Malév Flight 240 (lost flight recorders and crash investigation reports of fatal passenger aircraft crash; 1975)
On 30th September 1975, Malév Flight 240, a Tupolev Tu-154 travelling from Budapest Ferihegy International Airport to Beirut International Airport, plummeted into the Mediterranean Sea not far from Beirut, Lebanon's coast, killing all sixty people on board. The disaster is considered one of the most controversial in Hungarian history, as the country's crash reports have been locked away and declared "Top Secret". Additionally, Flight 240's flight recorders have also been declared missing and have seemingly never been recovered from the sea.
Malév Flight 240 took off from Budapest at around 23:10 pm, consisting of ten Hungarian crew members and fifty passengers primarily consisting of Lebanese citizens. The flight to Beirut would occur months following the start of the Lebanese Civil War, which commenced from 1975 to 1990 and claimed the lives of at least 100,000, and potentially up to 300,000. Because of this, very few international flights to Lebanon were being undertaken during this time period following security concerns, with Malév Hungarian Airlines being one exception. Poor conditions at Beirut International Airport and rumours surrounding missing passengers delayed the flight's take-off for five hours and 40 minutes and nearly caused its cancellation. The delays caused great concern among many of its passengers, some having phoned relatives to inform them of the situation and to potentially get return trips back. Nevertheless, the flight finally began, and would be expected to land at Beirut at around 02:53 am.
During the flight, Flight 240 made contact with Cyprus air traffic control. By 02:33 am, it began to approach Lebanon. After initiating contact with Beirut air traffic control, 240 was instructed to descend to about 6,000 feet, with it receiving clearance to land. However, 240 never reached its destination; it is believed that 240 received an additional instruction, requesting it turn back and then hold. Not long afterwards, no further contact emerged from 240. Beirut were then promptly informed by a British fighter pilot based at RAF Akrotiri that he had witnessed a plane crash into the Mediterranean Sea as he was flying nearby. It was soon confirmed that 240 had plunged into the Mediterranean Sea, claiming the lives of everyone on board.
While the Hungarian government has repeatedly denied this, allegations from various sources indicate that a search and rescue did commence. In a December 2008 documentary, Dutch channel NTR alleged that at least fifteen unidentified bodies were recovered from the Mediterranean Sea and that photographic documentation of the recovery operation existed. Further, the creator of the website "The Lost Malev" stated that a relative of theirs had been investigating the disaster for over ten years. They claimed that 37 bodies were recovered from the sea, with 20 confirmed to be Lebanese citizens and 17 not officially identified. The burial site for these bodies has never been revealed and recovering of victims was not even been mentioned on the official International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) crash report.
In December 2008, the Hungarian government again affirmed that they had no knowledge of the recovery of 37 individuals. Four years earlier, it had allocated around 100 million HUF to locate the aircraft and its remains. Following conflicts surrounding the money's purpose, and a 2011 lawsuit demanding the fund be handed over for the search, it was revealed almost all the funds had dried up, with no progress made in finding the wreck or the unidentified bodies.
The official investigation into the accident has provoked controversy. Three weeks following the accident, Hungarian newspapers reported that officials were unable to find 240's black box flight data recorder, as well as presumably the cockpit voice recorder. It was later revealed that Hungary had rejected British assistance in recovering the Tupolev Tu-154's remains. Aside from the initial newspapers reports, no further investigation was seemingly forthcoming, and ultimately no detailed official crash report was publicly released. However, this allegedly changed in 2003. Információs Hivatal and Nemzetbiztonsági Hivatal, Hungary's civilian intelligence agency and internal security intelligence agency respectively, had both worked in a crash investigation, producing two reports during the early-2000s. Confirmation of these reports came from Hungary's then-Minister of Civil Intelligence Services, György Szilvásy, who wrote a letter published on 27th September 2007 to Fidesz party member Róbert Répássy. In the letter, Szilvásy stated the report denied that any secret service documents on the crash had previously existed. However, the reports would also not be publicly released, and in fact were declared "Top Secret". The reasoning behind this classification was said to have had no connection with 240.
An ICAO investigation would also commence. While its findings were limited, it did conclude that 240's fate was decided because of an unexplained explosion. Several eyewitnesses reported the flight's explosion and its plunge into the sea but also identified no other aircraft within its vicinity. However, in an interview for a TV2 documentary, an anonymous source who was based at RAF Akrotiri and working on Signal Unit 240, alleged she and others were viewing the plane from radar. She claims they noticed a fighter plane was close by, monitoring 240 as the latter was forced into a holding pattern. Suddenly, the fighter plane fired heat-seeking missiles towards 240's rear, with two colliding with and blowing the latter up. RAF denied this in a statement to TV2, while others noted this claim deviates from other eyewitness accounts. Nevertheless, the possibility remains that eyewitnesses may not have seen the warplane, as it could have been obscured by 240 and the later explosion.
Another theory concerns Malév Hungarian Airlines' mysterious flights to Beirut. Because of the war, Beirut International Airport had sustained serious damage. In that same month, most of its infrastructure was either badly damaged or destroyed. According to Beirut air traffic controller Najib Abou Jabber, radar was not functioning in favour of cameras, and only radio communication was available. The last discussion between 240 and Jabber was not recorded, as the recording equipment in Beirut, had malfunctioned. Nevertheless, Jabber insisted dialogue between him and 240 was normal prior to the accident. It led some to question why Malév was still conducting flights to Lebanon in spite of the clear danger present.
