Home >> Aviation Articles >> A Forgotten Tragedy in Iran
A Forgotten Tragedy in Iran
|By Ethan Rider|
December 26, 2009
With Iran-America tensions as high as ever, we present an historical/investigative review of an event that today seems overlooked, yet offers important insight into why today's tension can't easily be resolved.
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During the Iran-Iraq war or the 1980s, the U.S. Navy maintained a powerful presence in the Persian Gulf in an effort to protect “freedom of navigation” in the region, mostly in the form of oil shipments to Japan and the United States.1 On May 17, 1987, while operating under that objective, the USS Stark was attacked by an Iranian F-1 Mirage fighter jet, and 37 U.S. sailors were killed.2 An investigation into the incident revealed that the captain of the USS Stark, Glenn R. Brindel, had ample time to defend his ship against the attack. In fact, the Iraqi jet had been continuously tracked for more than 20 minutes, but by the time the captain identified it as a threat, there was not sufficient time to defend the ship.3 Captain Brindel and his weapons officer were able to avoid being court-martialed by accepting responsibility for the incident and leaving the Navy. However, they were severely criticized by the Navy for “failing to defend [the] ship.”4 In light of the attack, the United States imposed “new rules of engagement, … to allow captains to tighten their fingers on the trigger,” and to “fire before being fired upon.”5
The USS Stark, May 1987
• • •
In July 1988, three Navy ships, the USS Vincennes, the USS Elmer Montgomery and the USS Sides, were patrolling the Persian Gulf, enforcing a U.S. imposed embargo of Iran. On the morning of July 3, the USS Elmer Montgomery reported enemy fire coming from small boats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The USS Vincennes traveled to the scene of the conflict, assumed command of the confrontation, and engaged in battle with the IRGC boats from 10:13am to 10:33am. The skirmish forced the Vincennes crew to perform a series of swift maneuvers to combat the much smaller and more maneuverable boats of the IRGC. The intensity of the battle mixed with the severe rocking of the cruiser created a scene of chaos onboard, yet amidst the confusion, the Vincennes effectively detected, warned, and shot down an attacking Iranian F-14 fighter jet.6
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The USS Vincennes, Firing a SAM Missile, 1985
• • •
At 10:17am, on July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655, operating an Airbus A-300 (EP-IBU), departed Bandar Abbas Airport in Iran, for a brief flight over the Persian Gulf to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. After takeoff, Flight 655 was instructed by Air Traffic Control (ATC) to activate its aircraft identification transponder, and did so (the transponder aboard the Airbus ‘squawks Mode III,’ identifying the aircraft as neutral and civilian).7 A few minutes later, ATC cleared Flight 655 to climb from 7,000 to 12,000 feet.8 Then, a transmission came through to Flight 655; a serious warning from the USS Stark.”9 Thirty-nine seconds later, two surface-to-air missiles were fired at the Iranian passenger jet, both of which struck the aircraft, breaking off the tail and one of the wings.10 The Washington Post explains, “Such a missile hit usually slices an aircraft apart and turns it into a fireball of burning fuel.”11
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EP-IBU © Werner Fischdick
• • •
Three hours after combat ceased, the crew of the USS Vincennes learned that the aircraft they had shot out of the sky was not a hostile Iranian F-14, as they thought, but a commercial aircraft, Flight 655, carrying 290 people, all of whom perished.12
• • •
The United States immediately defended the actions of the USS Vincennes, and its Captain, Will C. Rogers, 3d. In justification, the United States cited flaws in the procedures of the Iran Air flight crew, and errors reported by the USS Vincennes’ AEGIS radar system. The arguments presented by the United States included:
•The USS Vincennes and the USS Sides tried numerous times, on both civilian and military radio frequencies, to contact Flight 655, in an attempt to warn it of the danger it was in; Flight 655 did not respond to any of the warnings.13
•The USS Vincennes’ AEGIS radar system indicated that Flight 655 was
‘squawking Mode II,’ which identified it as an enemy aircraft.14
•The USS Vincennes’ AEGIS radar system indicated that Flight 655 was aimed at the USS Vincennes, accelerating and descending, giving it “a threatening profile.”15
•Flight 655 flew four to five miles outside of its designated non-military corridor, and into a war zone.16
Based on these statements, President Reagan called the incident a tragic, yet “understandable accident,” and announced that there would be no change in U.S. policy regarding the Persian Gulf.17 Iranian officials declared it a “barbaric massacre of innocent passengers”.18 It would quickly become clear that all of the explanations offered by the United States were flawed, and that the crew of the USS Vincennes was solely to blame for the tragedy.
