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Iran Air flight 655

mapIran

It was an Airbus A300 on a flight from Tehran to Dubai shot down by USS Vincennes on 3 July 1988 using guided missiles. All 290 people on board (16 crew, 274 passengers, including 66 children) were killed.

It was a classic mix of incompetence leading to the accident, and deviousness in trying, and eventually failing, to cover up what actually happened.

At first sight the shooting was hard to believe. The flight had a stop-over at Bandar Abbas. It took off normally from there at UTC 06:47, 27 minutes late. It flew normally down the commercial air corridor Amber 59, a 20-mile wide direct route to Dubai airport. It followed the normal flight plan of climbing steadily, aiming to reach 14,000 ft, then cruise briefly, then descend to Dubai. Its transponder was broadcasting the regular civilian code (“Mode III”, easily distinguishable from the military “Mode II”). When it reached 10 miles from the Vincennes still climbing, it was shot down on the basis that it must be an Iranian F-14 descending on its final attack run.

iranAir655

The Vincennes was at lat 26.513056N, long 56.015833W, 10.8 miles from the nearest point of the Iranian coast (the little island of Hengam, just south of Qeshm), inside Iranian territorial waters, and was in the process of attacking small Iranian gunboats which it had lured out with a decoy “Liberian ship” the Stoval. It was neither a ship, nor Liberian, but essentially just a transmitter to fool the Iranians into coming into range of the Vincennes’ helicopters and various other US ships that were in the area.

Indeed it turned out that the US had been engaged in a secret naval war in the Gulf for some while, a war for which it did not wish to seek authorisation under the War Powers Act.

The Vincennes had all the latest kit, known as Aegis:

aegis1

This was a complex computer system linked into umpteen radars, intelligence feeds and other systems, designed to allow the ship to engage up to a hundred air or surface threats simultaneously.

It performed flawlessly.

The snag was apparently that the crew did not believe the information it was giving them. They expected the plane to be a hostile Iranian plane rushing to defend the gunboats, so that is what they managed to see.

There was also a classic time-zone mix-up. The ships clocks were on UTC + 4hrs, whereas Bandar Abbas was on UTC +3.5 hrs. So although the crew knew all about the IA655, they knew it could not be the plane on the radar, because the timing was wrong.

But part of the problem was that the Vincennes had too much information. All kinds of people were intercepting, real-time, the communications between IA655 and the Bandar Abbas control tower: GCHQ and NSA (with listening stations in Oman, including Goat Island), an AWACS plane (a Grumman E2-Hawkeye) above the Gulf.

goatIsland

[Goat island, Oman. All maps courtesy of Google Maps]

All this information may not have been much help to the captain of the Vincennes faced with only a few minutes to make a decision as the plane closed on his position at about 6.5 miles/minute. Having said that, I am not inclined to be particularly sympathetic. There was precisely one scheduled flight out of Bandar Abbas that morning, IR 655, due to depart at 09:50 local time = 06:20 UTC. It was flying direct to Dubai, which would take it directly over the Vincennes. Clearly, avoiding downing that flight was a priority.

But the information was certainly a problem afterwards. Aegis provided a flawless audit trail. It showed that the crew had imagined things when they thought the flight was descending. It did nothing but ascend. There followed a lengthy period of giving out a mixture of flat untruths and heavily redacted truths, but the truth did emerge several years later.

Full details, and amusingly commented original documents etc, are available on Charles Harwood’s site.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Tom Welsh | 9 April 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    The main problem was that the Vincennes was where it had no right to be, doing what it had no right to do. Essentially, the US government had ordered the captain of the Vincennes to intrude within (or dangerously near) the territorial waters of a nation with whom Washington had carefully cultivated a hostile relationship. Its task there was to stir up trouble: something which it managed all too well (although not in the intended way).

    The consequences extended much further than could have been foreseen. Five months later, Pan Am flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, and after initially deducing that this must be an Iranian revenge attack, the US government suddenly swung around to blaming it on Libya. (For tactical reasons, it wished to mend its fences with Iran – although this was only temporary). All this is thoroughly explained in several books, for instance Morag Kerr’s “Adequately Explained by Stupidity?: Lockerbie, Luggage and Lies”

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