El Al Flight Is Shot Down The El Al Lockheed Constellation aircraft involved in the incident. Photo: Gradidge Collection of Cambridge

July 27, 1955

Bulgarian fighter jets shoot down El Al Flight 402 en route from London’s Heathrow Airport to Israel.

The weekly flight is scheduled for two stops before reaching Lod Airport: Vienna, Austria, and Istanbul, Turkey. Between Vienna and Istanbul, the Lockheed Constellation aircraft veers off course into Bulgarian airspace. One theory is that a thunderstorm affects the navigation equipment or leads the pilot to change course to minimize turbulence. The plane flies over Bulgaria for 120 miles. Two Bulgarian MiG-15s trail Flight 402 for most of that distance, and their pilots claim to issue several warnings before shooting down the Israeli plane just before it reaches the Greek border. Gen. Velitchko Georgiev, second in command of Bulgaria’s air defenses, gives the order: “If the plane is leaving our territory, disobeying orders, and there is no time left for more warnings, then shoot it down.”

The crash, near the town of Petrich, kills all 51 passengers and seven crew members.

The next day Bulgaria acknowledges shooting down the commercial aircraft and expresses regret. Bulgaria launches an inquiry but refuses to include Israelis on the investigative team. The Communist government later apologizes and, despite threats of demotion and prison, clears the fighter pilots for following orders.

Israel seeks $2.5 million in compensation in a claim that in 1959 reaches the International Court of Justice, which decides it lacks jurisdiction. Bulgaria settles claims with the families of the 36 non-Israelis on the flight. Not until 1963 does Israel agree to accept $195,000 in compensation from Bulgaria for the 22 Israelis, representing the $8,236 maximum called for under the Warsaw Convention, plus a bit extra to cover freight losses.