This Day in Jewish History: El Al Plane Shot Down Over Bulgaria, 58 Dead

Israeli plane had erroneously strayed into the Eastern European state and was gunned down by two Bulgarian air force fighter jets

David Green
David B. Green
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An El Al Lockheed Constellation plane, similar to the one shot down in 1955.
An El Al Lockheed Constellation plane, similar to the one shot down in 1955. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

On July 27, 1955, an El Al plane carrying 51 passengers and seven crew was shot down by two fighter jets belonging to the Bulgarian air force, after it had gone off course and strayed across the border into western Bulgaria. Everyone on board was killed.

LY-402, the Israeli carrier’s weekly flight from London to Tel Aviv, departed Heathrow Airport on the evening of Tuesday, July 26, 1955, en route to Lod (today Ben-Gurion International Airport), via Vienna and Istanbul. After a layover at the Austrian capital, the Lockheed Constellation – a four-engine propeller plane – took off for Istanbul shortly before 3 A.M. on July 27.

Soon after takeoff, the flight encountered a thunderstorm, something that was known to cause distortions in the old-fashioned NDR navigation system then in use. In the case of LY-402, which was flying along the “Amber 10” air lane, it appears that the pilot changed course after concluding incorrectly that he had passed over the Skopje (Macedonia) navigation beacon. This change of direction caused the aircraft to cross from Yugoslavia into Bulgaria, near the border village of Tran.

Detecting the violation of its airspace, the Bulgarian air force scrambled two MiG-15 jets from the Dobroslavtsi airfield to intercept the intruder, with the sequence of events that followed a subject of debate – at least initially. What’s clear is that, as the civilian plane neared the country’s southern border and was about to cross into Greek airspace, the MiGs fired at it. The Constellation exploded at an altitude of 2,000 feet, with its pieces falling to earth near Petrich, Bulgaria. Everyone on board was killed.

Bulgaria quickly acknowledged that it had shot down the plane, and Israel did not dispute that its plane had crossed into Bulgaria without authorization. But the initial Bulgarian version of events had the two air force pilots claiming that they had gone through standard procedure for such cases, including firing warning shots across the front of the plane. The pilots also testified that the Israeli plane had initially moved its wing flaps, indicating its intention to follow the Bulgarian instructions, before breaking away and heading south for the border, as if intending to escape.

According to a history of Bulgarian aviation by Zahari Zahariev, the deputy commander of Bulgarian air defense, Gen. Velitchko Georgiev, told the two pilots, named Petrov and Sankiisky, “If the plane is leaving our territory, disobeying orders, and there is no time left for more warnings, then shoot it down.”

Bulgaria quickly backed away from its version of events, issued an apology for the disaster, and eventually paid compensation for the loss of life. Payment to the families of the 22 Israelis on board was set, in 1963, at the maximum allowed by the Warsaw Convention – $8,236 per passenger. Previous to that, Israel had applied to the World Court to decide on the question of compensation, but the court ruled, for technical reasons, that it did not have jurisdiction over the case.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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