Photograph of I-TIGI, the DC-9 downed off the coast of Ustica on June 27, 1980. Photo taken in Basilea in November 1972. Photo Credit: Werner Fischdick
(Thanks to Christella Bernardene Krebs for sharing the article)
Aftermath and Cover Up of the Shootdown Qaddafi had escaped clean and clear from the aerial assassination attempt. He would live on, the penultimate survivor, until Libya’s “Arab Spring” of 2011. France would never speak publicly about the events of that night. Italy too would choose a policy of silence […]
The Dark Story of Itavia Flight 870
On the night of June 27, 1980, Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870 (a DC-9 registered as I-TIGI) departed Bologna, Italy, en route to Palermo, Sicily. On board were 77 passengers, two pilots and two flight attendants. Of those, 64 were adult passengers, 11 were children aged between two and twelve years old and two were children under the age of 24 months.
As usual, Itavia Flight 870 proceeded uneventfully on its regular route southward off the coast of Italy. Then, at 8:59 pm, the aircraft suddenly disappeared off the radar screens of Italian Air Traffic Control. No report of trouble or declaration of an emergency was received from the pilots — one second the plane was there and the next, it was gone. All 81 souls on board died as pieces of the aircraft fell into the sea.
At first, it seemed that the circumstances of the loss didn’t make sense — the aircraft had been flying along perfectly and then, quite inexplicably, it had exploded in midair with the loss of everyone on board. In response to questions from the media, government officials offered that Flight 870 might have been downed by a terrorist bomb. Initially, that explanation made some sense, but then no terrorist organization stepped forward to make a claim of responsibility.
Unsatisfied, the media returned to ask more questions — and as if by some order from above, officials suddenly went silent. No additional information was forthcoming. This in turn fed media suspicions that the real story was being kept from public view. Sadly, they were right. Everywhere they turned, doors were suddenly closed. It seemed as if nobody was willing to talk about what had happened.
Even more ominously, it was soon discovered that tapes of radar plots had disappeared or had been somehow erased. Other records were also missing or suddenly unavailable. Even more chilling, key witnesses began dying in strange circumstances — car accidents, suicides, and even a heart attack. What followed was the beginning of a decades long cover up, one that would go to the highest levels of no less than three governments. It is a cover up that is still in force even today. The events played out like a bad Hollywood movie, except that it was altogether real.
Out of the Darkness, into the Light
The story of Itavia Flight 870 is a dark tale of missteps, errors, and cover ups that involved no less than three governments on one side and a hostile government on the other — Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan dictatorship. The details of what happened that night still remain largely a mystery, but key pieces of evidence have recently emerged that shine light onto a long held secret. With the fall of the Qaddafi government in 2011, the archives of Libyan state secrets have been partly opened. There, amidst countless stories of terrorist plans, international ventures and terrible misdeeds are the reports detailing the night of June 27, 1980.
Setting the Stage for the Shootdown
In 1980, the international community was arrayed against an increasingly belligerent Libyan government under the leadership of the dictator, Col. Muammar Qaddafi. In the United States, the Jimmy Carter Administration was in its final year and embroiled in an election race against an upstart actor and former governor of California named Ronald Reagan. In Europe, NATO was deeply engaged in the Cold War. The Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan — it seemed that the world was on the brink of conflict.
For those nations along the Mediterranean Sea, Libya was a growing problem. Qaddafi’s forces were increasingly involved in attempts to destabilize governments in the region, including many former French colonies in North Africa. From the perspective of the French Government, the time had come to eliminate the problem of Qaddafi.
An Assassination of International Proportions
If new documents uncovered in Libya are to be believed, the opportunity to assassinate Qaddafi presented itself on the night of June 27, 1980, when he was scheduled to fly home from Europe and across the Mediterranean in his personal Tupolev airliner. A pair of French Mirage jet fighters were readied for a very special mission — Qaddafi’s jet would be intercepted and shot down, leaving all parties involved with plausible deniability. If all went well, the wreckage would be lost at sea and the action would resolve the Libyan problem once and for all.
From the start, however, things didn’t quite go as planned. What should have been a simple interception turned into a confusing engagement with jet fighters involved from no less than four nations. The French, the Libyans, the Italians and the Americans would all converge toward a single point over the sea off the coast of Italy — and flying into the melee would come Itavia Flight 870, completely unaware of the unfolding drama ahead.
Unbeknownst to the French, however, their assassination attempt was doomed from the start. According to the newly uncovered Libyan documents, Qaddafi was tipped off at the last moment about the plot by someone from within the SISMI, Italy’s secret service. Thus, Qaddafi made a snap decision and diverted his plane to land on the island of Malta. Notably, the SISMI maintained a degree of influence through high level contacts within Libya. Italy continued its close ties with Qaddafi for years — in 1986, Italian politician Bettino Craxi would phone Qaddafi to warn him of the incoming USAF F-111 raid — once again with the help of the Italians, Qaddafi would survive by fleeing his compound minutes before the bombs hit.
On that night in 1980, a Libyan Air Force MiG-23 fighter jet was already flying north to meet and escort the Qaddafi plane home to Libya, when he diverted to land in Malta. Somehow, in the confusion of developing events, the MiG-23 pilot, Ezedin Koal, was neither notified nor ordered back to base. Instead, he flew north across the Mediterranean Sea, searching for Qaddafi’s Tupolev. On the NATO side of the equation, the Libyan MiG-23 was immediately picked up as “fast mover” on air defense radars. As per standard protocol, the Italian Air Force and US Navy dispatched fighters to intercept the plane as it neared Italian airspace.
Libyan Air Force (Russian made) MiG-23 Jet Fighter, the type that was engaged in a nighttime dogfight off the coast of Italy.
A Suddenly Confusing Engagement
Minutes later, the Libyan MiG-23 was already off the coast of Sicily. Concurrently, three Italian Air Force F-104S jet fighters and at least one US Navy A-7 Corsair II (probably this was a flight of two aircraft) closed in separately from the east. The two French Mirage aircraft raced in from the north with the dark intent to perform their deadly assassination mission. Yet now, no fewer than seven and possibly as many as nine NATO fighter planes were converging on a single point on the map in the night skies over the Mediterranean Sea — and, completely unknowing, into the midst of the developing melee flew Itavia Flight 870.
Apparently, the Libyan MiG-23 pilot was first to spot the civilian DC-9 airliner on his radar. The aircraft was heading southward as expected. For the Libyan pilot, it was right where it should have been. He turned his MiG-23 to join into close formation with the airliner, which he apparently mistook for Qaddafi’s Tupolev in the darkness of the night skies. For the French fighter pilots, this newly formed up pair of aircraft exactly matched their mission expectations — there was a large airliner sized target, clearly Qaddafi’s Tupolev, escorted by a single Libyan jet fighter that had joined up from the south. Together, the two targets were flying southward in the direction of Libya.
French JetFighter Mirage F1
No warning shots were fired — this was to be an assassination, pure and simple. One of the French pilots launched an air-to-air missile aimed at the larger target. The missile struck home, hitting the forward section of Itavia Flight 870 with a perfect hit. The airliner never stood a chance — it was literally blown out of the sky. As the French Mirage pilots watched the fireball appear and disappear in the distance, their radars showed the Libyan MiG-23 break off and circle out into a counterattack.
There was only one loose end to tie up — they would have to shoot it down as well….