In recent months, strange incidents involving aircraft have received a lot of attention, especially with the ongoing mystery about the whereabouts of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Disappearances are not the only odd occurrences that led to puzzling questions about the fate of various aircraft over the years; incidents such as the explosion that brought down TWA Flight 800 in July of 1996 have been the focus of countless articles and television programs.
A lesser discussed incident, though one of similar magnitude, occurred on the evening of June 27, 1980. Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870 was a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15 that left Guglielmo Marconi airport for Palermo, Sicily, and was in its final descent before landing when the pilots aboard were overheard over radio making “sounds of surprise” from the cockpit. Within moments, the plane would crash into the Tyrhennian Sea near the island of Ustica.
In response to what, at the time, was merely logged as the sudden disappearance of flight 870, the Italian Air Force scrambled a pair of F-104s to try and locate the missing aircraft. Leaving shortly after nine in the evening from Grosseto Air Force Base, the nighttime conditions led to difficulty in spotting the plane, and by the time the wreckage was discovered, several hours had passed. None among the 77 passengers or crew aboard the plane survived.
The resulting investigation led to a number of startling considerations; chief among these had been the contention held by many in the Italian government that a missile had brought down the plane; to this day, the exact cause of the crash remains unknown, and the Italian government has issued no official explanation as to the cause of this strange and troubling incident.
Although no official cause has been given for what became known as the Ustica Massacre, the widely held belief that a missile brought down the plane that night has led to speculation about a terrorist act, or even an undeclared act of war. In 2006, the Guardian reported that, “Radar evidence showed that there had been intense military activity in the area on the night Flight 870 was heading innocently towards Palermo, including the presence of US, French and Libyan military aircraft and an aircraft carrier that, according to some reports, was British.”
Muammar Gaddafi had purportedly been aboard a transport plane on the evening in question, and one theory holds that he had been the target of an international assassination plot at the time the Ustica incident took place.In a statement by Judge Rosario Priore, an Italian expert on terrorism cases, “the passenger jet had either been brought down by a missile or had plunged into the sea after swerving to avoid a mid-air collision with one of the jetfighters.” Priore complained that his inquiries into the cause of the crash “had been deliberately obstructed by the Italian military and members of the secret service, who had complied with requests from NATO to cover up the tragedy.”
Priore was hardly the only official to have expressed his suspicions about the incident. Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga had also at one time gone on record stating that he believed a missile brought the plane down. This view is not unwarranted, apparently, since wreckage recovered during the investigation of the Flight 870 incident had indeed suggested that a projectile had been involved; according to the publications Aviation Week and Space Technology, who both reported on the unfolding investigations ,damage to the airliner’s fuselage “was consistent with… a continuous-rod missile warhead as employed in air-to-air missiles.”
In 1989, Italian Senator Giovanni Pellegrino stated that, “The [Ustica Massacre] occurred following a military interception… 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, [and] a covert international police action against our country, which violated its borders and rights.”
So what exactly did occur in June of 1980, and did Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870 crash as a result of an incident—perhaps unintended— which nonetheless could qualify as an act of war? If there was indeed military involvement that resulted in the crash, perhaps the greatest question that remains is whose military had been involved (or militaries, if it was more than one country)… and for what reasons?