Picture of Typical El Al Airplane In 1955 (Credit: El Al Israel Airlines)

On July 27, 1955, an El Al plane carrying over 51 passengers and seven crew members was shot down by two fighter jets belonging to the Bulgarian air force; shortly after it went off course and made it into western Bulgaria. All on board were killed.

LY-402, the Israeli weekly flight from London to Tel Aviv, left Heathrow Airport on Tuesday, July 26, 1955, heading towards today’s Ben-Gurion International Airport via Vienna and Istanbul. After a layover at the Austrian capital, the four-engine propeller plane took off for Istanbul shortly before 3 A.M. on July 27.

Soon after takeoff, the flight encountered a thunderstorm, which was known to cause distortions in the rusty NDR navigation system. In the case of LY-402, the pilot changed course after concluding incorrectly that he had passed over the Skopje (Macedonia) navigation beacon. This change of direction resulted in the aircraft crossing from Yugoslavia into Bulgaria.

Detecting the violation of its airspace, the Bulgarian air force alerted two MiG-15 jets from the Dobroslavtsi airfield to intercept the intruder, with the following sequence of events a subject of debate – at least in early probes. What’s clear as day is that 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 remains falling to earth near Petrich, Bulgaria.

Bulgaria swiftly acknowledged that it had shot down the plane, and Israel did not argue that its plane had crossed into Bulgaria without authorization. However, the initial Bulgarian version of events had the two air force pilots claiming that they had gone through standard procedures for such situations, including firing warning shots. The pilots also testified that the Israeli plane had initially moved its wing flaps, indicating its intention to follow the Bulgarian orders, before breaking away and heading south for the border, making it seem like a breakaway.

According to a history of Bulgarian aviation by Zahari Zahariev, the deputy commander of Bulgarian air defense, Gen. Velitchko Georgiev, told the pilots, 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 and apologized for the disaster; they 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. Before Bulgarian compensation, Israel had applied to the World Court to decide on the question of compensation. The court ruled that it had no jurisdiction over the case for technical reasons.

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