TEL AVIV (Apr. 17)
Strict adherence to orders by Israel Air Force pilots avoided what could have been a tragic confrontation with the Soviet Union when a Russian tri-motor Tupolev jet airliner violated Israeli air space over Sinai early last night.
The pilot of the Soviet civilian aircraft ignored signals from Israeli jet interceptors and refused to make radio contact with the Israeli planes. But the Israeli pilots, under strict orders to exercise restraint, fired no shots and permitted the Russian plane to return to Egyptian territory where it landed at Cairo airport.
It was learned later that a passenger aboard the Aeroflot jet was the Soviet Ambassador to Egypt, Vladimir Poliakoff. An Egyptian news agency report said he was on his way to Moscow for consultations. According to the Egyptians, the Moscow-bound airliner lost radio contact with the Cairo control tower shortly after take-off and its pilot inadvertently flew eastward over Sinai to avoid a storm. That account coincided in general with the account of the Israeli jet pilots who soared into the skies minutes after the unidentified aircraft was spotted on radar screens.
RUSSIANS REFUSED TO COMPLY
The Russian plane entered Israeli air space at about 8 p.m. local time. According to the Israeli pilots, it was flying at an altitude usually reserved for civilian aircraft, came from the direction of the Great Bitter Lake, and reached a position about 15 kilometers northwest of Refidim the site of an Israeli airfield. The Israeli interceptors canted their wings, an international signal to land, but the Russian pilot made no attempt to comply and did not respond to wireless calls on the international band, to identify himself. Instead, the Russian plane changed course to the west and then north in the direction of Port Said and Cairo.
The Israeli pilots said the intruder’s lights were visible but at one point it appeared that the Russian pilot extinguished his lights. It turned out, however, that the Tupolev had entered a cloud bank. Altogether, the Russian plane was in Israeli air space for ten minutes.
Israeli pilots are under orders not to fire on unidentified aircraft unless their actions are clearly hostile. The orders are intended to avoid a repetition of the Feb. 21, 1973 tragedy when a Libyan civilian airliner strayed into Israeli air space over Sinai and was shot down by Israeli jets after the pilot ignored repeated visual and radio signals to identify himself and land.