Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870
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I-TIGI, the aircraft involved in the accident, seen at Pisa International Airport in 1973. The explosion occurred in the area of the right engine.
|Date||27 June 1980|
|Summary||Disputed. Main theories: shot down - proposed by the Italian Government; terrorist bomb - proposed by British AAIB)|
near Ustica, Italy
|Aircraft type||McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15|
|Flight origin||Guglielmo Marconi Airport (BLQ)|
|Destination||Palermo International Airport (PMO)|
Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870 (IH 870, AJ 421) was an Italian commercial flight operated by a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15 which crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea between Ponza and Ustica, killing all 81 people on board, while en route from Bologna to Palermo in 1980. Known in the Italian media as the Ustica Massacre ("Strage di Ustica") – Ustica being a small island near the crash-site – the disaster led to numerous investigations, legal actions, and accusations, and continues to be a source of speculation, including claims of conspiracy by the Italian government and others. Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga attributed the cause of the crash to a missile fired from a French Navy aircraft, despite contrary evidence presented in the Tribunale di Roma's 1994 report. On 23 January 2013 Italy's top criminal court ruled that there was "abundantly" clear evidence that the flight was brought down by a missile. To date, this remains the deadliest aviation incident involving a DC-9-10/15 series.
Aircraft and flight details
The aircraft involved in Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15, was acquired on 27 February 1972 with the serial number CN45724/22 and registration I-TIGI (formerly N902H, operated by Hawaiian Airlines). The aircraft was manufactured in 1966. A regularly scheduled transit from Guglielmo Marconi Airport in Bologna to Palermo International Airport in Palermo, Sicily, on 27 June 1980, it departed 1 hour and 53 minutes behind schedule at 20:08 CET (19:08 UTC). The flight was carrying 77 passengers, with Captain Domenico Gatti and First Officer Enzo Fontana at the controls, with two flight attendants. The flight was designated IH 870 by air traffic control, while the military radar system used AJ 421.
The aircraft crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea near the island of Ustica, about 130 kilometres (70 nmi; 80 mi) southwest of Naples, and about 90 miles (140 km) north of Palermo, at 20:59 CET. All 81 people on board were killed.
Two Italian Air Force F-104s were scrambled at 21:00 CET from Grosseto Air Force Base to locate the accident area and to spot any survivors, but failed due to poor visibility. In July 2006 the re-assembled fragments of the DC-9 aircraft were returned to Bologna from Pratica di Mare Air Force Base near Rome.
After years of investigations, no official explanation or final report has been provided by the Italian government. In 1989 the Parliamentary Commission on Terrorism, headed by Senator Giovanni Pellegrino, issued an official statement concerning the disappearance of Flight 870, which thus became known as the "Ustica Massacre" (Strage di Ustica).
The definitive sentence asserted:
- "(...) The DC9 incident occurred following a military interception action, the DC9 was shot down, the lives of 81 innocent citizens were destroyed by an action properly described as an act of war, real war undeclared, a covert international police action against our country, which violated its borders and rights. (...)"
- "(...) L'incidente al DC9 è occorso a seguito di azione militare di intercettamento, il DC9 è stato abbattuto, è stata spezzata la vita a 81 cittadini innocenti con un'azione, che è stata propriamente atto di guerra, guerra di fatto e non dichiarata, operazione di polizia internazionale coperta contro il nostro Paese, di cui sono stati violati i confini e i diritti. (...)"
The perpetrators of the crime remain unidentified. The court, unable to proceed further, declared the case archived.
In June 2008, Rome prosecutors reopened the investigation into the crash after former Italian President Francesco Cossiga (who was Prime Minister when the incident occurred) said that the aircraft had been shot down by French warplanes. On 7 July 2008 a claim for damages was served to the French President.
The "high treason" accusation against the Italian Air Force
The role of Italian Air Force personnel in the tragedy is unclear. Several of them have been investigated and brought to court for a number of offenses, including falsification of documents, perjury, abuse of office, and aiding and abetting. Four generals were charged with high treason, on the allegations that they obstructed government investigation of the accident by withholding information about air traffic at the time of Ustica disaster.
The first ruling, on 30 April 2004, pronounced two of the generals, Corrado Melillo and Zeno Tascio, not guilty of high treason. Lesser charges against a number of other military personnel were also dropped. The abuse of office charge was no longer valid, due to some changes in legislation, and the other allegations could not be pursued further due to the statute of limitations, as the events in question had occurred more than 15 years prior.
