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El Al Flight LY 402 shot down by Bulgarian MIG-15 Fighter Jets on 27 July 1955

El Al Lockheed Constellation similar to Flight LY 402

The tragic news of the shooting down of the El Al Lockheed Constellation with the loss of all 58 lives on board hit the headlines on 27 July 1955. Fifty One Passengers and the crew of seven were killed when the aircraft went down after being attacked by Bulgarian 2 MiG 15 fighter jets, while on a scheduled flight from London to Israel via Vienna and Istanbul.

Behind the stark headlines and statistics are the stories of lives saved by last minute cancellations for a plethora of reasons, juxtaposed with stories of those who were given last minute bookings and lost their lives. The other story behind the headlines was the denial, accusations and attempts to hide the truth and avoid responsibility by the Bulgarian government, rather choosing to blame Israel, El Al Airlines, the El Al pilot and finally the MiG - 15 pilots who fired the fatal projectiles..

Israel and the Soviet Union

The root of the tragic sequence of events that led to the downing of Flight LY 402 was to be found in the political machinations of the Soviet Communist Politburo following the death of long time dictator, Joseph Stalin.

Israel had been the darling of Stalin’s Soviet Union, supported during the 1947 pre-state United Nations vote and assisted militarily with the supply of armaments during the War of Independence. The Soviet Union officially recognised the new State of Israel on 17 May 1948, just three days after independence, followed by an exchange of ambassadors. Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 was followed by the ascension to power of Nikita Khrushchev later that year. Khrushchev had a long history of anti-semitism and had often expressed the view that Jews were an economic burden and as a people were prone to “treasonous conduct”, implying disloyalty to the Soviet State. His first act on the international scene after consolidating his hold on power, was to bring an end to the supply of armaments to the Jewish State, followed by the breaking off of all diplomatic ties with Israel. The new favourites were Israel’s sworn enemies, Egypt and Syria, who were subsequently funded, supplied and armed to the hilt, together with assistance provided by military advisors and tactical instructors.

Bulgaria had undergone a Communist inspired left wing coup d'etat in September 1944, ending the Bulgarian monarchy, with a left wing dictatorship taking over the government. Bulgaria placed itself squarely within the Soviet sphere of influence and followed Stalinist social, economic, agricultural and military policies. Western aligned Israel became an enemy state after Khrushchev took over. Bulgaria was the beneficiary of Soviet training and armaments including MiG 15 fighter jets, becoming a party to the strained relations which existed between the Soviet and Western blocs during the Cold War

El Al Flight LY 402

El Al Flight LY 402 was a scheduled flight that departed from London on route to Tel Aviv via Vienna and Istanbul on 27 July 1955. The 63 seater Lockheed Constellation had taken off from Vienna airport at 02:53, carrying 51 passengers and 7 crew on its way to Istanbul, when the pilot strayed slightly off course and accidentally overflew Bulgarian airspace. The errant passenger aircraft was detected by a Bulgarian observation post, which resulted in the immediate scrambling of 2 MiG 15 fighter jets on orders from General Velitchko Georgiev, Deputy Commander of the Bulgarian Air Force. From this point onwards there were a number of conflicting reports from different sources as to the sequence of events, which ended in the downing of the passenger aircraft and the death of all passengers and crew.

Memorial to the passengers and crew of LY402 in Kiryat Shaul Cemetery, Tel Aviv

The only fact to emerge from the investigation was that LY 402 veered from its allotted course over Yugoslavia and overflew Bulgarian territory, the rest remains mired in controversy. The pilots of the Bulgarian MiGs claimed to have fired warning bursts across the front of the Lockheed and asserted that the pilot changed course in an attempt to escape, which they reported to Air Force Headquarters. General Georgiev is alleged to have issued the following order to the two pilots “If the plane is leaving our territory, disobeying orders, and there is no time left for more warnings, then shoot it down”. The pilots obeyed orders and the aircraft was hit in the wings by bursts of gunfire from both MiGs, causing it to lose height breaking apart at a height of about 600 metres, finally crashing to the ground and bursting into flames.

The official investigation issued the following report The aircraft sustained a hit or hits which caused loss of pressurization and a fire in the heater compartment. The aircraft broke up in mid-air due to explosion caused by bullets hitting the right wing and probably the left wing together with a projectile or projectiles of large calibre in the rear end of the fuselage”.

The Bulgarian government immediately denied culpability for the incident, in much the same way that the Iranian government denied responsibility after the recent shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner by its armed forces. The Bulgarian authorities eventually admitted liability for the incident, blaming the fighter pilots for being over hasty, while at the same time issuing a formal apology to Israel and agreeing that it would pay compensation to the bereaved families. The two Bulgarian Air Force pilots, threatened with demotion and a possible prison sentence, were the subject of an official enquiry. The enquiry found that the two had carried out the orders of their superior officer and bore no personal liability.

The pathos of lives lost and personal possessions turned into debris

Debris from Flight LY402 gathered at the crash site

I picked up the following small item from a Ynet news report of a year ago, which tells the sad story of personal possessions lost in the disaster.

