An expert calls W5 findings evidence of “a serious safety risk.” For more on how civilian flight shootdowns continue to happen, watch “Flight 752” Saturday, at 7 p.m. EDT on CTV’s W5.

Behind the story - How we got that number

TORONTO - While investigating the tragedy of flight PS752 in which a civilian passenger plane was shot down by the Iranian military in January 2020, W5 found numerous reports of shootdowns of civilian planes by militaries and combatants around the world. We went looking for statistics on how many lives have been lost in this unimaginable manner.

W5 turned to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the Montreal-based UN agency that provides a diplomatic forum for 193 countries in matters of civil aviation.

Citing a 2018 document, ICAO told us that there were “three documented occurrences where the destruction of civilian aircraft has been attributed to surface-to-air missile (SAM) attacks,” other than those downed by MANPADS, the acronym for “man-portable air-defense systems”

“Two of the known events occurred during periods of military conflict or high tension; the third appears to have occurred during a military training exercise,” ICAO said referring to Iran Air flight 655 (1988), Siberia Airlines flight 1812 (2001), Malaysia Airlines flight 17 (2014).

That was, of course, before tragedy struck flight PS752.

ICAO told us that “surface-to-air missiles attacks on civilian aircraft are extremely rare” and that “no documented cases of an intentional SAM attack on a civilian aircraft have been identified to date.”

W5 also asked the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry’s largest trade association (also headquartered in Montreal), but found they don’t even count shootdowns like PS752, the Ukrainian flight shot down in Iran and MH17, the civilian Malaysian plane that was shot down in Ukraine in 2014.

“PS752 is not included in IATA’s list of aviation accidents nor in our safety statistics,” IATA told W5 in an email, “because we do not classify it as an ‘accident’ given that it was a deliberate act. Likewise, we did not classify the destruction of MH17 by a ground-to-air missile as an accident, as this was also a deliberate act.”

So, while ICAO does not consider MH17 to be “intentional,” IATA maintains that it was a “deliberate act”.

This disconnect prompted W5 to look beyond ICAO and IATA, and we found the Aviation Safety Network (ASN), a free service from the Virginia-based NGO Flight Safety Foundation. ASN has a database of 23,400 accidents and hijackings involving airliners, corporate jets and military transport aircraft going back to 1919. It includes 729 flights that have been shot down from the ground and from the air since 1936. We wanted to find out how many of those were civilian flights.

We created this database and manually separated the civilian shootdowns from the military ones (the latter group representing the majority). Incidents like the 1974 “Buffalo Nine” tragedy, when nine Canadian peacekeepers on a UN humanitarian mission were blown out of the sky by Syrian armed forces, were excluded from our final tally because the flight was, technically speaking, military in nature. (Today, Canadians honour the memory of the Buffalo Nine and all fallen peacekeepers every August 9, the date of the shootdown, designated as National Peacekeepers Day in 2008).

We counted every shootdown, including those by SAMs, MANPADs, cannons, gunfire, as well as missiles and bullets fired from other airplanes, because all of these tragedies resulted from someone pointing and firing a weapon at a civilian flight (including passenger, cargo, ambulance, survey, ferry and official state flights) and people dying as a result.

Thus, our count includes the Ethiopian army’s shootdown of an African Express Airways humanitarian cargo flight that killed five people less than five months after flight PS752. The list also includes the 1994 shootdown of a Rwandan government flight that took the lives of 12 people, including those of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. That shootdown triggered the murder of hundreds of thousands in the Rwandan genocide.

Finally, we checked ASN’s shootdowns against another online database: the Bureau of Aircraft Accident Archives in Geneva, and found all but two of our shootdowns in both databases. In the end, we identified 50 shootdowns of civilian flights that have taken the lives of 2,127 people since the end of the Second World War.

W5 asked ICAO, the UN specialized agency for civil aviation, about the number of fatalities our research found. ICAO provided the following statement:

“The responsibility for the millions of civilian fatalities which occurred due to military conflict in this period rests directly with those who continue to provoke and engage in violent acts as a means of resolving their disputes.

The purpose and objectives of civil aviation in contrast are to foster international peace and cultural exchange, and our community is no more responsible for the accidental and tragic deaths of air travelers due to errant conflicts than police officers are responsible for the crimes they investigate.

Aviation is the safest form of transport for many reasons, and those involved with it continue to take strong stands on conflict zones and pursue all actions available to try and mitigate the risks to civilian passengers from military threats. This perhaps explains in part why the figure you quoted, while appearing inflated at first glance, still represents well under a tenth of one percent of all innocent civilians killed by military actions during the timeframe indicated.

So long as conflict and war remain realities of the human condition, and the planning and violent objectives of military actors remains inherently secretive in nature, related risks to innocent civilians will continue to persist, whether on land, in the air, or at sea. The air transport sector will continue to work to make those risks as low as possible for air travelers, but only world peace will ultimately eliminate them.”

The NGO-run Aviation Safety Network (ASN) was more definitive in its assessment of our numbers.

“It is a surprisingly high amount of shootdowns,” Harro Ranter, ASN’s CEO, wrote back after W5 shared these findings with him, “similar to the number of Boeing 747s lost in accidents.”

“It shows that this is a serious air safety risk that still needs our full attention, especially given the recent shootdowns.”