For this same reason, action could not be taken against the other two generals, Lamberto Bartolucci and Franco Ferri. However, the ruling did not acquit them, and they were still alleged to be guilty of treason. Dissatisfied, they appealed, and in 2005 the appeals court ruled that the accusations were made on insufficient grounds. On 10 January 2007, the Italian Court of Cassation upheld this ruling and conclusively closed the case, fully acquitting Bartolucci and Ferri of any wrongdoing.
In September 2011 the Palermo civil tribunal ordered the Italian government to pay 100 million euros ($137 million) in civil damages to the relatives of the victims for failure to protect the flight and for concealing the truth and destroying evidence.
Finally, on 23 January 2013, Italy’s top criminal court ruled that there was "abundantly" clear evidence that the flight was brought down by a stray missile and confirming the lower court's order that the Italian government must pay compensation.
In April 2015 the appeals court in Palermo confirmed the rulings of the Palermo civil tribunal of 2011 and rejected the appeal by the state attorney.
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Speculation at the time and in the years since has been fueled in part by media reports, military officials statements, and ATC recordings, including radar images and trails of debris; particularly, trails of objects moving at high speeds.
A terrorist bomb
After the series of bombings which hit Italy in the 1970s, a terrorist act was the first explanation to be proposed. It was considered that the flight was delayed outbound from Bologna by almost three hours, so apparently the timer would have been set to actually cause an explosion at Palermo airport, or on a further flight of the same plane. The technical commission supporting a 1990 judicial enquiry reported that an explosion in the rear toilet and not a missile strike was the only conclusion supported by the wreckage analysis.
Fourteen years after the accident – in 1994 – a joint investigation carried out by the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and Italian investigators found conclusive physical evidence (as per the wreckage recovered) that a bomb had indeed exploded mid-flight in the rear lavatory. A large section of the aircraft's fuselage around the lavatory was never recovered (presumably having disintegrated in the explosion), and after explosion testing a separate DC-9 lavatory, the surrounding structure of the lavatory showed almost identical deformation as the structures recovered from the wreckage. However, the Italian High Courts dismissed this final report as insignificant to their own investigation, and the report was never considered.
Missile strike during military operation
Major sources in the Italian media have alleged over the years that the aircraft was shot down during a dog fight involving Libyan, United States, French and Italian Air Force fighters in an assassination attempt by NATO members on an important Libyan politician, maybe even the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, who was flying in the same airspace that evening. This version was supported in particular by investigative magistrate Rosario Priore in 1999. Judge Priore said in his concluding report that his investigation had been deliberately obstructed by the Italian military and members of the secret service, in compliance with NATO requests.
According to the Italian media, documents from the archives of the Libyan secret service passed on to Human Rights Watch after the fall of Tripoli show that Flight 870 and the Libyan MiG were attacked by two French jets.
On 18 July 1980, 21 days after the Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870 incident, the wreckage of a Libyan MiG-23 was found on the Sila Mountains in Castelsilano, Calabria, southern Italy, according to official reports.
There are conspiracy theories hiding this event, based on the series of events that followed the air crash. For example, the vessel that carried out the search for debris on the ocean floor was French, but only US officials had access to the aircraft parts they found. Several radar reports were erased and several Italian generals were indicted 20 years later for obstruction of justice. The difficulty the investigators and the victims' relatives had in receiving complete, reliable information on the Ustica disaster has been popularly described as un muro di gomma (literally, a rubber wall), because investigations just seemed to "bounce back".
In Bologna on 27 June 2007 the Museum for the Memory of Ustica was opened. The museum is in possession of parts of the plane, which are assembled and on display. Almost all of the external fuselage of the plane was reconstructed. In the museum there are also objects belonging to those on board that were found in the sea near the plane. Christian Boltanski was commissioned to produce a site specific installation. The installation consists of:
- 81 pulsing lamps hanging over the plane
- 81 black mirrors
- 81 loudspeakers (behind the mirrors)
Each loudspeaker describes a simple thought/worry (e.g. "when I arrive I will go to the sea") All the objects found are contained in a wooden box covered with a black plastic skin. A small book with the photos of all objects and various information is available to the visitor upon request.
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The story of the accident was featured on the thirteenth season of Canadian National Geographic Channel show Mayday in an episode entitled "Massacre Over The Mediterranean" (known as Air Emergency in the US, Mayday in Ireland and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and the rest of world). The documentary examined the heavy public pressure placed upon investigators to uncover the cause of the accident, and also considered the three separate technical investigations which occurred. The show ultimately advanced the conclusions of the third and final technical investigation which concluded that the wreckage ruled out a missile and pointed to an explosion having occurred in or about the location of the rear toilet.
