Can a civilian aircraft pilot see a missile coming?

By "civilian aircraft," I mean planes that were not equipped with flares that fire when rockets approach or any similar anti-missile systems. If these missiles can be detected, can the pilot take any evasive measures?

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    $\begingroup$ Hopefully oneday all commercial aircraft will be fitted with this --- jewishbusinessnews.com/2014/02/27/… $\endgroup$ – Tasos Jul 18 '14 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ We at Travel SE have a very similar question. Maybe some of you can add helpful answers. $\endgroup$ – RoflcoptrException Jul 18 '14 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ Due to the recent media explosion on MH17's demise, I'm going to freely assume that this is the case that you have in mind. MH17 was a very unusual and extremely rare case. Normally, commercial aircraft might protect against typical shoulder missiles in dangerous areas, but in that case the rebels had access to extremely advanced Russian-made land-to-air weaponry. Commercial airliners will likely never be capable of defense against such a system, nor should they have the need to be. $\endgroup$ – Viziionary Jul 19 '14 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Davor It was a Russian made radar-guided vehicle-launched anti-air missile system. That's pretty darn advanced. There aren't many combat aircraft that defend against that system outside evasive maneuver. They put systems that can do it on tanks and ships, but it takes a large amount of energy to jam radar. $\endgroup$ – Viziionary Jul 19 '14 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ @RedGrittyBrick You can also counter the counter measures (ECCM). Unfortunately nothing can save a 75 m slow moving commercial airliner from a modern SAM. $\endgroup$ – stali Jul 19 '14 at 18:40

10 Answers 10


Visual detection

To take one example, a vehicle-launched ground to air missile system (e.g. the SA-11) that can reach the cruising altitude of airliners travels at several thousand miles per hour and takes perhaps 30 to 40 seconds from launch to reach its target.

Pilots don't have an especially good view of the ground immediately below and would have a very hard time spotting a missile travelling at those speeds.

Electronic detection

Civilian airliners are equipped with a collision avoidance system called TCAS. However this relies on radio signals from transponders which are fitted to other aircraft. Naturally, anti-aircraft missiles do not have a transponder and do not advertise their presence.

Missile Countermeasures

Anti-missile systems that are available (example) are mainly intended to protect against small infra-red seeking man-launched air-defense missiles (MANPADs) rather than larger more sophisticated radar-homing systems.

Even these systems are not fitted to all civilian airliners, probably only to those that operate into airports where there is a current known risk of MANPAD use by terrorists or other armed factions.


Civilian aircraft are not designed for high-G evasive maneuvers and in any case, the missile does not have to strike the aircraft, it detonates nearby based on a proximity fuse and the resulting explosion and high velocity fragments will do enough damage to result in the destruction of the target.

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    $\begingroup$ You could also add that most airliners only have a TCAS built-in, which does not actively scan with an own radar but use signales emitted from other TCAS or rransponders. Missiles do not use transponder technology, so the only device capable of displaying approaching items cannot display it. $\endgroup$ – SentryRaven Jul 18 '14 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ I know it's not strictly evasive, but I wonder if you could comment on radar jamming technology in your answer? It seems like it would fit in that list... $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Jul 18 '14 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @JayCarr: As far as I know radar jamming requires huge amount of energy, because you have to produce signal so strong that it overdrives the detector in the missile head. So radar jamming is normally only provided by special purpose aircraft like the EF-111. Because the illuminating radar signal does not carry any information that you could jam by just broadcasting noise like radio jamming does. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jul 18 '14 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ I know this is a bit of a silly question, but were the conditions just right, could such a missile approaching from the bottom of an aircraft be detected by a radar altimeter? If yes, under what circumstances? What is the rough resolution? $\endgroup$ – Harold Cavendish Oct 10 '14 at 22:33
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    $\begingroup$ @HaroldCavendish: It seems likely to me that a radar altimeter is designed to filter out responses from objects smaller/faster than a slow-moving planet. $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick Oct 11 '14 at 8:31

This recent article on CNN is very informative and covers most of what you're discussing.

In brief, commercial aircraft don't have any reasonable means to detect an incoming missile, which is likely to be travelling at supersonic speeds.

