The Lost Flight - Malév 240

Speculation and conjecture have long surrounded the tragic 1975 demise of Hungarian Tupolev Tu-154 HA-LCI 10 km North-West of Beirut. Were the flights a cover for arms shipments to a region which was a war zone serviced by virtually no other airlines - and was the aircraft deliberately shot down as a result?

Budapest, 29th September, 1975, 23.10: Following multiple departure time modifications, the go ahead is finally given and MALÉV flight 240 finally takes off from Budapest’s Ferihegy airport (LHBP). Throughout the day it had seemed that the flight would be cancelled, as conditions are so bad in Beirut that the airport could not even be contacted. A war zone where ground services can’t be guaranteed and are virtually non-existent, most airlines have long-since suspended their flights. This flight is equipped with a full tank of fuel and will have to stop somewhere on the return journey to refuel. Weather conditions are absolutely perfect and the aircraft itself is only one year old, HA-LCI (construction number 74A-053, previous registration CCCP-85053) having arrived from Aeroflot on June 1st.

September 30th, 02.33: HA-LCI leaves Cyprus’ airspace and contacts Lebanon air traffic control. There are still approximately twenty minutes until arrival and the aircraft is given permission to descend to 6,000 feet, then permission to land.

What happened thereafter, however, is unclear. According to a TV2 documentary, the aircraft was turned back by "someone" and asked to maintain a holding pattern. It then disappeared forever from radar screens. It was soon apparent that the aircraft had crashed into the sea.

A detailed official statement regarding the crash has never been made. It appears likely that the full investigation promised subsequently was merely for protocol purposes. Only three weeks after the crash, a brief statement consisting of little more than a couple of sentences appeared almost unnoticeably near the back of the Hungarian dailies, which read, "The discovery, salvage, and analysis of the black box flight recorder, which may assist in establishing the cause of the catastrophe, is unlikely." László Németh, now head of the English Basketball Association and team coach, the young husband of a stewardess on board the fateful flight recalled for TV2 how the police warned him "No questions now or in the future, keep your mouth shut."

Even a simultaneous international investigation dealt largely with the insurance issues involved. Its report, which can still only be read in part, also attributed the tragic incident to "an explosion of unknown origin." That such a verdict was reached appears to have been in the interests of all parties including the Hungarian Airline itself. If the incident had been linked to the fighting taking place in the region, insurance compensation for the loss of the aircraft would not have been forthcoming.

Intense speculation has surrounded why the airline continued to maintain its scheduled twice-weekly passenger services at a time when virtually all other airlines were no longer operating into Beirut due to the ever-changing and unpredictable months-old civil war. This was a war which was to claim 300,000 lives - among them the fifty passengers and ten crewmembers of flight 240.

Just the day before the crash, the PLO had opened its representative office in Budapest. It is unlikely, however, that the existence of such an office, engaged mainly in demonstration purposes, and the generated traffic, hardly justified the maintenance of the flights. Equally unbelievable is the bid to increase market share by carrying the passengers of rival airlines which pulled out of Beirut. It is true that hard currency revenue was by then obviously favored, but the fact remains that passenger utilization was never that high on the Beirut flights. Even on that fateful night, the aircraft was operating more than two thirds empty.

If passenger numbers remained low, the logical assumption must be that cargo traffic compensated for them, and it is known that the flights were among the most profitable Malév then operated. Inevitably, questions were asked about the nature of the onsignments carried - specifically what the crates mysteriously referred to as "sugar cubes" actually were. These, it is alleged, were frequently loaded even into parts of the passenger cabin.

It appears that most of these cases derived from technical firm Videoton as well as weapons and appliances manufacturer FÉG. The paperwork was usually completed by the Technical Foreign Trade Company - known for its undertaking of arms deals. It is more than possible therefore that the Beirut bound freight was composed of various equipment and materials which could have had a military rather use, rather than a civilian one. András Fülöp, Malév’s chief pilot in 1975, admitted not only that he had carried freight consisting of military supplies many times, but also that Malév did indeed frequently undertake the carriage of such shipments. Pál Galeta stated categorically that he saw cases loaded from three or four covered military vehicles onto HA-LCI.

