Did someone fire missiles at a Russian jetliner flying over Syria?

Russian flights are being advised to avoid flying over combat zones after a passenger plane reportedly came under missile fire over Syria. But aviation experts are puzzled by the incident.

Jason Lee/Reuters/File
An A320 plane under construction at the final assembly line of Airbus factory in China last year. The crew of a Russian A320 said that they came under missile fire while flying over Syria, prompting Russian authorities to advise all Russian aircraft to avoid combat zones.

A Russian airliner with 160 passengers on board reportedly had to take evasive action after being fired upon by two anti-aircraft missiles over Syria Monday, prompting Russian aviation authorities to advise all Russian planes to avoid airspace over combat zones.

Some aviation experts say they are puzzled by the report that a Russian Airbus 320 jetliner, flying at 9,800 meters (about 6 miles) altitude, was attacked and managed to maneuver to avoid the two missiles, both of which exploded within a few hundred meters of the plane.

"We're hearing about this civil plane being attacked in Syrian airspace, but there's not enough information to figure out what happened," says Oleg Panteleyev, chief analyst with Aviaport.ru, an online aviation news agency.

"A modern civil airliner has minimal capacity for maneuver, it's simply not built to evade ground fire. The main issue, which needs to be sorted out right now, is whether there are some groupings in Syria who are armed with these weapons and want to shoot down passenger planes. Meanwhile, it's absolutely correct to recommend that planes divert around Syria. It just costs a few minutes, and it's no big problem," he adds.

Rosaviatsia, the Russian version of the US Federal Aviation Administration, said it was investigating claims by the crew of the NordWind Airlines charter, which was on a night flight from the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh to the Russian Volga city of Kazan. The crew said they "spotted signs of combat activities which, they believed, could pose a threat to the safety of the plane."

According to Russian press reports, the plane's pilot noticed "flashes on the ground" and reacted by gaining altitude.  Two missiles subsequently exploded just a few hundred meters beneath the plane, and the pilot quickly changed course to avoid being hit by fragments.

The usually reliable Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified official Russian source as saying that "the Syrian side" confirms that "unidentified people" had fired two surface-to-air missiles at the plane, though it was unclear whether they knew it was a Russian aircraft.

Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement that it will "take the necessary emergency measures to clear up the details of the story and work in cooperation with the Syrian authorities."

But some aviation experts say they are skeptical that anything of the kind could have happened, and suspect the event may have been "staged," perhaps for political reasons.

"This is a fairy tale. Nothing like that could have happened, it's just been staged," says Magomed Tolboyev, one of Russia's most famous test pilots. "It's too silly to discuss."

But others say it could have happened and, if so, it's a very serious warning for civilian aircraft to avoid flying over Syria.

"A passenger plane has no means of preventing a missile attack, but it does have a system that warns of approaching objects and automatically makes the plane go up or down in response," says Valery Entanaltsev, executive director of the Fund for Developing Aviation Infrastructure, an industry-supported public organization.

"It's not clear who was behind this shooting, but it needs to be thoroughly investigated. Maybe it was a provocation. It's a very worrisome development," he says.

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