The Day The United States Shot Down A Civilian Airliner: A Look Back At Iran Air Flight 655

With the possibly accidental shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 by pro-Russia militants in Ukraine, the entire world has looked on with horror. But shooting down passenger planes, while uncommon, is not unprecedented. The United States itself was once responsible for shooting down a civilian airliner with 290 people on board — including 66 children.

The tragedy took place 26 years ago and is not often discussed in the United States or taught in many American schools. But the shootdown of an Iranian Airbus A300 over the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988 is likely to receive renewed attention over the coming days as investigators and the public struggle to understand how a routine commercial flight like Malaysia Airlines MH17 could be coldly blasted from the sky, killing almost 300 people with one shot.

Iran Air Flight IR655 flew a routine commercial route starting in Tehran, Iran’s capital, with a stopover in Bandar Abbas, a southern Iranian city of more than 400,000 on the northeastern coast of the Persian Gulf. Flight 655 was on what should have been a 28-minute flight to its final destination in Dubai, the second-largest city in the United Arab Emirates, when disaster struck.

The era was the waning days of the bloody, Iran-Iraq War, which ended just 17 days later with a cease fire deal after eight grueling years of fighting that, by some estimates, claimed a staggering one million lives on both sides.

While then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein started that war, the United States supported and covertly aided Iraq in the conflict. The U.S. stationed naval vessels in the Persian Gulf to protect oil shipping routes, which frequently came under attack from both sides — the war saw 520 attacks on oil tankers from other countries.

Iran Air 655 took off from Bandar Abbas at 10:17 am, 27 minutes behind schedule. The Iran Air Airbus A300 immediately appeared on the radar of the U.S.S. Vincennes, a United States warship that was sailing in Iranian waters, chasing down Iranian gunboats that had just attacked it.

Two minutes later, the Vincennes, with Commander William C. Rogers III at the helm, started sending out warnings over both military and civilian distress frequencies. For some reason, according to a subsequent U.S. investigation, the Vincennes mistook the Iran Air Airbus, which was climbing to 14,000 feet for the short flight, for an Iranian military attack jet that was descending straight at it.

At 10:24 am, Rogers ordered the Vincennes to fire two missiles at the civilian airliner, thinking it was a attacking warplane. At least one of the missiles slammed into Iran Air Flight 655 just seven minutes into its flight, blowing the plane out of the sky and sending it crashing in a fireball into the waters of the Gulf.

All 290 on board were killed.

Though the “black box” from Iran Air Flight IR655 was lost in the Persian Gulf, recordings from the Vincennes showed that the plane sent a “squawk” signals to the American ship identifying itself as a civilian plane. But the crew somehow interpreted the signals as military.

Eight years later, the U.S. agreed to pay Iran $61.8 million, or $213,103 for each passenger on board Flight 655, as compensation to the families of the Iran Air victims. But the United States never issued an apology or took responsibility for shooting down the commercial passenger jet.

The Iranian government became convinced that the U.S. shot down Iran AirFlight IR655 deliberately, as a signal that it now openly sided with Iraq in the war. To the present day, the shootdown of Iran Air 655, though rarely mentioned in U.S. accounts of diplomacy with Iran, serves as a major reason why the Iranian government does not fully trust the United States.