• • •
Initially, the United States cited errors reported by the AEGIS radar system as contributing factors to the misidentification of Flight 655; peculiar because the Navy touted AEGIS, “the most advanced radar detection and tracking system in the world.”19 It was soon revealed that AEGIS was, in fact, a very advanced system, and had reported no errors; all ‘radar’ errors were actually errors made by the crew misreading the radar data. The fact that Flight 655 was aimed at the USS Vincennes contributed to its ‘threatening profile,’ but it was revealed by the U.S. Defense Department that this occurred because, to combat the Iranian boats, the USS Vincennes navigated its way into the 20-mile-wide commercial aviation corridor, and only a few miles from the centerline.20 An official Pentagon inquiry into the disaster reported that Flight 655 was “on a normal commercial air flight plan profile; in the assigned airway; squawking transmitting Mode III, … and on a continuous ascent from takeoff at Bandar Abbas to shootdown.”21
Radar errors exonerated, the fact that Flight 655 failed to respond to the Navy’s repeated warnings could still render Iran culpable for the tragedy. The United States warned that civilian airliners “must identify themselves and state their intentions when challenged by American warships.”22 However, it was discovered that many of the warnings issued to Flight 655 were made on the military air distress channel, which was inaccessible to the commercial jet. Also, Flight 655 was in continuous communication with ATC, and therefore unable to hear the warnings issued on the civil aviation distress frequency. Regardless, most of the warnings were directed to “Iranian F-14” or “Iranian fighter.”23 The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) determined that of the four warnings issued on the civilian aviation distress frequency, only one was clear enough to be “instantly recognizable” to the flight crew that it was directed at them. This transmission was made 39 seconds before the USS Vincennes fired.24
The U.S. Navy was responsible for the primary investigation into the disaster, and found that the central cause arose from the USS Vincennes’ crew misreading radar data and convincing themselves that what they saw on the radar was not an Airbus A-300, but a hostile F-14.25 Incredibly, the Navy determined that the “psychological stress [from] being in combat” was to blame for the errors made by the crew, and that the crew itself was not at fault.26 The Navy declared that no one would even be disciplined for the mistake, including Captain Rogers, despite the Navy protocol that holds the captain accountable for all of the actions of his ship. The Navy went so far as to withdraw its only official dissenting document, a non-punitive letter of censure addressed to a middle-grade officer who relayed misleading information during the incident.27
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Mourners Carry Coffins Through the Streets of Tehran, July 7, 1988
Even after the United States was implicated for the disaster, Iran was shown little sympathy. Admiral William J. Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “Iran must bear the principal responsibility for the tragedy,” and called the flight crew’s actions “significantly negligent.”28 Charles Brands, a gunner’s mate aboard the USS Vincennes stated, “I personally don’t feel guilty because I think it helped shorten the war and a lot of lives were saved.”29 Senator John Warner (R.-Va.) declared that Captain Rogers “acted professionally and properly at the information at his disposal, …he had to make that decision.”30 Captain Rogers asserted, “We did what we had to do when we had to do it.”31 Vice President Bush blamed the Iranians for the tragedy, saying, it “was an irresponsible and tragic error… [to allow] a civilian aircraft loaded with passengers to proceed on a path over a warship engaged in battle.”32 Bush also expressed, “If I was in the captain’s shoes, I probably would have done exactly the same thing he did.”33 Bush would later declare, specifically in reference to this tragedy,
“I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are.”34
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Bodies of Flight 655 Victims in an Iranian Morgue, July 5 1988
In response to the tragedy, the United States issued radios capable of monitoring ATC transmissions (to assist in identifying civilian aircraft as such) to all warships stationed in the Persian Gulf.35 Additionally, the United States paid $131.8 million in compensation to citizens of Iran, but under the non-negotiable terms that relatives received only $250,000 if a family breadwinner was killed, and $100,000 if a non-working family member was killed. Furthermore, the United States insisted that all payments must be made ‘ex gratia,’ meaning that, under international law, no guilt is placed on the United States. These compensatory payments were not made until 1996, eight years after the incident.36
In 1989, The U.S. Navy awarded Captain Rogers and Lieutenant Commander Scott E. Lustig the ‘Legion of Merit,’ the second highest peacetime award, “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service.” The destruction of an airliner with 290 civilians aboard was not mentioned at the ceremony.37
The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, typically essential to crash investigations and vehemently tracked down, were never recovered, and remain in the Persian Gulf today.38
Sailorme's Adventures. USS Stark, After Iranian Fighter Attack. 17 May 1987. Yahoo! Geocities. 22 May 2001 .
USS Vincennes Tests Weapons Systems. Aviation Week & Space Technology 29 July 1985: 22.
Associated Press. A Mass Funeral in Teheran for Flight 655 Victims. 7 July 1988. The New York Times. 8
July 1988, Late ed.: A1.
Associated Press. Bodies of Flight 655 Victims in an Iranian Morgue. 5 July 1988. The New York Times. 6
July 1988, Late ed.: A10.
