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Flight 655 - the last time a passenger jet was shot down over Iran.

Could the recent crash in Iran be a repeat of Air Iran Flight 655? The time the US shot down a civilian jet.

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Image Credit: US Navy

UK and US officials came forward today, telling media outlets that they believe Flight PS752, which crashed on Wednesday killing all 176 on board, was accidentally shot down.

American media was told that the infrared signatures, from what is thought to be two missile launches was followed by the infrared blip of the aircraft, which was reported to be burning as it fell. Observation of the wreckage has raised further questions about just what caused this 737 aircraft, one of the most used and reliable aircraft in service today, to drop from the skies. The fact that the aircraft still had a healthy rate of climb at its last reported position and the lack of a mayday call points to a sudden, catastrophic event.

Speculation continues to rise over whether the unfortunate passengers on board this flight were the victims of a tragic misunderstanding. Perhaps the victims of a mistake made within a twenty-four-hour period where regional tensions had reached new heights, where it seemed not improbable that Iran and the US were on the brink of war.

If that is the case, then it seems that the much-forgotten case of Flight 655 has just repeated itself.

Air Iran Flight 655 took off from Bandar Abbas Airport at 10:17 Iran time on 3 July 1988, for what should have been a twenty-eight-minute flight. Minutes after taking off the aircraft would be shot down, all 290 people on board were killed. The most shocking part: the civilian airliner was shot down by the US Navy.

The event occurred during the height of the Iran-Iraq war. Both countries had repeatedly targeted vessels navigating international shipping lanes, most notably oil super tankers. Defending both its interests in the region and the freedom of navigation the US Navy expanded its protection to all neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf at the end of April 1988. Tensions by this point were extremely high, just over a year earlier the Iraqi Air Force had targeted and struck USS Stark, killing thirty-seven American personnel.

On the day of the incident USS Vincennes was passing through the straight, when a helicopter launched from the ship reported small Iranian gunboats had open fired at it. The USS Vincennes then pursued the Iranian vessels into Iranian territorial waters. During this confrontation Flight 655 taxied to the runway, twenty-seven minutes behind schedule, before accelerating and taking off. Its flight path would take it straight across the strait and within close proximity to USS Vincennes which was within Iranian territorial water at the time.

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Image:Oliver Holzbaer. A UIA Boeing 737, the same type of plane which was involved in the recent crash.

When Flight 655 took off from Bandar Abbas Airport – which also served as a base for Iranian F-14 combat aircraft – the USS Vincennes wrongly identified the aircraft as an Iranian fighter jet. The USS Vincennes also reported that the flight path was similar to that of an F-14 on an attack run, despite the fact that the commercial airliner was consistently climbing, the opposite occurs on an attack run. The US ship tried to reach the aircraft multiple times on both civilian and military frequencies. When no response was made the USS Vincennes fired two surface-to-air-missiles – the US Navy had just made a fatal mistake.

It was later confirmed that the airliner had been inside its correct airline, and that the aircraft had in fact been climbing not descending. Speaking years later Captain William Rodgers, commanding officer of the USS Sides, the nearest US Navy ship to the USS Vincennes at the time of the tragedy expressed his disbelief that such actions were taken. He said: “it’s climbing, it’s slow, it doesn’t respond, it’s in the middle of our missile envelope… it’s vulnerable, why would this aircraft represent a threat? It doesn’t meet any of the threat parameters.”

The dark lighting in the Combat Information Centre on board the USS Vincennes, the psychological mindset of the crew and Captain, and the Aegis aircraft tracking software has all been blamed for what happened on that fateful day.

While the reason Ukrainian International Airlines crashed on Wednesday is still unknown, Flight 655 shows the dangers of what can happen in times of heightened tension when the fog of war clouds judgement.

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