One explanation suggests business was possible as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had hours earlier opened a Budapest office, Lebanon being the base of PLO's activities. However, Flight 240 among other Malév Beirut flights were filled to less than a third of their capacity, leading some to wonder how they could even be profitable. Speculation arises that Malév was compensated by transporting Videoton and FÉG cargo dubbed "sugar cubes", some even being present in the passenger cabin. The cargo may well have been arms-related, as FEG was a weapons manufacturer, and the paperwork prior to flights was conducted by the Technical Foreign Trade Company, who were usually present in arms deals. Two other unusual circumstances occurred prior to take-off; this included the plane being boarded near a maintainece hangar instead of a gate, and a 15-minute power outage that further delayed the aircraft's departure.
It has been theorised the cargo might have been volatile enough to trigger an accidental explosion. However, others allege that perpetrators destroyed the plane upon discovering the flight's purpose. Such claims allege Israel and Syria were possible suspects, as both were fighting the PLO. Israel also allegedly warned Hungary, the latter a PLO ally, that it was aware of its arms flights, and ordered them to cease. A similar accusation against Israel was that Flight 240 was carrying prominent PLO members, including founder Khaled al-Fahoum. Ultimately, while al-Fahoum was intending to fly from Budapest to Lebanon, he did not rely on 240. Rather, he travelled to Bucharest, before flying to the country. Nevertheless, other PLO members were rumoured to have flown on 240. A theory suggests the delays were caused by passengers connected to PLO who were supposed to have been on-board but either were late or ultimately backed out from flying. Regardless of whether PLO members were on the doomed flight, some theorise Israel may not have been aware that al-Fahoum and others had not boarded the plane, and so destroyed 240 anyway. Alternatively, PLO in-fighting between Yasser Arafat's Fatah and Abu Nidal's Abu Nidal Organization led to theories that 240 was caught up in an assassination plot, again under the assumption PLO members were on-board.
Ultimately, no explanation concerning Flight 240's explosion has gained consensus. However, the ICAO investigation has discredited others. Among these include mechanical failure, as Jabber claimed 240 made no distress call, which is expected to have occurred with the crew having ample time to make one. Further, the air traffic control officers also believed pilot error was not the cause. While a missile has not been ruled out, and is in fact deemed the most likely culprit, 240's position at Beirut's coast means that a stray missile could not have accidentally hit the aircraft. Consensus among Hungarian and Lebanese investigators indicates that the aircraft was indeed wrecked by another party, though no culprit nor motivations have been officially declared. Thus, the mystery surrounding 240's fate continues, with the victims' relatives seeking to resolve it. Among those include the creator of "The Lost Malev", an individual seeking to find their father who was on-board the flight and may have been among the recovered unidentified 17. They are also searching for the crew of KLM Flight KL845, as this aircraft was on the Beirut tarmac just as 240 was beginning its descent. Thus, the crew may well have valuable information surrounding the case, including perhaps overhearing 240's final radio conversation.
Until they become declassified, the Információs Hivatal and Nemzetbiztonsági Hivatal crash reports are extremely unlikely to be leaked to the public given their "Top Secret" status. Only when the circumstances surrounding its "Top Secret" classification become obsolete will these reports stand any chance of being declassified. Meanwhile, the explosive and shock resistance the cockpit voice and flight data recorders have should mean they survived both the initial explosion and the plunge into the sea. However, their current status remains unclear. While it is possible that they may have been recovered during the alleged search and rescue operation, it is more likely that they still dwell at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, about 600 to 1,000 metres in depth. As Beirut's radio recording equipment was malfunctioning, the only information regarding 240's final radio conversation comes from Jabber's recollection of the events.
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- Pan Am Flight 708 (lost flight recorders of fatal cargo aircraft crash; 1966)
- Varig Flight 967 (lost flight recorders and Manabu Mabe paintings of disappeared cargo aircraft; 1979)
- Aviation Safety Network summarising the flight and noting the cause of the crash remains undetermined. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- Archived Airliners providing an extensive article on the disappearance of Malév 240. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- Simple Flying summarising the disaster and providing theories surrounding what caused the crash. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- Archived Aeronautics Online summarising the accident, strange circumstances regarding the flight's departure, and possible theories surrounding its fate. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- The Lost Malev summarising the website's purpose and noting the ICAO report made no mention of the bodies being retrieved. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- The Lost Malev detailing their personal story towards finding their father and resolving the mystery surrounding 240's fate. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- Britannica documenting the Lebanese Civil War. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- The Lost Malev detailing their search for finding the alleged graves of 37 victims, and noting the "Top Secret" reports confirmed to have been published in 2003. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- The Lost Malev detailing the 100 million HUF allocated to locate the aircraft and the missing bodies, all of which was never actually used to help progress the case. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- 27th September 2007 government letter from György Szilvásy to Róbert Répássy (letter in Hungarian). Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- The Jerusalem Post summarising Khaled al-Fahoum's life and founding of PLO. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- Jewish Virtual Library detailing the life of Abu Nidal and the in-fighting in PLO that led to factions being created Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- The Lost Malev detailing KLM Flight KL845 being on the tarmac during 240's final moments, and requesting its crew to get in touch and provide possible information surrounding the crash. Retrieved 16th Jan '23
- NTSB defining the cockpit voice and flight data recorders, and their damage resistance that should mean they survived the crash. Retrieved 16th Jan '23