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The wreckage of Itavia flight IH870 on display in the Museum for the Memory of Ustica in Bologna, Italy. (Photo: I, Ghedolo / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/))

The ‘Ustica Massacre:’ The 40-Year-Old Aviation Mystery

Almost exactly 40 years ago, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, civil aviation experienced what would become one of the most mysterious accidents of its history.

On June 27, 1980, Itavia flight IH 870, operated by the private Italian carrier, departing from Guglielmo Marconi Airport in Bologna, Italy, bound for Punta Raisi Airport in Palermo, Sicily, broke up in mid-air at approximately 25,000 feet as it was about to start its descent towards its destination. The aircraft, I-TIGI, a Douglas DC-9 carrying 77 passengers and four members of the crew, eventually crashed into the sea and sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean just off the coast of the tiny island of Ustica. There were no survivors.

The flight had departed Bologna almost two hours late due to bad weather in the area, and it eventually disappeared from the radar of the Rome Air Traffic Control at 8:56 p.m. local time, as the sun was setting on a clear Friday evening in Southern Italy.

On the following morning, the rescue operation recovered 38 bodies from the sea and some floating debris scattered around an area of over 200 square kilometers, confirming that the breakup had occurred before the impact with the water surface.

The initial hypothesis of a structural failure of the 14-year old aircraft — which had been previously owned by Hawaiian Airlines and therefore was suspected to be prone to sea salt-driven corrosion — immediately gave way to the idea that an explosion of some kind had caused the mid-air breakup.

An Endless Investigation

Throughout the years, the “Ustica Massacre,” as it was quickly labeled by the Italian press, offered more twists and turns than the most dramatic of thriller stories, with an abundance of attempts of misdirection, suspicious deaths of important witnesses and public statements recanted at the last minute.

Italian public opinion immediately focused on the hypothesis of a missile fired by a fighter jet, either American or French, as multiple whistler-blowers started tipping reporters about what might have happened that evening. That theory got more traction when, 18 days later, the wreckage of a Libyan MiG-23 was found on the mountains of Calabria, a region approximately 200 miles east of Palermo, with its dead pilot still in the cockpit.

A private jet carrying then Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was allegedly flying in the same area that night, and some of the theories that emerged suggested that the French Air Force scrambled fighter jets from nearby Corsica to shoot down the aircraft, and Itavia IH 870 was just collateral damage.

The first investigation commission closed their two-year inquiry by confirming the aircraft had been brought down by some kind of explosion, but investigators could not identify the nature of the explosion nor the perpetrators. Since then, in-depth reportages, TV programs all over the world, books and even a couple of movies have tried to tell their version of the truth that could provide some closure to the families of the 81 victims onboard the aircraft.

Two more investigation commissions were brought together by the Italian government, including one created in 1990 with independent foreign experts and led by the world-famous British air crash investigator Frank Taylor. That commission spear-headed another recovery effort to rescue more debris from the 3,500-meter deep Mediterranean Sea, including the flight data recorder, which Italian investigators had inexplicably left to rot for over ten years at the bottom of the sea.

Their approach, which was largely regarded as more founded in accepted science than their earlier counterparts’ investigation, came to the conclusion that the most likely scenario was that a bomb located in the rear port side toilet brought down the aircraft, but the Italian justice system simply ignored their report.

To this day, there is no clarity as to what happened that night in the skies above Ustica. In 2013, the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation confirmed the verdict of a civil court, forcing the Italian government to compensate the relatives of the victims with 100 million euros ($112 million), for “failing to properly protect their citizens from external dangers,” stating that “there is an abundance of evidence that a missile brought down the aircraft.”

But no criminal court has ever confirmed the thesis of the hostile missile. Every now and again, more details emerge to complicate the puzzle even further, as happened a few years ago when a new analysis of the Cockpit Voice Recorded revealed a few extra words from the first officer before the aircraft lost power. The audio track initially released had the last word truncated at, “Gua…”, which presumably are the first letters in Italian for, “Look!” Now a further elaboration of the tape suggests the last words were, “Guarda che cosa…,” which stands for “Look! What is…”

But like any avid reader of mystery stories knows very well, one of the most effective ways to keep a secret when someone has already let the cat out of the bag is to “flood the market” with a number of other unsubstantiated stories so that the true secret is drowned by the fake ones. Indeed, some have accused the Italian government of just that.

And as the hope for the victims’ relatives to get some kind of closure fades away, they can mourn their lost loved ones at the Museum of Memory, a mausoleum in Bologna where the reconstructed wreckage of the DC-9 lies in a hangar, dimly lit by 81 flickering lights and surrounded by 81 black mirrors hiding speakers whispering the thoughts those 81 people were probably thinking during their last moments in this world.

Vanni Gibertini
Vanni Gibertini
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