Photo of an El Al Lockheed Constellation plane
Photo of an El Al Lockheed Constellation plane
Eldan David - Source
License: Public Domain

El Al Flight 402 is Shot Down by Bulgarian Fighter Pilots

Perhaps only the Soviets could display such gall, but other countries have also been guilty of firing on commercial flights. In 1955, two Bulgarian MiG-15s fitted with cannons attacked an off-course El Al Constellation airliner that was apparently flying into Bulgarian airspace. The plane, en route from London to Israel, crashed in Bulgaria, killing all 58 passengers and crew aboard. After an outraged protest from Israel, which accused Bulgaria of "shocking recklessness," the government issued a formal apology. It said the fighter pilots had been "too hasty," and agreed to pay compensation to the victims' families.

El Al Flight 402, a Lockheed L-049 Constellation pressurized four-engine propliner, registered 4X-AKC, was an international passenger flight from Vienna, Austria to Tel Aviv, Israel via Istanbul, Turkey, on July 27, 1955, which strayed into Bulgarian airspace and was shot down by two Bulgarian MiG-15 jet fighters and crashed near Petrich, Bulgaria. All 7 crew and 51 passengers on board the airliner were killed.

The Constellation originated its scheduled weekly flight from London, England, and departed Vienna's Wien-Schwechat International Airport (VIE) at 02:53, bound to Tel Aviv's Lod Airport (since renamed to Ben Gurion International Airport) via Istanbul. Using NDB navigation, with thunderstorm activity in the area, the crew believed they were over the Skopje radio beacon, and turned to an outbound course of 142 degrees. Flying at FL180 (an altitude of approximately 18,000 feet above mean sea level), the aircraft inadvertently strayed off the Amber 10 airway into Bulgarian territory, where it was intercepted and strafed by two Bulgarian MiG-15 "Fagot" jet fighters. The airliner descended, breaking apart at 2,000 feet, and crashing in flames north of the town of Petrich, Bulgaria, near the Yugoslav and Greek borders, killing the 7 crew and 51 passengers on board.

The accident was investigated and the following probable cause statement was issued:

"The aircraft sustained a hit or hits which caused loss of pressurization and a fire in the heater compartment. The aircraft broke up in mid-air due to explosion caused by bullets hitting the right wing and probably the left wing together with a projectile or projectiles of large calibre in the rear end of the fuselage."

As a followup/safety action, it was recommended that more VOR stations be used on airway Amber 10, instead of just one at the time of the accident.

Although the Bulgarian government at first refused to accept responsibility, blaming the Israeli airliner for penetrating its airspace without authorization, it eventually issued a formal apology, stating that the fighter pilots had been "too hasty" in shooting down the airliner, and agreed to pay compensation to the victims' families.

The Constellation had taken off from Vienna at 02:53 for a flight to Tel Aviv. After the aircraft crossed the Yugoslav/Bulgarian border at FL180 it was attacked by 2 Bulgarian fighter aircraft. The plane descended until it broke up at 2000 feet, crashing in flames.
The Constellation had strayed off course because of an incorrect radio compass indication due to the effects of thunderstorm activity in the area. Believing to be over the Skopje beacon, the crew changed the heading to 142 degrees. At 40 miles east off airways Amber 10, the aircraft entered Bulgarian airspace and was intercepted by the Bulgarian fighters.