The documentary was highly critical of the Italian judiciary's failure to officially release the third technical investigation to the public, or to consider its conclusion that missiles were not responsible, with documentary participant Flight International's David Learmount making the following comments:
- "The judiciary in Italy just found Frank Taylor's findings inconvenient. I don't think they ordered it not to be published, they just made a decision that they wouldn't publish it";
- "I'm sorry but, Italy is a dreadful place to have an aviation accident. If you want the truth, you're less likely to find it there than just about anywhere else in the world";
- "Frank Taylor's team didn't reach any conclusions except ones which were based on hard physical evidence. There was no theorizing going on".
Frank Taylor, who was one of the British investigator participants of the third technical investigation also commented: "We discovered quite clearly that somebody had planted a bomb there, but nobody on the legal side, it would appear, believed us and therefore, so far as we are aware, there has been no proper search for who did it, why they did it, or anything else. As an engineer and an investigator I cannot see why anybody would want to consider anything other than the truth".
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- "Italian court: Missile caused 1980 Mediterranean plane crash; Italy must pay compensation". The Washington Post. Associated Press. 23 January 2013.
- "I-TIGI Itavia McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15 – cn 45724 / ln 22". planespotters.net. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
- "Italian DC-9 lost off Sicily." Flight International. 5 July 1990. p. 2. (Direct PDF link, Archive)
- Italy Reopens Probe Into 1980 Plane Crash: Media, Reuters, 22 June 2008
- Troendle, Stefan (27 June 2010). "Napolitano fordert Aufklärung des Absturzes von Ustica". Tagesschau. Retrieved 27 June 2010.
Zum Jahrestag der Flugzeugkatastrophe von Ustica hat Italiens Staatspräsident Giorgio Napolitano alle staatlichen Stellen aufgefordert, daran mitzuarbeiten, das Unglück endlich aufzuklären. Es müsse eine befriedigende und ehrliche Rekonstruktion der Ereignisse stattfinden, damit alle Unklarheiten beseitigt würden.
- "Italy court fines government $137 million over mysterious crash of plane over Ustica". The Washington Post. Associated Press. 13 September 2011.
- "Ustica, Corte d'Appello conferma: "Il Dc-9 venne abbattuto da un missile"". Il Fatto Quotidiano. 8 April 2015.
- A. Frank Taylor, "A Case History Involving Wreckage Analysis: Lessons from the Ustica investigations" (Archive)
- A. Frank Taylor (March 1995) "Accident to Itavia DC-9 near Ustica, 27 June 1980: wreckage and impact information & analysis," International Society of Air Safety Investigators Forum (Paris, October 1994), 28 (1) : 6 ff. Available on-line at: Strage di Ustica
- A. F. Taylor (1998) "The study of aircraft wreckage: the key to accident investigation," Technology, Law and Insurance, 3 (2) : 129–147.
- A. Frank Taylor, "A Case History Involving Wreckage Analysis: Lessons from the Ustica investigations" (Cranfield, Bedfordshire, England, UK: Cranfield University, 1998, revised: 2006). Available on-line at: Aviation-Safety.net Archived 28 August 2014 at WebCite
- Thomas Van Hare (27 June 2012). "Italy's Darkest Night". Historic Wings.
- The Mystery of Flight 870, The Guardian, 21 July 2006 (in English)
- Noel Grima (18 September 2011). "Libyan secret documents said to uncover Ustica tragedy… and how Gaddafi escaped to Malta unscathed". The Malta Independent.
- Elisabetta Povoledo (10 February 2013). "Conspiracy Buffs Gain in Court Ruling on Crash". New York Times.
- ALAN COWELL (10 February 1992). "Italian Obsession: Was Airliner Shot Down?". New York Times.
- 2014-05-01. URL:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zLUiLCx3vY. Accessed: 1 May 2014. (Archived by WebCite® at https://www.webcitation.org/6PFsar96P?url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v%3D_zLUiLCx3vY
- Official Site of the Association of the Relatives of the Victims of the Accident (dead link)
- AirDisaster.Com Accident Synopsis of Flight 870
- Accident details at planecrashinfo.com
- Il Muro di gomma on IMDb, film about the accident
- The mystery of flight 870 – Guardian Newspaper.
- (Video) The truth about Ustica's disaster (6/27/1980)