“Captain Koal MiG-23 was unarmed and carried no extra fuel tanks. He has got a new breathing mask that day. Our subsequent investigation has shown that this mask was too big. When he climbed to an altitude above 5,000 metres, he forgot to activate 100% oxygen and went into hypoxia,” Hazem al-Bajign, former Libyan Arab Air Force MiG-23 pilot.
Late in the evening of Jun. 27, 1980 a Douglas DC-9-15 airliner (registration I-TIGI, c/n 45724), Flight Number 870, operated by the Italian company Itavia Airlines was on en route from Guglielmo Marconi Airport in Bologna to Palermo International Airport in Sicily. It mysteriously disappeared while flying over the Tyrrhenian Sea together with 81 crew members and passengers. While sadly such catastrophic accidents with passenger aircraft occur several times every year, the reasons for most of them are found thanks to excellent investigation methods developed over the last 40 years. However, this was not the case with Flight 870.
As explained by Tom Cooper, Albert Grandolini and Arnaud Delalande in their book Libyan Air Wars Part 1: 1973-1985, during the subsequent search and rescue (SAR) operations initiated by the Italian military even before the civilian authorities knew that the DC-9 was missing, and which lasted several days, floating debris and 38 bodies were recovered from an area of several hundred square kilometres. It took a number of years for the evidence to be compiled and be made available for the reconstruction of this tragedy. During that time, the investigation became mired by an unusual series of problems and not a few controversies. Although most of the external fuselage of the Itavia DC-9 was subsequently recovered from the bottom of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and reconstructed, foreign experts concluded that the aircraft was probably destroyed by a bomb planted near the rear toilet. The Italian authorities, and the public in general, prefer to believe one of many conspiracy theories that has since emerged. Several of these are related to the crash of a Libyan Arab Air Force (LAAF) MiG-23MS interceptor on Mount Sila, in Calabria, southern Italy, on Jul. 18, 1980. Inside the cockpit of the crashed aircraft, Italian authorities found the body of its pilot, 1st Lt Ezzedin Koal. Reports about various military radars tracking up to nine different aircraft in the same part of the sky around the time Flight 870 passed through it, resulted in theories that the DC-9 and the MiG were shot down in the course of air combat, supposedly involving up to seven other aircraft of Italian, French, US or even Israeli origin. Whatever might have caused the crash of the Itavia DC-9, former LAAF MiG-23 pilot Hazem al-Bajigni’s recollection about reasons for the crash of Koal’s Flogger in Italy is quite clear:
“After recovering from my injuries suffered during an incident in 1977, I did a short stint at Sebha AB, where I flew SF.260s. By 1979 I was back to Benina AB and the next year I was assigned to fly MiG-23BNs with No. 1070 Squadron from al-Abraq AB, west of Tobruk, which was actually still under construction. The other two MiG-23BN-units of the LAAF — No. 1050 and No. 1060 —were still at Benina. Koal was a Syrian air force pilot, assigned to one of two MiG-23MS-squadrons at Benina, exclusively manned by Syrians. We could not fly with them because they used Arabic language while flying, while we used English. So, we flew in the morning and they in the afternoons and evenings (they had their own way of life too, so we did not mix much with them, though I did some socialising with their squadron leader, mainly out of’ curiosity). Koal was a young pilot on a regular training mission. His aircraft was unarmed and carried no extra fuel tanks. He has got a new breathing mask that day. Our subsequent investigation has shown that this mask was too big. When he climbed to an altitude above 5,000 metres, he forgot to activate 100% oxygen and went into hypoxia. His wingman called him several times, but Koal was not responsive. His head slumped down when he was last seen and all efforts to communicate with him failed. His MiG, set to semi-auto-pilot (activated by a green button on the control stick) was set at ‘straight and level’ mode, so it just went on. Eventually, it crashed in Italy after running out of fuel. The crash report we’ve got from the Italian authorities did not indicate any kind of collision or combat damage of any kind.”
(The Italian authorities confirmed that Koal’s MiG-23 was unarmed ‘without extra fuel tanks’, when it crashed into Mount Sila. The Libyan government later issued an official statement citing that the plane was on a routine training mission in international air space over the Mediterran when the pilot, ‘apparently had a heart attack’. According to the same statement, the aircraft then, ‘maintained speed, direction and altitude u running out of fuel.)
As told by Tom Cooper, Albert Grandolini and Arnaud Delalande in their book Libyan Air Wars Part 2: 1985-1986, an exhaustive entry into the crash of this MiG-23 on Mount Sila posted on the Italian-language version of Wikiwand.com under the title ‘Incidente aereo die Castelsilano’ provided the following details about the aircraft and its pilot:
- The aircraft was a MiG-23MS, serial number 6950, powered by a Tumansky R-27-300 engine, made on Nov. 30, 1976 and delivered to Libya on Aug. 27, 1977. It was not armed with any missiles, carried no drop tanks and had no ammunition for internal cannon.
- The pilot wore a black helmet with inscriptions in Cyrilic and the Arabic alphabet. The latter read ‘EZZ-EIDN-KOAL’ or ‘EZZ-ETTN-KHAL’.
- Libyan authorities identified the pilot as Captain Khalil Ezzeden, born in Benghazi on Mar. 17, 1950. He obtained his military pilot licence in 1972, and by 1980 had flown SOKO G-2 Galebs, SOKO J-21 Jastrebs, MiG-21s and MiG-23s for a total of 927 hours in the course of training in the former Yugoslavia, Libya and Russia. He was certified as qualified for combat and pair leader. However, the Italian Military Intelligence and Security Service (Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare, SISMI), concluded that the pilot in question was Syrian of Palestinian origin, with the full name and rank of Captain Pilot Ezzedin Fadhil Khalil.
- According to Libyans, the aircraft took off from Benina AB near Benghazi at 0945 local time on Jul. 18, 1980, as a lead machine in a pair. Initially, it flew in direction of Marsa al-Burayqah. Thirteen minutes into the flight, it turned in an eastern direction while climbing to an altitude of 9,500m (31,168ft), before turning east and climbing to an altitude of 10,000m (32,808ft). The MiG (then continued climbing to 12,000m (39,370ft), and turned to a course of 330° (when reaching point C), instead of the expected 305°. Immediately afterwards, all contact with the pilot was lost. The wingman followed the flight lead about 60km (37 ¼ miles) north of Benina. Left with only 1,400 litres (3,086.4 lbs) of fuel in his tanks, he then decided to return to base. Khalil’s MiG was last tracked by Libyan radars while flying along the same course about 300km (186 ½ miles) north of Benina AB, still underway at an altitude of 12,000m. Libyan authorities launched a SAR operation in an area between 300 and 400km north of Benghazi, but found nothing
Khalil’s body was returned to Libya with full military honours (at Italian expense; Libyans refused to pay for his transportation from Rome/Ciampino IAP to Tripoli), followed by the wreckage of his aircraft — minus ARK-15 radio compass, which was handed over to US intelligence services upon their explicit request (in turn causing some protests from Libya).
Following an investigation, several Italian judges excluded any possibility of Khalil becoming involved in any kind of air combat, or even in any kind of interception of the Douglas DC-9 of Itavia that crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea on Jun. 27, 1980.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy, Piergiuliano Chesi via Wikipedia and screenshot from YouTube Video