Even if they could detect it, commercial aircraft are already flying near their limits with respect to altitude, max-speed and min-speed. So there is very little they could do to evade a missile. (Perhaps counter-intuitively, aggressive maneuvering will actually make it easier for the missile to hit them. Maneuvering will cost speed and/or altitude, and the missile can easily outperform a commercial airliner in terms of turn rates)

Equipping commercial aircraft with anti-missile measures is technically difficult, very expensive, and ultimately of dubious value.

  • $\begingroup$ Air Force One has some anti-missile technology (details are classified, I'm sure). I think it can spew flares to confuse an IR seeker, but who knows about radar. $\endgroup$ – Phil Perry Jul 18 '14 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ @David Richerby: I think you're right. My earlier estimate (based on news stories that said a missile could go faster than 1-mile/sec) was awfully optimistic. I don't know what the true speed is, but its likely less than 4,000 MPH. Sorry. $\endgroup$ – abelenky Jul 18 '14 at 21:20
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    $\begingroup$ @PhilPerry Air Force One is a military aircraft so it outside the scope of this question. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 18 '14 at 21:50
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby: Yes, but being based on a B747, it would have the same (or quite similar) flight envelope to a typical commercial aircraft, as opposed to something like a B-1 or F-16. $\endgroup$ – Gabe Jul 19 '14 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby: Israeli airlines do equip their planes flying to risky regions (mainly Africa) with infrared counter-measures. But these provide some protection against "MANPADs", not large missiles. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jul 21 '14 at 5:00

It's possible for a pilot to see a missile's trail provided that the missile is fired from an angle where that trail could be seen out the window, however it's pretty unlikely. Commercial aircraft are not typically fitted with any missile warning or defense systems, so a pilot would have to be looking in the right place at the right time in order to spot it. The pilot would also have to know what he/she is seeing, and recognize the threat.

If the pilots of a commercial jet spotted a missile early there are some things they could try:

  • Climbing: some missiles are shorter range, getting higher could put the aircraft out of range
  • Evasive maneuvers: While commercial jets are not generally thrown around they can pull some Gs. There's a slight chance that some jinking may cause a missile to lose lock. At least a pilot could try and put less critical parts of the airplane closer to the missile. If a missile explodes off the wing-tip it the airplane has a better chance of survival than if the missile explodes next to the fuselage. It's certainly worth a try as many of the older missiles out there aren't particularly reliable
  • Reduce infrared signature: Although there are plenty of radar guided missiles out there these are generally the province of militaries, or better supplied revolutionary groups, so the most likely scenario for an airliner being attacked is by hand-held infrared guided missiles. There are a lot of old and less sophisticated SAMs out there, which are easier to fox. A pilot faces with one of these could turn the aircraft so the wings block the engines' heat signature from the missile, and possibly reduce engine power. An aircraft at cruising altitude would not be at risk from one of these though, so this tactic would not be of any help

Realistically a pilot of a commercial jet is unlikely to spot a missile before it is far too late to do anything about it, if he/she spots it at all. So while it is within the realm of possibility that an alert (and lucky) pilot could evade or mitigate the damage from a missile, it's a long shot at best. A commercial jet targeted by a modern, radar guided missile designed to destroy fast, nimble targets is unlikely to survive.

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    $\begingroup$ Most missiles can probably keep up with 2.5G manoeuvring (typical limit for airliner). They are designed against fighters that will be trying much more against them. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jul 18 '14 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ The Buk missile system that shot down MH-17 is a semi-active (radar transmitter on the ground, receiver in the missile) radar-guided missile. Radar cross-section can be somewhat reduced by turning appropriate side to the radar, but it would not be sufficient against the powerful targeting radar employed by this system. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jul 18 '14 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec The plane doesn't have to match the missile's acceleration to beat it. The missile is going much faster, the same angle of turn means a lot more Gs for the missile than the plane. Even in a fighter it's iffy, though. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Jul 20 '14 at 3:24
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel: The missile does not have to match the airplane's angle of turn either. It however needs higher acceleration the closer it is, so the evasion manoeuvre has to be done at the last moment. With less manoeuvrability that moment gets shorter. If it exists at all, because these missiles have proximity fuses, so you have to evade them by certain distance, not just avoid them hitting directly. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jul 21 '14 at 4:50
  • $\begingroup$ The USAF has long since moved to smokeless missile engines. $\endgroup$ – Bassinator Oct 8 '14 at 20:18

I am a weapon system designer/systems engineer and scientist by background.