1Charlotte Saikowski, “US Role in Gulf Backed Despite Risk,” Christian Science Monitor 26 May 1987: National 1.
2Gene I. Rochlin, Trapped In the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization, Princeton University Press, 1997, 29 Oct. 2003 http://www.pupress.princeton.edu/books/rochlin/.
3Richard Halloran, “A Tale of 2 American Skippers, Damned if They Do and if They Don’t,” The New York Times 6 July 1988, Late ed.: A11. Rochlin.
4“Stark Skipper Forced to Quit Navy,” The Toronto Star 28 July 1987, Final ed.: A2. Richard Halloran, “Navy Won’t Punish Anyone in Downing of Iranian Plane,” The New York Times 20 Aug. 1988, Late ed.: 1, 5.
5George C. Wilson, “Navy Missile Downs Iranian Jetliner Over Gulf,” The Washington Post 4 July 1988, Final ed.: A1. “A Tale of 2 American Skippers, Damned if They Do and if They Don’t.”
6John H. Cushman, Jr., “11 Minutes to Downing of an Airliner,” The New York Times 20 Aug. 1988, Late ed.: 5. Rochlin.
8John Morrocco, et al., “A300 Downing Clouds Aegis Capabilities,” Aviation Week & Space Technology 11 July 1988: 16.
9John F. Burns, “World Aviation Panel Faults U.S. Navy on Downing of Iran Air Jet,” The New York Times 4 Dec. 1988, Late ed.: A3.
10“Hull-Loss Description – 03 July 1988,” The Aviation-Safety Network, 29 Oct. 2003 http://aviation-safety.net/database/1988/880703-0.htm. Burns. Morrocco.
12Robert Reinhold, “Crew of Cruiser That Downed Iranian Airliner Gets a Warm Homecoming,” The New York Times 25 Oct. 1988, late ed.: A16.
13Brendan M. Greeley, Jr., “Pentagon Vincennes Inquiry Backs Commander’s Actions,” Aviation Week & Space Technology 29 August 1988: 21. “Hull-Loss Description.”
14Greeley. “Hull-Loss Description.”
15Robert D. McFadden, “Aviation Experts Assess the Incident,” The New York Times 4 July 1988, Late ed.: 6.
17Julie Johnson, “No Shift In Policy – President Terms Action an ‘Understandable’ but Tragic Move,” The New York Times 5 July 1988, Late ed.: A1, A10. Robert Pear, “No Policy Changes in Gulf as a Result, State Dept. Says,” The New York Times 4 July 1988, Late ed.: 5.
18Youssef M. Ibrahim, “Iran Calls U.S. Action a ‘Barbaric Massacre,’” The New York Times 4 July 1988, late ed.: A4.
23Eric J. Lerner, “Lessons of Flight 655,” Aerospace America Apr. 1989: 18. Burns. “Hull-Loss Description.”
25Bernard E. Trainor, “Errors By a Tense U.S. Crew Led to Downing of Iran Jet, Navy Inquiry is Said to Find,” The New York Times 3 Aug. 1988, Late ed.: A1, A6.
27“Navy Won’t Punish Anyone in Downing of Iranian Plane.”
30Paul Mann, “Senate Leaders Back Captain, But Question Gulf Deployment,” Aviation Week & Space Technology 11 July 1988: 20.
33“Gerald M. Boyd, “Bush Talks Softly on Trip to Boston,” The New York Times 8 July 1988, Late ed.: B6.
34Rick Mercier, “Former Proud 'America Hater' Repents or is it Just a Dream?,” Fredricksburg.com 28 Nov. 2001, 29 Oct. 2003 http://www.fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2001/112001/11282001/454746/printer_friendly. Jerome Doolittle, “Real Bushmen Don’t Cry,” DemocraticUndergound.com 14 May 2002, 29 Oct. 2003 . Jacob Weisberg, “Sorry Excuse – Rules for National Apologies,” Slate 4 Apr. 1998, 29 Oct. 2003 http://slate.msn.com/id/2309/. http://www.maller.com/quotes/default.html?xauth=George%20Bush.
35John H. Cushman, Jr., “Warships in Gulf Get New Radios to Ground Against Air Disasters,” The New York Times 9 Sep. 1988, Late ed.: A6.
36“U.S. Pays Iran for Downed Airliner,” The San Francisco Chronicle 26 Apr. 1996: A14. “U.S. Outlines Compensation Plan For Iran Flight 655,” Aviation Week & Space Technology 24 July 1989: 36.
37Molly Moore, “Two Vincennes Officers Get Medals; Citations Do Not Mention Downing of Iranian Airliner That Killed 290,” The Washington Post 23 Apr. 1990, Final ed.: A9.
