The crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, which the U.S. says it can confirm was a missile hit, is the deadliest such incident in the history of aviation, with 295 fatalities -- but not the first time that a civilian airliner is brought down by a missile. From the 1960s to just a few years ago, there have been four other known incidents of large jet airliners shot down. In two cases it was for violating Soviet airspace after veering off course; in another, because the plane had been mistaken for a military jet; and in the most recent case, because of an errant missile launched during a military exercise.
Siberia Airlines 1812
The event that resembles most closely the possible shootdown of MH17 is the October 2001 downing of a Russian jet over the Black Sea by a missile fired by the Ukrainian armed forces. Siberia Airlines 1812 was a flight from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk in Russia, operated by a Tupolev 154M airliner, with 12 crew and 66 passengers. While overflying the Black Sea about 200 km (120 mi) from Sochi, Russia, and hundreds of kilometers from the Ukraine coast, the jet was hit by a ground-to-air missile fired by Ukraine from Crimea during an exercise. Nobody survived as the plane crashed into the sea.
It took several days for Ukraine to admit that the crash had been caused by its own missile. Initial suspicions had pointed to terrorism; the flight had taken off from Israel, a country often targeted by extremists, and the September 11 terror attacks on the U.S. had occurred just a month before. Russia acknowledged that Ukraine, with which it was enjoying peaceful relations at the time, had made a mistake and did not intend to hit the airliner.
Korean Air 007
Years earlier, in September 1983, another shootdown of a civilian airliner killed 269 people, at the time the worst aviation accident caused by a military shootdown. Korean Air Lines flight 007 veered off course due to a gross navigational error by the crew, during the Anchorage to Seoul portion of its flight from New York.
After stopping for fuel in Alaska, KE007 lost its planned flight path over the North Pacific ocean and, in an era before satellite-assisted GPS navigation, deviated so far from its track that it overflew closed airspace in Russia’s Far East. After tracking the Boeing 747, the Soviet air force sent after it interceptor fighters which shot down the jet over Sakhalin Island using an air-to-air missile that homed in on the infrared rays emitted by the engines. Authorities feared the plane was on a spy mission.
More than 60 American citizens were on board, including a member of Congress, which resulted in a vehement U.S. reaction, led by President Ronald Reagan who spoke of Russia turning "against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere." The U.S. halted all commercial flights to and from Russia and ended negotiations on several agreements with the USSR; it was one of the lowest moments of the Cold War, which ended less than a decade later.
Russia eventually admitted its responsibility, and the accident was determined to have been a tragic mistake. Several Soviet officers involved were punished.
Korean Air 902
That was not the first time that a South Korean airplane had violated Soviet airspace and been shot down as a result. Flight KE902, also operated by Korean Air Lines, was en route from Paris to Seoul via Anchorage in April 1978 when it lost its course over Greenland and turned towards Russia’s Kola Peninsula, near the Finnish border.
The Boeing 707, with 109 people on board, was intercepted by Soviet fighters, one of which fired a missile at it after possibly mistaking it for an American RC-135 spyplane, a derivative of the Boeing 707 that looked very similar to the civilian jet. Hit but not destroyed, the 707 lost a piece of one wing and glided to an energency landing on a frozen lake. Two people on board died; the other 107 were rescued by the Russian military and eventually sent back home.
Iran Air 655
Former Soviet nations, to be sure, are not the only ones to have shot down civilian airliners with missiles.
The most notorious such incident was the shooting down of Iran Air flight 655 by the destroyer USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf in July 1988. The U.S. warship mistook the Airbus A300, en route from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, for an attacking Iranian warplane and fired at it, bringing it down with a surface-to-air missile. All 290 people on board were killed, in the tenth-deadliest air crash ever.