. How many people are keeping count? Water makes other things wet. But is water, one water molecule, wet? No.

  3. Tod says:

    Qantas has apparently rerouted their Perth to London flight which adds an extra 50 minutes and decreases the passenger load.

  4. Juan Smith says:

    What was the role, if any, of IFF on targeting a Tor launch against a commercial airliner?
    Similar question fora Buk launch?


  5. noname says:

    “U.S. OFFICIALS now say that Ukraine International flight 752 was shot down by a pair of surface-to-air missiles presumably fired in error by the Iranian Military”

    The Problem is that US govt lies if convenient; and with the current Administration, I don’t trust them if they say that water is wet.

    “However, the Iranians say they will share necessary information with Canada, Sweden, Ukraine, and possibly other nations…”

    Which is the same method as with the Malaysian flight shot down over Ukraine: get an Panel of several countries more neutral than USA (or Russia) to investigate has a better Chance of Facts coming out, not a Story Twisted to fulfill a myth.

    If Iran doesn’t make all the data available, the international Investigation Group will say so loudly to the world.

  6. Alan says:

    Supposedly the missile(s) were fired from a Iranian solid fuel rocket depot nearby the airport which likely was on high alert because of the hostilities. The fact that the flight was over an hour late may have been a factor too as perhaps they were not expecting any commercial flights at that time of the morning.

  7. Bruce says:

    “U.S. OFFICIALS now say that Ukraine International flight 752 was shot down by a pair of surface-to-air missiles presumably fired in error by the Iranian military.”

    The Canadians and British seem to be saying the same.

    Not to go all tin-foil hat here, but….

    PS752 was taking off from IKA. There is a military presence at IKA – I’ve seen military planes there.

    It was heading West-North-West. It was climbing past 7,900ft. Had it been a missile, a bit of a turn to the left could have led it quite easily toward Erbil or Kirkuk. It was heading away from Tehran, and had been “launched” within Iran.

    If it were to be mistaken for a missile, it would be far more reasonable to mistake it for an Iranian missile fired toward US bases in Iraq than it would be to mistake it for a US missile fired toward an Iranian military target.

    PS752 had only been in the air for five minutes, and I don’t think (but I am not sure) that a US missile could make it from Iraqi airspace within that time, but could a US drone have already been somewhere nearby? Or could it have been done by Saudi- or US-funded anti-government forces embedded in Iran?

    I’m just saying that if this plane was accidentally shot down, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about who accidentally shot it down. And we should bear in mind that it doesn’t make it any better or any worse either way: it was clearly a terrible accident, whoever did it.

  8. Bruce says:

    Replying to Andrew (The “reply” button doesn’t seem to be working in Firefox).

    I see your point, but wouldn’t that make the US, the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, China and many other countries’ governments guilty of the same war crime / gross negligence? To pick Afghanistan as a single example, the US supplying sophisticated weaponry to the Mujaheddin and Saudi Arabia doing the same for the Taleban would both fall under the same classification. Countries arm the terrorists they support: they always have.

  9. Andrew says:

    Responding to Bruce above. Without in any way exhorting the crew of the Vincennes. The whole Australian cry of “war criminals” is correct when applied to the Russian military leadership that placed the fairly sophisticated and very powerful BUK missile system in the hands of a bunch of Ukrainian hillbillies and coal miners. That goes beyond gross negligence. Placing that and other advanced weaponry in the hands of marginally trained separatist militia in a area over flown by civilian airline traffic meant that civilian casualties was almost a foregone conclusion. If Russia owned up and said yeah we put the missiles there and we trained them and they messed up maybe I could think about gross negligence. To hand the system over in the first place while hiding the fact from the world and then laying in the face of overwhelming evidence that it was ever in the theater of battle even after the slaughter is a war crime.

  10. David Lyons says:

    Headline in New York Times: In Iran Plane Crash, Ukraine Will Investigate Possible Missile Strike

  11. Simon says:

    > If an engine somehow was the culprit, it would need
    > to have been an uncontained failure, whereby the
    > engine’s internal components, which rotate at
    > thousands of RPM, punctured the wing or fuselage,
    > touching off a fire or loss of control.