As far as I know civil airlines all have identification transponders. Normal radar surveillance would be able to access the identity of the aircraft and then decide what to do. This is of course fine for air traffic monitoring systems unlikely to be in the possession of a small militia. As other's have said the weapon system itself will neither respond nor interrogate a target plane.

These days there is no honour code to force people to tell the truth or stand in the open when fighting a war. Even if a plane were entering a threat area sending out a clear signal saying I am a civil airliner, the force under threat would be foolish to believe it.

The primary means of safety is for air traffic control authorities to advise about the location of war areas and for airline operators to protect their planes and passengers by avoiding them. Whatever the root cause of the conflict in Ukraine, it was for Malaysian Airlines to avoid the area just in case one side had active anti aircraft missiles.

Surface to Air Missiles are a very desirable weapon famously used to retain (defend) captured territory - US missiles were used by Israel in the six-day war, now it seems the Ethnic Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are using Russian air defence weapons.

I won't be flying Malaysian any time soon.

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    $\begingroup$ But do military aircraft normally send a signal that they are actually a civilian aircraft? $\endgroup$ – Quora Feans Jul 19 '14 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ "I won't be flying Malaysian any time soon." You'd better add to that almost every airline that flies from western Europe to south and south-east Asia, since almost all of them were flying over that part of Ukraine. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 21 '14 at 7:39
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    $\begingroup$ IIRC, and I may not, there was a warning issued (NOTAM) for the airspace, but not a TFR. Malaysian Airways chose to ignore the warning. So did other airlines. MA just got unlucky to be 'chosen' as the target. Now, there is a TFR, correct? $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Aug 13 '14 at 15:34

In short, the answer is almost certainly not. Surface to Air missiles capable of reaching the heights commercial air traffic flies at usually travel at a speed above the speed of sound, often surpassing mach 3. That means the missile is capable of reaching the height of common jet airways (30-35,000 feet) within ten seconds.

Although the missile leaves a visible exhaust trail, as others have mentioned, the pilot's field of view is mostly restricted to a cone in front of the aircraft. Add to this the speed of the missile, and the likelyhood of it approaching from beneath and to the side of the aircraft, visually identifying it is very unlikely.

A commercial pilot's options with regards to evading a SAM missile are pretty much nonexistent. The airplanes are not equipped with countermeasures (IR flares or chaff), and the speed and maneuverability of the missile far exceeds what the aircraft is capable of safely doing. Hollywood would have us think putting the aircraft into a dive is enough to put a missile off its tracks, but actually evading a missile, even for a military aircraft capable of much higher speeds and sharper turns, is usually dependant on active countermeasures in addition. The missile does not even have to hit the aircraft, they are designed to explode a short distance from them, spraying them with shrapnel that penetrates vital components.


Can a civilian aircraft pilot see a missile coming?

  • Around little more than 1% chance on takeoff/ascent phase up to flight height. (line of sight & missile trajectory won't intercept)
  • Around a 1% chance during stable flight. (line of sight & missile trajectory won't intercept except changing corridor and corrections)
  • There is a better % during descent/landing phase in case of head attack (line of sight & missile trajectory will intercept most likely but it's not a good position for evading. As a plane goes lower on landing - mobile complex could be used - no reason to spend expensive high range missile)

Chance to spot a missile is also better in air-craft with low windows in pilot cabin. Missiles are generally fired ahead to prevent flight from increasing range by flying away. So one may imagine a missile coming in usually at about a 45 degree angle ahead and from below and calculate chances for a pilot to spot it.

If these missiles can be detected, can the pilot take any evasive measures?

This depends on amount of passengers it's designed for and current load. Less passengers means smaller weight, better maneuvering capabilities, more thrust per kilo of weight.

