The Final Flight of Ezzedin Khalil
A 1980 MiG crash wasn't as mysterious as some people believe
On July 18, 1980, Libyan air force MiG-23MS serial number 6950 crashed on Mount Sila in Calabria in southern Italy. The pilot, Capt. Ezzeden Khalil, died on impact.
Ever since, there’ve been wild rumors and conspiracy theories regarding the incident. The most fantastic of these connect Khalil’s death with the crash of an Itavia Flight 870, a Douglas DC-9, on June 27, 1980.
The airliner in question was traveling from Guglielmo Marconi Airport in Bologna to Palermo International Airport on Sicily when it disappeared over the Tyrrhenian Sea with 81 crew and passengers.
Years later, investigators concluded that the DC-9 was destroyed by a bomb installed in a toilet.
However, some people are convinced that the airliner was actually caught up in an attempt by Libya’s then-leader Muammar Qaddafi to kill the former U.S. president Jimmy Carter during a trip to Europe.
The various conspiracies involve Libyan MiGs appearing in the night sky over Italy — and U.S., French and Italian jets rising to intercept them. During the battle, Khalil maneuvered his MiG-23MS underneath the DC-9. At that point, an American, French or Italian missile struck the MiG, destroying the airliner in the process.
What actually happened is much less exciting.
At top — MiG-23MS interceptor of the Libyan Arab Air Force, as flown by Ezzeden Khalil on July 18, 1980. U.S. Navy photo. Above — a still from a video showing the fin of Ezzeden Khalil’s MiG-23MS serial number 6950, as found at Mount Sila. Photo via Wikipedia
Libyan authorities identified the pilot of the MiG-23MS that crashed on Mount Sila as Capt. Khalil Ezzeden, born in Benghazi on March 17, 1950. He obtained his military pilot license in 1972 and by 1980 had flown SOKO G-2 Galebs, SOKO J-21 Jastrebs, MiG-21s and MiG-23s for a combined 927 hours in the course of training in Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and Libya. He was combat-qualified and certified as a flight leader.
However, the Italian Military Intelligence and Security Service concluded that the Libyans were lying, and that Khalil was of either Syrian or Palestinian origin. His full name and rank was Captain Pilot Ezzeidin Fadhil Khalil.
In 1974 Qaddafi had placed a giant order for more than 400 Soviet combat aircraft. Although having nearly 500 pilot-trainees and more than 2,000 ground personnel in training, the Libyan air force was simply too small to man and maintain all the new planes. Libya’s ally Syria generously provided pilots and ground personnel to staff two Libyan MiG-23 squadrons.
The Syrian contingent in Libya was based at Benina air base south of Benghazi. Although LAAF units were present at the same base, the Syrians were quite strictly segregated from their hosts, as Hazem Al Bajigni, a former Libyan MiG-23 pilot, recalled.
“Khalil was a pilot of the Syrian Arab Air Force, assigned to one of two MiG-23MS-squadrons at Benina, exclusively staffed by Syrians. We could not fly with them because they used Arabic language while flying, while we [Libyans] used English. So, we flew in the morning and they in the afternoons and evenings. They had their own way of life too, so we did not mix much with them, though I did some socializing with their squadron leader – mainly out of curiosity.”
As for the reasons behind Khalil’s crash on Mount Sila, the recollections of former Libyan pilots match the official Italian and Libyan investigations. Khalil took off from Benina at 9:45 in the morning, local time, on July 18, 1980, as the lead machine in a pair. Initially, it flew in the direction of Marsa Al Burayqah.
Thirteen minutes into the flight, the MiG turned east while climbing to an altitude of 31,168 feet before turning again and climbing to an altitude of 32,808 feet. The pair of MiGs then continued climbing to 39,370 feet and turned to a course of 330 degrees.
Adding a lot to the controversy, some pieces of the wreckage of Khalil’s MiG-23MS — including the cockpit hood, visible on this photograph — were stored in the same hangar as the wreckage of the Itavia’s DC-9. Photo via Wikipedia
Immediately afterward, the wingman lost all contact with Khalil. He followed his leader for about 37 miles north of Benina. Left with only 1,400 liters of fuel in his tanks, he then decided to return to base.
Libyan radars last tracked Khalil’s MiG flying heading north, around 300 kilometers north of Benina. Libyan authorities launched a search-and-rescue operation in an area around 200 miles north of Benghazi, but found nothing.
“Khalil was on a regular training mission,” Bajigni said. “His aircraft was unarmed and carried no fuel tanks. He has got a new breathing mask that day. Our subsequent investigation has shown that this mask was a number too large. When he climbed to an altitude of [16,404 feet], he forgot to activate 100-percet oxygen and went into hypoxia.
“Following the climb to [39,370 feet], contact with him was lost. His wingman called him multiple times, but Khalil was not responsive. His head slumped down when he was last seen and all efforts to communicate with him failed. His MiG – set on semi auto-pilot, activated by a green button on the control stick – was set at ‘straight and level mode,’ so it just flew away. Eventually, it crashed in Italy after running out of fuel. The crash report we’ve got from Italian authorities did not indicate any kind of collision or combat damage of any kind.”
Khalil’s body returned to Libya with full military honors – though at Italian expense. The Libyans refused to pay for his transportation from Rome to Tripoli. The wreckage of his aircraft followed years later – minus the ARK-15 radio compass, which the Italians handed over to U.S. intelligence services over protests from Libya. Obviously, his crash on Mount Sila was in no way related to the demise of the Itavia’s DC-9.
This article is based on research for the book Libyan Air Wars, Part 1, published by Helion & Company in 2015.