38Herbert H. Denton, “Aviation Panel Reports on Gulf Tragedy; Airliner May Have Had Only Brief Alert,” The Washington Post 3 Dec. 1988, Final ed.: A17.
Ethan Rider is an aviation enthusiast who has published numerous investigative pieces on aviation safety. He currently lives in the east San Francisco bay, California.
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|13 User Comments:|
Username: A300 [User Info]|
Posted 2010-01-08 00:17:16 and read 32768 times.
"On May 17, 1987, while operating under that objective, the USS Stark was attacked by an Iranian F-1 Mirage fighter jet,"
It was, in fact, an Iraqi F-1. The IRIAF did not have any Mirages until the early 1990s.
Username: Steveodds [User Info]|
Posted 2010-01-13 06:02:30 and read 32768 times.
Wars were, are, and will exist. Unfortunately they are connected with the human civilisation and nothing can tear it apart :/
Username: Ezifun [User Info]|
Posted 2010-03-04 22:00:05 and read 32768 times.
Wars should be avoided but as life is not only for fun and happiness we have to face many hardships and losses.The loss of our dear ones effects our life completely and we can not help but tearing,so we should be prepare of any task is life.http://www.ezifun.com
Username: SolarFlyer22 [User Info]|
Posted 2010-03-05 08:35:00 and read 32768 times.
Yeah, its amazing to me that they never apologized or admitted fault for this. To make matters worse, when the Russians shot down a Korean 747 (KAL 007), the same people attacked the Soviets as monsters. They did however force Capt. Rogers into early retirement.
Username: 100vosoli [User Info]|
Posted 2010-04-02 15:31:57 and read 32768 times.
why the u.s.a brings fleet , ships , soldiers to Persian Gulf ?!? for why ?!
Persian GULF was for IRAN and is for IRAN and will be for IRAN
however i like the u.s.a but im afraid for the u.s.a because
it created this terrible crash!!!
i hope Iran and U.S.A to become friends together!!!
Username: Kione [User Info]|
Posted 2010-08-22 10:36:35 and read 32768 times.
During the GULF WAR, some of Iraqi pilots with their RUSSIAN and FRENCH fighters (I think it was about 150 jet fighters and also 15 cargo planes crammed by spare parts for jet fighters) flew to air bases in IRAN, so IRAN did not have any MIRAGE F1 and EXOCET missiles to attack the USS STARK. FOR MORE DETAILS, PLEASE read "IRANIAN F-14 UNITS IN COMBAT". This book will provide some information about what has been really happened to the STARK and why FRENCH EXOCET missiles launched to the Stark and why the pilot in next days after attack was killed by SADDAM HOSEIN.
Username: Garpd [User Info]|
Posted 2010-10-24 03:19:56 and read 32768 times.
I can't help but suspect that the IRGC attack was timed to coincide with the departure of the Iran Air flight. Perhaps the powers that be in Iran had hoped and planned on it being picked up by a US ship in the heat of battle? No doubt to warrant more attacks or actions against US forces.
Username: Hanisu [User Info]|
Posted 2010-11-18 04:22:52 and read 32768 times.
The thing i feel most angry about this tragedy is that the USA is still not owning up to this mistake committed by their own navy,whereas Libya has finally owned up responsibility to the PanAm bombing..and also USA insists the Korean Airliner was shot down deliberately by the Soviets,whereas independent investigations have revealed that the Korean plane was clearly in Soviet airspace.Another fact is that the US navy was some 30 miles into Iranian waters when they fired those missiles.So USA is clearly absolutely wrong.
Username: Hugociss [User Info]|
Posted 2011-03-08 03:41:46 and read 32768 times.
What a tragic end for a commercial airliner and its passengers. It is outrageously unfair that the American government refused to apologise. That said, if American navy ships stop shooting down civilian planes just because its incompetent crew feels like it is a threat, these tragedies could be minimised. A commercial airliner should have an extra radio set to emergency frequencies that will overwrite normal ATC frequencies when it is flying near a war zone, along with a specific air corridor.
Username: Phoenix12 [User Info]|
Posted 2011-03-27 09:54:31 and read 32768 times.
This isnt a Forgotten tragedy
This is a direful crime
This crime remind in iranian memory
and will remind
Username: Mcoov [User Info]|
Posted 2011-08-28 15:07:19 and read 32768 times.
This is one thing that has bothered me for so long: why is Iran not worthy of an apology?
Username: N5716B [User Info]|
Posted 2012-09-01 13:40:24 and read 32768 times.
What I'd like to know is that if this was such a 'forgotten' tragedy, why do we keep hearing about it?
Username: Yasser271 [User Info]|
Posted 2013-12-05 07:07:39 and read 3434 times.
this is an international crime,but because U.S.A has the most power in the world, no one can question America for its actions. And this is the promised civilization.