An old friend of mine told me that watching the first plane hit the World Trade Center from a commuter bus in Queens he assumed pilot error was to blame. (If only.) Like many editors, my friend saw the world as a conspiracy of errors and believed, despite my attempts to convince him otherwise, that emailing manuscripts resulted in digital corruption – the sort of thing where ‘too’ replaces ‘two’ or ‘to’.

But mistakes do happen, sometimes with dire consequences, especially if they involve planes and missiles. The seventh deadliest aviation disaster in history – the tenth if you’re counting 9/11 – is the downing of Iranian Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes on 3 July 1988.

According to the official US version of the story, the Vincennes, a Ticonderoga class Aegis missile cruiser, was protecting the frigate USS Elmer Montgomery in the Strait of Hormuz as it engaged with several Iranian gunboats that had been hounding a Pakistani merchant vessel. The fight was going on when the Iranian Airbus took off from the joint military/civilian airfield at Bandar Abbas on a daily trip to Dubai. The official report emphasises that ‘special occasions, such as Moslem or American holidays inevitably precipitated intelligence reports that the Iranians were preparing a particular operation directed at Americans.’ (Happy Fourth of July, in other words.) There was other intelligence that Iranian F-14 Tomcats and other aircraft were being tricked out for suicide assaults. ‘It is hard to overemphasise the fact that Bandar Abbas is also a military airfield,’ the report says. ‘The Airbus was probably not informed of the surface action taking place in the strait. Informed or not, Flight 655 logically appeared to have a direct relationship to the ongoing surface engagement.’ In addition to logic, Captain Will Rogers III of the Vincennes was told the climbing Airbus – which was carrying 290 passengers, among them 66 children – was a diving F-14 Tomcat (even though it was identifying itself on civilian frequencies, as recorded by the Vincennes’ own combat system) and ordered it shot down with a salvo of missiles. So a mistake. In another version, that of Commander David Carlson, commanding officer of the USS Signs, then under Rogers’s tactical control, it was the ‘horrifying climax to Captain Rogers’s aggressiveness’. In the Iranian government’s version, it was a deliberate crime.

The US at first denied responsibility for Flight 655’s destruction, and no president, from Reagan on, has ever apologised. In 1996 the US paid £77 million to the victims’ families, though without accepting legal responsibility. As has been mentioned in the international press, though hardly at all in the UK, the incident has had a lot of echoes in the suspected shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Then of course there were the downings of Korean Air Flight 007 by the Soviets in 1983 and Siberian Airlines Flight 1812 in 2001. Everybody makes mistakes.

Anyone looking for a treatment of the Flight 655 disaster in fiction – is anyone? – should dig up Adam Haslett’s novel Union Atlantic, where it serves as the prelude to one Vincennes crewman’s dastardly career in the finance industry. As for Will Rogers III, he was at the centre of another attack, this one still unsolved. Nine months after Flight 655 was shot down, a pipe bomb exploded in the Toyota minivan Rogers’s wife, Sharon, was driving in San Diego. Sharon Rogers survived. Terrorist plot, disgruntled naval colleague, or deranged individual? The FBI never solved the case. The Iranians said the FBI did it.