On This Day – Libyan Airlines Passenger Plane Shot Down by Fighter Jets

Illustration Courtesy of Anynobody.
Illustration Courtesy of Anynobody.

Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 144 was a regularly scheduled flight from Tripoli to Cairo, but on this day in 1973, the flight left Tripoli and got lost due to a combination of poor weather conditions and equipment failure as it flew over northern Egypt. A large sandstorm began brewing at around 1pm, forcing the pilot and co-pilot to rely completely on instrument navigation.

A short time later, around 13:44, the pilot suspected that he had made a navigational error because of a compass malfunction, as he could not find an air traffic beacon, and could not ascertain the plane’s current location. He did not report his worries to the Cairo air control tower. Instead, at 13:52 he received permission from Cairo to begin his descent. Pushed by strong tailwinds, the aircraft had drifted east, and was flying over the Suez Canal. Sinai, to the east of the canal, had been occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were on high alert as 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.

At 13:54, Flight 114 entered airspace over the Sinai desert, cruising at 20,000 feet. Two minutes later, two Israeli Air Force F-4 fighters were scrambled to investigate and they intercepted the airliner. The Israeli fighter pilots attempted to make visual contact with the passenger airliner’s crew, and tried to communicate to them by signaling with their hands, dipping their wings and firing warning shots, that they should follow the F-4s back to Rephidim Air Base. The 727 crew’s response was interpreted as a denial of that request. The 727 turned back to the west, and the Israeli pilots interpreted this as an attempt to flee.

The Israeli F-4 pilots fired bursts of 20mm rounds with the F-4’s cannon. The rounds severely damaged control surfaces, hydraulic systems, and the wing structure itself. Flight 114 crashed while attempting an emergency landing in an area covered with sand dunes. Following an explosion, 108 of the 113 people on board died. Israel defended themselves by claiming it was an act of defence, but the Israeli Defence Minister called it an error of judgement and Israel paid compensation to the victims’ families.