A Bulgarian man who has held on to a watch recovered from an El Al flight that was shot down in Bulgaria 64 years ago is looking to return it to relatives of its former owner, the Ynet news site reports.

LY 402 was shot down on 7 Av, during a significant period in the Jewish world

The date of the air disaster was the 7th day of Av on the Hebrew calendar. The first nine days of the month of Av have great significance in the Jewish religion, being days of intense mourning for the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, which were destroyed on the 9th day of Av. There are a number of other significant events, which took place in the month of Av in the past, having an enormous impact on the Jewish world.

  • Expulsion of all Jews from England on 18 July, 1290, 9 Av in the Hebrew year 5050

  • Expulsion of all Jews from France on 22 July, 1306, 10 Av, 5066

  • Expulsion of all Jews from Spain on 31 July, 1492, 7 Av 5252

  • Germany’s Nazi Party approved the programme known as the “Final Solution for the Jewish Problem” on 2 August, 1941, 9 Av, 5701

  • The mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto for transport to the Treblinka Death Camp began on 26 July, 1942, 9 Av, 5702

Some Personal Stories

The co-pilot of LY 402, Pinchas (Pini) Ben Porat, was an experienced pilot who had been a member of the Palmach air service before Israel's independence and then a member of the famed Israeli Air Force Squadron 101 , commanded by South African Syd Cohen, during the War of Independence. Ben Porat had the novel idea of removing the door of his Auster aircraft and installing a Bren machine gun in the open space. The idea was to strap the gunner into a seat positioned behind the gun, in the open doorway, allowing him to fire the Bren as they overflew selected targets. A Palmach member by the name of Eli Avivi was the first gunner to volunteer for this hazardous occupation, which turned out to be a great success.". Before retiring from the Israeli Air Force to join El Al, Pinchas Ben Porat was the first pilot to serve as an instructor at the Israeli Air Force Flight Academy.

LY 402 co pilot, Pinchas Ben Porat

There are several anecdotes about passengers who were booked on the ill fated flight and cancelled their bookings for various reasons, saving their lives in the process. Equally so there are anecdotes of those who were given last minute bookings, filling the seats of those who had cancelled their bookings.

While there were South Africans on board the aircraft, the only one I have been able to identify is Mike Cohen from Parow, who perished when the aircraft went down. I asked Telfed CEO Dorron Kline for any information he might have, and was advised to contact Paul Bernstein, who had family members with a connection to flight LY 402.

After receiving my request for information, Bulawayo born Hod Hasharon resident Paul Bernstein sent this snippet “fortunately 3 members of my Bernstein/Sher family (My late Mother Sylvia’s brother Pinky Sher & his wife Barbara – on honeymoon – plus my great-grandmother Basa Sher – who had just got permission to leave Lithuania and was awaiting catching this particular El-Al Flight from Vienna)”

On reading Paul’s message I realised that I had a personal connection with the story, which I had been only vaguely aware of. My sister’s late father-in-law, Chona Sher of Bulawayo, had made all the necessary financial arrangements for his mother, the same Basa Sher of Paul’s anecdote, to leave Lithuania, visit family in Israel and then to join the Sher clan in Bulawayo. He was aware that she was booked on the ill fated flight, but not informed that she had cancelled her booking. She later said that she had done so because her mother had come to her in dream and told her not to go on the flight. When news of the disaster reached Chona in Bulawayo, he was distraught to think that the arrangements he had made for his mother to leave Lithuania had ended in her death. There was great delight in the family when the news arrived that she had canceled her booking, had taken a later flight and had arrived in Israel safely.

Paul Bernstein’s uncle, Philip (Pinky) Sher, cancelled his booking on LY402 for a different reason, as you can read in an excerpt of a letter, which he sent to his grandson Jeremy many years later.

Letter from Pinky Sher to his grandson Jeremy

Coronavirus has affected many of us in different ways, for me there have two positive aspects as a result of the virus. The first was the decision to start this blog with posts about Israel and its people, while the second was to make it possible for me to join my Johannesburg Shiur (religious learning) group on Zoom. The group meets every Tuesday evening with our esteemed “teacher”, Rabbi Boruch Rapoport, a retired Dayan of the Johannesburg Beth Din, and I was overjoyed to be invited to join in on Zoom. The shiur group met on Tuesday 28 July, coinciding with 7 Av, 5780, the Hebrew anniversary of the shooting down of LY402.

Rabbi Rapoport mentioned the tragedy, telling us about a colleague of his late father who was allocated a last minute seat on the aircraft, only to meet his death when the plane was shot down. He also related an anecdote about a young lady who had lived opposite his parents' home, who had cancelled her booking on the flight, after being advised by a family member that she should not travel during the first 9 days of the month of Av, saving her life in the process. This reminded me about the disaster and prompted me to do some research and write this article.

There must be many other such anecdotes, which I hope will come to light as people who might have some knowledge of the disaster read this article.

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