The Surface-To-Air Threat, Paranoia And Probability

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Although it (probably) hasn't happened on U.S. soil, missile attacks are a disturbingly common cause of commercial aircraft crashes elsewhere. There have been 24 commercial planes officially downed by shoulder-fired missiles in the last 20 years, killing about 500 people, according to The Associated Press. That figure does not include TWA 800 (July '96), EgyptAir 990 (Oct. '99), or AA 587 (Nov. '01). In each of those cases, a jumbo jet and all aboard were lost near (or on) the south shore of Long Island, N.Y. Each event spawned its own missile theories -- and some came with scores of eyewitnesses. All ultimately were attributed by the NTSB to other causes. Boxer says the U.S. should have received a wake-up call last November when an American Airlines pilot reported seeing a rocket fly past just after crossing the shoreline on departure from LAX. "American 612, can you verify whether you saw a flare or a rocket?" radioed an air traffic controller recorded on the ATC tapes. "It looked more like a rocket to me," the pilot at first responded. "I'm pretty sure it was a rocket of some kind, because it had a definite plume coming out behind it." Although there was no evidence that a shoulder-fired missile was involved (authorities believe it was most likely a hobby rocket) the investigation remains open and Boxer says it's reason enough to keep the anti-missile program open. "We had a scare in Los Angeles," said Boxer. "We've been told that they cannot rule out the fact that it was a shoulder-fired missile."