  • 50 or more passengers - no chance, except by a miracle. (such a craft is loaded with passengers, luggage, post, goods and is "stuck" in the sky to make a comfortable flight)
  • about 25 passengers - some chances to try to do something, but unlikely to evade
  • 12 civilian passengers or less - one may bargain
  • Small civilian jet and a pilot with a military background - there is an exact % chance could be calculated depending on missile system.

  • same goes for stunt pilots on appropriate plane. (missile systems just not designed to target these types of air-crafts too small, not much heat generated by the engine = more chances to lose aim)

Although, the first problem is in place. Pilot probably won't see a missile in time to react.

p.s. Someone wrote about "buk". These systems are distinguished easily by two or more paths left in the sky. Yes, two or more missiles per flight. So as we go back to the question, the second part: if you try to evade the first missile the second one specially designed for this case. Typically two or four missiles are used in such old systems like "buk". Amount of missiles per target and percentage of success shot is open information. That is why I gave so low chances.

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    $\begingroup$ thank you for improving your answer. As a general suggestion, it would benefit from links to sources of some of the claims made (e.g., 1%? based on?). Also, I have the impression you have inverted the use of larger and smaller than, use words instead of symbols, where the latter are not needed. $\endgroup$ – Federico Aug 13 '14 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ @ksiv I editted it a bit, if you disagree with my few edits, feel free to roll back your answer. $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Aug 13 '14 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Federico. As for correctness of percentages in my response they as insane as the question itself. The 1% here is imaginary number as any other. You see even head of military affairs can not give any sane number since some case of shooting different types of civilian aircraft is insane. it's useless data. If defense forces or secret services of some country decide to shoot a civilian air-craft ( and my strong personal belief - they do it if needed) they ll make an order and it ll be performed. $\endgroup$ – Konstantin Ivanov Jun 27 '18 at 9:49

Not with enough time to react. In clear weather, the average ability to spot another plane in the air unaided (no cue as to relative bearing or altitude) is about 7-10 miles, and as few as 3 miles for small craft. Professional military pilots with exceptional eyesight can improve on that but even they rely on their own radar, their wingmen and AWACS to alert them of other traffic.

So let's assume the best, and say you could spot a small craft like a fighter at 10 miles, and notice when it had fired an AMRAAM missile. By the time an AMRAAM's motor has cut out, it is travelling Mach 4, about 3,045 mph. That's 0.845 miles per second; it would take just under 12 seconds for the missile to reach you, fifteen at most accounting for the arched flight path and time to accelerate. So, assuming you knew the missile had been launched, you have fifteen seconds max to locate, track and maneuver to avoid it.

That assumption that you even see the missile launch is a pretty big one; U.S. fighter pilots have excellent vision, usually the 95th percentile or better of the U.S. population for visual acuity, and still rely on a battery of detectors to notify them of radar sources including from radar-guided missiles and their shooting aircraft.

One of the big ones is the Radar Warning Receiver or RWR. Most civilian aircraft do not have this system but it actually would not be out of the question to install it on a commercial airliner (the AN/APR-39 RWR system costs the military about \$170k per plane; that's a drop in the bucket to a Boeing 777's \$320 million sticker price); it is independent of the aircraft's own radar systems, and consists of four radar detectors to provide localization direction and strength, a computer processor to identify the likely aggressor type based on the radar pulses detected, and a flight instrument display to show the results to the pilot. With such a system installed, the pilot would get a warning of a radar lock and incoming radar-homing missile including relative direction, even if the missile were beyond visual range. Upgrade to a full Missile Approach Warning system and you can get missile speed, distance, relative altitude and time to intercept information.

The pilot would use this information to place the weapon "on the beam" (directly to his left or right) which forces the missile to use up its energy turning to a constantly changing intercept point. Then, as the missile closes in, the pilot would execute a max-G turn in the direction of the missile, forcing it to turn even tighter to intercept, hopefully tighter than the missile is able to turn thus falling behind the aircraft.

enter image description here

Speed of the target aircraft is not the problem; a fighter jet cannot execute the necessary turning maneuver at high speed anyway because it would overload the airframe (and pilot). An F-16's "corner airspeed" is around 320 knots, easily within an airliner's performance envelope.

