Flights threatened by a passenger and flights with lost coms and even flights in technical difficulty without criminal intent and not posing a security threat are sometimes intercepted and escorted by fighter jets.

One of the mentioned reasons is to shoot down the passenger aircraft if people on the ground are at risk.

I fail to understand the logic. It's impossible to know in advance where exactly and even if the plane will crash at all. Non-intervention may result in 0 deaths. Why kill hundreds of passengers when it's unclear they would die ?

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    $\begingroup$ You seem to be asking, "Is it ethically right to kill one group of people in order to protect another group of people?" That's an ethics question, not an aviation question. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2019 at 4:00
  • $\begingroup$ No, it's a procedural question. I don't understand the logic of this aviation procedure. Also your quote is not what I am asking. $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Jan 7, 2019 at 4:11
  • $\begingroup$ For me, this is a political and moral question, not an aviation one. Someone somewhere has to make the decision based on the specific situation, it isn't just a "procedure" to follow automatically. In any developed democracy, authorizing the military to kill civilians would be a hugely significant and controversial decision (and very possibly illegal). You might get a better response on politics.SE. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Jan 7, 2019 at 4:28
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry but I differ. Whether it's controversial or not does not change the fact that this is a question about a procedure squarely within the aviation world. It's in the same category as "What's the point of intercepting an aircraft?". Both questions are procedural and ask for an explanation of an aviation procedure they don't understand. $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Jan 7, 2019 at 4:42
  • $\begingroup$ If you're still interested in receiving answers to this question, I recommend going to aviation.meta.stackexchange.com and asking for it to be reopened. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2019 at 13:49

2 Answers 2


Most escorts are actually unarmed. Fighters don't sit around in their home country with armaments on board. That could lead to incidents like this.

Escorts are there primarily to provide eyes on the primary, attempt non-radio communication, and provide instant, reliable reports up the chain of command of anything that happens, such as course changes.

Escort planes also provide lights and squawks, so even if the primary turns off their lights and transponder, they still are not a threat to other air traffic navigation.

Shooting down a plane is an option, in the most extreme situations, but has never actually occurred. Except for 9/11, I'm not sure a shootdown has ever even been seriously contemplated. Even on 9/11, the planes closest to Flight 93 were unarmed, and would've been ordered to "kamikaze" it.

  • $\begingroup$ Both kill innocents, the killing method (shootdown or kamikaze) doesn't matter. And your first 3 paragraphs are not on topic (the question is about a shootdown). $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Jan 7, 2019 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ His comments are exactly on topic. You are presuming that the primary function of a fighter escort is to shoot down the civilian plane, and he is countering that assumption. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2019 at 17:28

9/11 changed the entire paradigm related to hijackings. Before that any hijacking was assumed to be so and so wanting to force the plane to go somewhere, where they would get off, or collect a ransom or whatever. It introduced the idea of airliners being turned into cruise missiles by suicidal hijackers to take out institutional structures. The 9/11 airplane brought down by the pax in PA was thought headed for the White House.

This means that any hijacking is now assumed to be that sort of thing, instead of an excursion to Cuba. Authorities now have to prioritize pax vs, say, a seat of government. Seat of government wins.

It means also that on any hijacking in future, the pax are much more likely to intervene than in the old days, because they know they have nothing to lose. That, and and introduction of reinforced cockpit doors and changes in access protocols has resulted in hijackings being pretty rare now.

When airplanes start going places where they are not supposed to, for unknown reasons, you have to assume the worst. Hence fighter jets.

  • $\begingroup$ re: "you have to assume the worst" – Why kill innocent people on a mere assumption ? $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Jan 7, 2019 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ Assume the worst relates to the practice of dispatching jets not the shoot down. They don't just say, "looky there an airplane is off course and we don't know where it's going so blow it to smithereens just in case". A bunch of people at a very high level, who are going to have to live with the decision for the rest of their lives, have to be satisfied that the balance of risk has crossed a line at some point. If your jets had intercepted an airliner heading for WTC, and you and your experts and advisers had very high confidence that WTC was the target, what would be your choice? $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jan 7, 2019 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ As stated in the question "It's impossible to know in advance where and if and if the plane will crash at all". Both are only knowable ex post facto. Why kill innocent passengers when it's not completely uncertain they will die. I have not seen any explanation for that yet. I have made this point in another comment which fell pray to a user deleting his answer here. Maybe a moderator can restore my comment? $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Jan 7, 2019 at 4:37
  • $\begingroup$ Also you say "Assume the worst relates to the practice of dispatching jets not the shoot down." but then you go on to say that the passengers should be shooted down when assuming the worst. That's my point. Why kill innocent people on a mere assumption. If it were a certainty, it would be ethically questionable. But killing innocents based on a assumption only is a procedure I just fail to understand logically. $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Jan 7, 2019 at 4:41
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    $\begingroup$ @summerrain Yes there are many possibilities of how such a scenario might turn out - but they aren't all equally likely. If the most likely outcome of not intervening is that the plane will be intentionally crashed into a population center killing Y people (plus the X people on board) then preemptively shooting the plane down and "only" losing X lives (rather than X + Y) starts to make a whole lot of sense. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2019 at 10:07

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