MIAMI – In the late evening of June 27, 1980, Itavia flight IH870 from Bologna (BLQ) to Palermo (PMO) crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea about midway between the islands of Ponza and Ustica, causing the death of all 77 passengers and four crew members.

At the controls of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15 (I-TIGI · MSN 45724 · LN 66) were Captain Domenico Gatti and the First Officer Enzo Fontana. The last communication of the flight took place at 20:56 local time (UTC +2) when Fontana acknowledged the instruction from Rome ACC to fly direct to Raisi VOR located in Palermo.

Three minutes later the aircraft disappeared from Ciampino radar while flying at 29,000ft and with a heading of 210 degrees. The next day in the morning, the wreckage of the jetliner found in the area confirmed that there were no survivors.

Since the beginning, the investigation of the crash was impeded by cover-ups, mostly by Italian military authorities and foreign secret services. The radar records —all but one— of what happened that night in the Italian airspace were destroyed.

No official report

After years of investigation, the Italian government never provided an official report stating the causes of the accident. The structural failure that caused the aircraft to break apart mid-air was either a missile, a bomb, or a mid-air collision with a military plane.

The pathological reports and the inspection of the wreckage led to determine that an explosion caused the breakup. Now, the origin of the deflagration is what remains unclear to this date.

In a statement from judge Rosario Priore, the leading investigator of the crash cites the likely cause as a “military action. The aircraft was shot down, (…) a proper act of war against our country, whose sovereignty and rights were breached.”

Priore also blamed that the 12-year investigation—the longest in the history of Italy— was obstructed by “silences and falsified depositions as from the Italian Air Force as from NATO, which tainted or hid crucial information about what happened that night.”

A plot follows

ears after the crash, investigators were able to obtain the radar records from Ciampino, discovering an irregular path that followed IH870 on its way to Palermo. Judge Priore hypothesized that the path was from a second airplane flying right below to the DC-9, hiding while crossing the Italian airspace.

That second aircraft probably was a Lybian Mig-23. The wreckage of this aircraft was found in Calabria, some 150 miles from the crash of IH870. While official reports indicate that the crash of this Mig happened on June 18, several army soldiers in the region testified that the wreckage of the Mig was guarded on June 28, the day after the crash of IH870.

By examining the Ciampino radar registrations referred to June 27, there was a “plot” approaching IH870 at high speed from the west, moments before the explosion of the jetliner. Investigators hypothesized that the plot could be a military aircraft attacking the Mig, but instead, hit the DC-9.

The remains of I-TIGI, the aircraft involved in the accident of flight IH870, are now part of a permanent display in the Ustica Memorial Museum in Bologna.

Friendly fire

In those years, NATO confirmed several violations of the Italian airspace by Libyan military aircraft flying to former Yugoslavia, where these aircraft received maintenance.

The Italian authorities tolerated these flyovers partly due to the economic benefits Italy obtained from the regime of Colonel Muhammad Gheddafi, knowing that the Lybian jets could camouflage from the radars by getting in line with commercial flights.

According to the investigators, a plausible hypothesis is that NATO forces identified the Mig and that the DC-9 was shot down by the friendly fire.

Protecting Italian skies

In recent years, a series of verdicts condemned the Italian Ministries of Defence and Transport for their incapability “to protect the Italian skies from foreign attacks,” implying that IH870 was shot down by a foreign fighter, either Lybian of from the NATO.

Last April, the Appeal Court in Rome condemned the same Italian Ministries to pay €330m (US$370m) to the heirs of Aldo Davanzali, founder and owner of Itavia. The airline could never recover from the negative publicity and ceased operations a few months later after the accident.

In the 40th anniversary of what has been called ‘The Ustica massacre,’ the mystery of the crash remains.