It is also true that until a year after the loss of flight 240, Malév had a military role. It was officially classified as the “M squadron” which meant that in the event of war, Malév’s civilian aircraft would be used as military and logistical transports. All key Malév personnel were officially army reservists and in September 1975, days before the disaster, they received medals and promotions although it was never really clear why.

It is apparent that the flight crew of HA-LCI themselves knew enough to suppose that the flight that night would be dangerous. Wife of second officer Károly Kvasz recalled that his parting words were, "You’ll see, I’m never coming back…" Even so, the crew was almost certainly not in a position where they could have refused to fly. To serve in civil aviation was a privilege and a position of status not only due to high wages, duty-free goods, and other import possibilities, but also because of strict selection procedures. Interestingly, refusal only ever happened once in the history of the airline: on the very next Beirut flight.

International terrorist ‘Carlos the Jackal’ was a frequent known visitor to Hungary and it has been suggested that bases in Hungary were used to train PLO guerillas. There is no doubt, however, that injured Palestinian terrorists were openly transported to Budapest by Malév - as “war heroes” - where they received medical treatment. The carriage of such passengers may also serve to underpin the frequency and maintenance of the flights. HVG magazine was able to gain access to the International Investigating Committee’s documentation in which the recovery and autopsy of six Lebanese victims was noted among the dead.

At the time of the PLO office opening, twenty high-ranking PLO officials were in Budapest and after the disaster there was talk that somebody or somebodies who should have been on board but weren’t had been the real reason why the aircraft was delayed repeatedly that day. For all intents and purposes, it isn’t really important whether or not they were on board, just that they were thought to be flying on the plane.

In the absence of official motivation, relatives of the crew have carried out most of the investigation work privately. As a result, we are nearer now than ever before to understanding what might have happened.

The possibility that the aircraft was hit accidentally by a stray shot or missile can be discounted due to its position away from Beirut, over the sea.

The case against a mechanical failure rests largely on the fact that according to ATC the crew didn’t send a distress call, which they should have at least had time to do. Eyewitness accounts record that a large explosion did take place. That this was triggered by a bomb can’t be ruled out (an aneroid device could have been activated by the change in pressure as the aircraft descended) or that the lethal cargo exploded by itself. It is probable, however, that precautions against such explosive situations might not have been taken due to the unusual nature of the cargo.

Beirut Control would have been aware of all information relating to the Malev flight including not only take off and landing and routing plans, but also passengers and freight. It was Beirut control which was unable to supply the final voice recording between the ground and stricken aircraft. According to the official statement made at the time, the final conversation between Malév 240 and Beirut Control wasn’t recorded.

At first it appeared that there was no tape at all, but it quickly emerged that this wasn’t true - just that only one radio channel was not recorded due to a technical problem with the equipment. It was on that channel that Beirut and 240 communicated. In the absence of the black box flight recorder from HA-LCI itself (resting in a sea grave of 600 to 1000 meters depth), the international investigation relied solely on the on-duty air traffic controller’s memory.

Najib Abou Jabber, a Christian Arab, on duty that night, maintained that nothing out of the ordinary was reported when he last talked to the flight crew and that minutes later when he wanted to give further instructions he was unable again to hail the aircraft. He recalled for the benefit of the cameras that on the night in question there were no operational radar in the control tower - only a radio. By September, the airfield had also been badly damaged with most of the technology and buildings destroyed by fighting, which had centered on it, during which time an aircraft waiting to take-off had been hit in the cockpit. Nonetheless, the airport continued to receive civilian flights.

Chief pilot Fülöp recalls how he and Malév’s new president paid an unofficial visit to Beirut months later and learned from the air traffic control officers they spoke to, off-record, that it was a widely held belief that the Malév aircraft had been shot down and that pilot error and mechanical failure could be ruled out. Exactly what this view was based upon remains unclear but insiders in Malév also held the same belief at the time.

Both the Hungarian and Lebanese sides therefore, unofficially, concede that the aircraft was the victim of external aggression. Since it is precisely these people who knew the most, perhaps it is this view which should be adopted. The only question that then remains is precisely how and why.