What the airliner is not capable of is a 9 G-force turn. Normal flight maneuvers for an airliner attempt to maintain 1G. The airframe is only proof-tested to a "load factor" of 1.25 times its MTOW, while its theoretical maximum loading factor based on design specs is only 1.5x MTOW. So even empty of passengers and cargo and light on fuel, the maximum G-load the airframe would likely withstand without the wings collapsing would be somewhere in the 2-3G range. Missiles can easily pull 30-40 Gs, so even given that they're moving much faster (and therefore the forces needed to turn them within a particular radius are higher), an airliner stands little chance of evading a missile unless it was poorly aimed and at too close a range to correct itself. In that situation the missile would have missed before the pilot knew it was there.

So, overall, the only reason a pilot would need to be able to detect an incoming missile is so he knows when to pray. Without flares or chaff to help spoof the missile (which add weight that would only be used once in 50 blue moons) the chances of evasion are slim to none, and even with countermeasures, a target that big moving that slow needs a big distraction:

enter image description here


RWR Radar warning receivers can help detect if the aircraft is being tracked by a targeting radar and if the incoming missile is an active type, it is possible for RWR to detect this as well. There are counters to this such as frequency hopping and spread spectrum radar, so it is also possible that the targeted aircraft remains unaware.

Aircraft can be fitted with launch plume detectors which sense the IR or UV from a missile, either at launch or during flight, these again are not foolproof.

With respect to jamming - consider the home on jam (HOJ) technologies, where the incoming missile uses the jamming emitter as it's target, making the jamming vehicle vulnerable to attack, several missile systems employ HOJ, such as the A-88 HARM and the AIM-120 AMRAM.

Whether any aircraft has the ability to evade a missile depends on many variables, but mainly boils down to how much energy the incoming missile has i.e. burn time on the propellant or kinetic energy if the propellant is exhausted and the same for the aircraft, hight, speed, thrust and the manoeuvring envelops for the two, which means radius of turn, amount of G, sustained G. Civil airliners don't really have high G capabilities, if the pilot were to spot the missile early and the distance was great, turning and running in a shallow dive with a max G turn just before impact might, if the missile has very low energy, work, but these systems have a very good probability of kill against large targets with relatively poor manoeuvrability.

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    $\begingroup$ The question was about civilian aircraft. What civilian aircraft are fitted with RWR Radar? $\endgroup$ – GreenAsJade Jul 20 '14 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ It's not out of the question to install an RWR, they're only about $170 grand which is a small fraction of the cost of a commercial airliner. The problem is the pilot could do very little with the information, without chaff, flares and the ability to stress the airframe several times the average design load without it collapsing. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jul 15 '15 at 22:20

According to this report, it is possible:


The pilots of a DC10 flying from Japan to Helsinki in December 1987 claim to have seen a missile approaching while crossing the Arctic ocean, but it detonated 20 seconds before it would have hit, by their estimation. The incident was apparently covered up at the time.


Missles are way too fast for a commercial jet to take evasive maneuvers even if it was capable of it. Korean Air 007 in 1983 is a perfect example of pilots not knowing about missiles.

They strayed into Soviet Airspace (unknowingly) and the pilot that shot the plane down suspected it was a commercial plane built by Boeing but shot it down anyway. He fired two missiles 2 seconds apart. The detonated 50m from the rear of the aircraft. The first one tore through 3 of the 4 hydraulic systems. The plane was still flyable (as the data recorders prove), the second missile tore through the fuselage causing a decompression (not explosive decompression). One of the flight crew was able to radio that they had decompression. Unfortunately, because the plane was already crippled with the hydraulics being out it spiraled down into the ocean in Russian territory.

It wasn't until 1993, after the fall of the USSR, that the truth finally came out.

There is absolutely no way a commercial jet aircraft has any chance of evading a SAM of any kind.

The MH-17 was hit by a Soviet-built missile, however, Malaysian Airlines KNEW the area was a conflict zone and should have flown around it, not through it (like the other airlines were doing).

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    $\begingroup$ Everything except the first sentence seems to be irrelevant for this question. $\endgroup$ – Bianfable Nov 10 '19 at 18:26

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