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HS: Finnair pilots report dramatic missile near-miss almost 30 years on

A passenger jet flying over the Arctic Ocean narrowly avoided being shot down by what is claimed to be a Soviet missile, according to two co-pilots on board the long-haul flight in 1987. But the incident, revealed by the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, has only come to light now because the plane’s captain refused to submit a report, the crew members claim.

Lentokoneen peräsiipi.
Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

A Finnair passenger jet narrowly avoided being shot down by a missile while en route to Helsinki 27 years ago, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat claimed on Sunday.

Speaking to the paper, the DC-10 plane's two co-pilots, Esko Kaukiainen and Markku Soininen, describe how a routine flight back to Helsinki from Japan in December 1987 suddenly took a dramatic and terrifying turn.

When the plane was crossing the Arctic Ocean, two hours from its destination, a missile appeared in the distance. The crew thought it was a Russian weather rocket on its way into space, but the missile then slowed down, turned, and began heading straight towards the aircraft.

Moments later, just 20 seconds away from a collision, the missile exploded.

Despite the potential for a large-scale loss of life, a serious-incident report wasn't drawn up, the co-pilots say. They claim they informed the plane’s captain, who was resting and therefore not in the cockpit at the time of the incident, but he never reported the event. Finnair’s records contain no mention of the dramatic near-miss.

No definitive answers

The question of who fired the missile has never been definitively answered. But the pilots believe it was launched from either the Soviet Union’s Kola Peninsula or a submarine in the Barents Sea.

”There’s no doubt it came from the Soviet Union,” Soininen said.

The pair say they do not believe Soviet forces deliberately wanted to shoot down a Finnish aircraft, and say they suspect the missile was either fired in error, or that their plane was used as a training target.

Kept in the dark

Helsingin Sanomat reports that the then minister for foreign trade, Pertti Salolainen, and transport minister Pekka Vennamo, only heard of the incident on Sunday when it appeared in the paper, 27 years later.

Salolainen claimed that, even today, parliament and the cabinet are still kept in the dark about important issues. He criticised the practice of informing ministers “in a shoddy way”.

Helsingin Sanomat's report can be read here (in Finnish).

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