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Iranian Airliner Caught Between Military, Civilian Claims to Skies With Airliner-US Policy Bjt

July 9, 1988

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) _ The Iranian airliner shot down a week ago was a victim of confusion that arises in modern regional wars about the right of passage in battle zones.

The problem led many airlines to shift routes away from the busy Persian Gulf air corridors years ago. Some that still fly over the gulf have altered their flight paths since a U.S. warship shot the Iran Air Airbus down last Sunday, killing all 290 people aboard.

Iran Air must continue flying over the gulf, but its planes are taking routes that avoid the Strait of Hormuz, where missiles fired by the cruiser USS Vincennes destroyed Flight 655.

It left the military-civilian airport at Bandar Abbas on the short flight to Dubai as the Vincennes and USS Elmer Montgomery sank two Iranian attack boats and damaged another in a skirmish in the narrow strait. U.S. officials said the Vincennes mistook the Airbus A300 for an Iranian F-14 fighter.

″The particular problem is the commingling of civil traffic and a war zone; when you put these two factors together, you’re creating a time bomb from the safety standpoint,″ said Hal Ewing, a cargo pilot who flies the gulf.

How civilian aircraft can avoid military confrontations was the main topic at a weekend meeting of technical experts from six major airlines operating passenger flights in the gulf region. It was held at the International Air Transport Association headquarters in Geneva.

In their efforts to protect the sea lanes, naval vessels sometimes disrupt those in the air.

Charter pilots and journalists who monitor gulf radio traffic say U.S. Navy vessels often urge aircraft to leave assigned flight paths to avoid the warships, and declare no-go areas of up to several miles for light aircraft.

Last week, the Washington Post quoted a Dubai air controller as saying one such order would have put two aircraft on a collision course but that the jetliner told to alter its path ignored the order.

Ewing said the Navy has no legal right to order pilots off courses assigned by air controllers. But he said if a military vessel warned him to change course, ″I’m going to do what the warship tells me to do. I have great respect for the air traffic controllers, but the air traffic controllers don’t control any missiles. The warships do.″

He added, however: ″For the most part, its is possible to go out in the gulf and fly down the airways and not see any (war)ships.″

The cargo pilot noted that the Vincennes fired when the Iranian airliner was only minutes away. Pentagon officials said the ship detected military radar responses from the Airbus, but Iran denies it carried a military transponder.

″They have a difficult mission,″ Ewing said of warships trying to protect themselves and commercial shipping, but ″it’s largely incompatible with the needs of civil aviation transportion in the region.″

The Khaleej Times in Abu Dhabi said in an editorial Friday that air traffic authorities ″should meet on an emergency basis and work out a system that lessens the strain on pilots and the possibility of error.″

On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Daniel Howard blamed Iran for the tragedy. He said the Iranian boats ″began the shooting.″

It is not clear whether Iranian air officials were aware of the battle in the strait below the airliner’s flight path. Diplomats and military observers say the speedboats sometimes appear to operate under local command.

The gulf, a transit point for flights from Europe and America to Asia and Africa, is one of the world’s busiest air traffic regions. More than 4 million passengers used Dubai International Airport last year.

Flight 655 was following a route most international carriers abandoned years ago because of the Iran-Iraq war, which began in September 1980.

Mansour Ahmadyan, deputy senior air traffic controller at Dubai, said only Iran Air still uses the route.

Most other airlines now avoid the war zone by flying up the gulf around Iran or bypassing the tense Strait of Hormuz and approaching Dubai across the horn of land occupied by Oman, he said.

Iran Air did not announce a route change for flights from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, but British journalist Robert Fisk was on the first one after the Sunday flight. He said it took a circuitous route and approached Dubai from the west.