    Southwest 1380, a 737-700 (N772SW) had *uncontained* engine failure. Fragments (fan blade of the CFM56 engine) took out a window and killed one passenger.

    Southwest 3474, a 737-700 (N766SW) had *uncontained* engine failure (CFM56). Cabin depressurized while climbing through FL310 resulting in substantial damage to the aircraft.

  12. James David Walley says:

    One correction: you write that the United States “apologized” for the shootdown of the Iran Air A300. In fact, although the U.S. issued a statement of “deep regret” and paid compensation, it intentionally never officially apologized, and the eventual settlement included the provision that the U.S. not issue an apology. George H.W. Bush, VP at the time, famously commented “I will never apologize for the United States. I don’t care what the facts are.”

  13. Bruce says:

    Too few parallels are drawn in the Western media between Iran Air 655 and MH17.

    Iran Air 655 is generally dismissed as negligence on the part of the crew of the Vincennes (although I’m sure @Matt D makes a good point). But MH17 was definitely a plot by the evil Russians for which someone must be punished. Like they’d be interested in shooting down a Malaysian airliner with a load of Dutch, Malaysian and Australian people on board. The Australian government, in particular, has been very vocal about demanding revenge against the “war criminals” who shot down MH17, although the Australians never had a problem with Iran Air 655.

    The failure to see parallels between them really does smack of hypocrisy among global media and politicians. Which, I suppose, is hardly a surprise.

    The Iranians are rather less sanguine about it, obviously.

    The engine of Iran Air 655 now stands as a monument to the disaster, on a plinth in the garden of the old American Embassy in Tehran. I saw it when I went there a couple of years ago: it is quite a chilling thing to have as a monument.

  14. Speed says:

    The Wall Street Journal reports in part …

    “Data transmitted via satellite during the brief flight offered some preliminary information about conditions on board the jetliner. It indicated that everything was normal on the jetliner until the sudden loss of data and the fatal dive, a U.S. official familiar with the matter said.

    “That data suggest to some U.S. air-safety officials that there may have been some sort of hostile act, the person said, who cautioned that it was too early to draw any conclusions.

    “Iran’s state news agency reported the crash resulted from an engine fire caused by a technical fault, but didn’t explain how that conclusion was reached. Typically, finding the reason for a crash has taken months or even years.

  15. Andrea G says:

    There is a video circulating around (dont know if its authenticity has been officially confirmed yet) showing the aircraft engulfed in flames and shedding flaming debris as its falling. The idea that Iran military accidentally shot the plan down isnt totally far fetched. In the fog of war, where decisions need to be made in mere seconds, these things can happen.

  16. Ned says:

    Is there any information about what kind of service it had recieved on Jan 6? Something not properly put back in place that then gets broken on landing in Iran that then becomes a problem on takeoff seems like the simplest answer.

  17. Matt D says:

    I have to disagree somewhat on the Iran Air shootdown. It may not have been deliberate per se, neither can it be entirely discounted as an accident. The captain of the USS Vincennes was later revealed to be a bit of a bloodthirsty lunatic just itching for something….anything…to blow to smithereens. And I don’t think his crew did everything they could to verify that it was a civilian airliner. That they couldn’t establish radio contact was ‘good enough’ for him and he ordered it blown out of the sky. SO to some extent, yes. The Iranians to have a right to begrudge us for that one.

  18. Bernard says:

    If it were some sort of of shootdown it would not make sense to do it right after take off.

  19. Fazal Majid says:

    In his book *The Twilight War*, US Army historian Maj. David Crist (son of Gen. Crist, the first commander of US Central Command) provides a lot of background on the Iran Air Airbus shooting. It was not deliberate, but reckless and insubordinate behavior by the captain of the USS Vincennes, along with miscommunications between US Navy ships caused a completely avoidable tragedy to happen. US opinion of Iran had hardened so much that USS Vincennes Captain Rogers was actually decorated with the Legion of Merit for the killing of 290 innocents. The whole Chapter 19 of the book is well worth reading.