Rumors have persisted that Israel knew the contents of the shipments and warned Hungary through several intermediaries about the continuance of such further flights. It is likely that similar noises were also made immediately preceding the opening of the PLO’S Budapest office. To support the PLO connection further, in what must be an extraordinary coincidence, a Czechoslovak Il-62 (OK-DBF) was lost under hauntingly similar circumstances only forty days before, 10 miles North-East of, and while landing at, Damascus, again just after the Prague PLO office opening. Might an Israeli jet have downed the Tupolev? The Syrians, too, were at ‘war’ with the PLO, and MIG jets bombed Lebanese camps. Could it have been a Syrian jet then that shot down the fateful HA-LCI?

Equally credible alternate explanations have also been put forward. The period was the most turbulent within the history of the PLO itself. Relations between the several groups which composed the organization had reached a boiling point, resulting in a split between the Arafat-led El Fatah group, which flirted with a diplomatic solution, and the infamous Abu Nidal group, which favored violent struggle. By the time of the crash, the intense rivalry had culminated in open inter-group fighting, a death sentence passed on Abu Nidal (albeit in Arafat’s absence) and the assassination of several group leaders on both sides. It is feasible that if the Malév flight was indeed thought to be carrying PLO personnel, it was caught up within this inner-group fighting. It is certainly not impossible that either side could have shot a slow-moving, well-illuminated, and low-flying aircraft out of the sky from either a fishing boat or the coast. The weather conditions and visibility were perfect from land, air, or sea.

Other groups also had adequate reasons to wish for a weakening of the PLO’s power. Following its expulsion from Jordan, the PLO found a new base in Lebanon. The Pierre Jemayel-led Maronite Christian movement, fighting a civil war with Muslim groups, would have been greatly alarmed by this influx and the threat that Lebanon would become part of the battleground in a possible war against Israel. It would have made sense that they seek to weaken both the PLO’s leadership and at the same time cut off part of the group’s weapon supply.

Questions have surfaced over whether the two principal types of portable rocket launchers available to either of the forces on the ground could have been capable of causing sufficient damage on the aircraft to bring about an instantaneous explosion, as both the Redeye and the Strela-2 each have only a 1-kg warhead – that, of course, would have been enough to ignite the arms cargo.

In attempting to solve the mystery, new evidence was broadcast on TV2. Under condition of anonymity, a source testified that the whole incident was monitored on high resolution Olympus radar from RAF base Akrotiri on Cyprus. She described how they saw the Malév aircraft shadowed by a second airplane. HA-LCI was given clearance but was then turned back to the holding pattern. It was at this point that a missile - or series of missiles - was fired from the second unidentified war plane and struck the Tupolev on the starboard side.

In an official statement to the producers, the RAF denied claims that they possessed any such information. Whether or not the claims are true, the denial itself was to be expected. But it is precisely because the source chose to remain anonymous (perhaps understandably) that it is impossible to raise any cross-questions or ascertain the credentials of the claimant. If the testimony is taken at face value, this leaves most probably the Israeli or Syrian fighter jet version as the likely solution. But should that evidence be unconditionally accepted, especially due to the seriousness of the charges, without further information? Eyewitnesses do not recall any other aircraft in the sky at the time. Only that they saw an explosion and a plume of fire plunging into the sea. Could the hulk of the Tu-154 would have covered not only the view of a fighter plane behind it but the flair of an air-to-air missile? A likely explanation is that the first that any of the witnesses were aware of the incident was the explosion itself, and only then did they look up in the sky.

There are then a lot of "if"s and "but"s to support either theory. The evidence taken together is compelling. There is good reason to suppose that arms were on board and possibly too might have been a PLO contingent. There appears little doubt that one or both of these factors was a strong enough motive for several groups to want the aircraft destroyed, all of which could have been capable of the plan’s execution.

HA-LCI herself has lain in solemn silence in her sea grave, her final testimony unspoken. Some questions could be conclusively answered if the wreckage was salvaged - like what the cargo was and what was actually on the flight recorder. It seems, however, that many did not - and do not - want the answers to these questions.

May the victims of flight 240 rest in peace.

Written by
Laszlo Bencsics


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