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Danger zone then and now: Strait of Hormuz


A U.S Navy helicopter flies over the 21st U.S. escorted convoy on Dec. 21, 1987. The convoy originated in Kuwait and consisted of two tankers and two U.S. guided missile frigates. The so-called Tanker War started properly in 1984 when Iraq attacked Iranian tankers and a vital oil terminal at Kharg island.

“You are standing into danger! Alter course now!”

The American warship radio operator repeated the warning, saying we had entered its self-proclaimed  two-mile exclusion zone in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow channel through which 35 percent of all seaborne oil flows.  Suddenly, while the U.S. Navy was threatening us with lethal force, an Iranian frigate opened fire without warning.

It was the second-half of 1987 and tensions were as high in the Strait of Hormuz as they are today.  Iran was laying mines in the Gulf and strait to target oil tankers from Iraq, with which it was at war.  I was working for NBC News as a cameraman, filming activity on the strait from a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter.

We had just passed about half-a-mile away from an unidentified frigate on a parallel course. I suspected it was Iranian and started filming. Seconds later it opened fire on us with its double-barreled 35mm anti-aircraft guns.

I figured it would be too late to warn NBC’s helicopter pilot, Grant Witham, and still filming, braced myself for being knocked out of the sky.

It didn’t happen. Witham was still talking to the angry U.S. Navy radio guy who was convinced we had entered his exclusion zone, trying to persuade him we were nowhere near his ship. I interrupted and shouted over the intercom, “Grant, that warship on the starboard side, it just opened fire on us. It must be Iranian!”

Witham dropped the helicopter like a stone, pulling out just above the water and started a zigzag course away from the Iranian warship, telling the U.S. Navy radio operator we were coming under fire. Amazingly, the American radio operator changed from threatening us to telling us they were headed in our direction to offer help.

Afterwards, we pieced together what happened. The previous day a BBC News helicopter had flown right over the Iranian warship, which had threatened over maritime radio to shoot it down if it came close again. We didn’t have maritime radio aboard our chopper and the Iranians had no way of communicating through our aircraft frequencies.  So they had radioed us on the marine channel, threatening to shoot at us as we flew close by, but we were oblivious to the danger.

In the meantime, Witham had been tied up talking to the American ship, which had mistaken us for another helicopter that had intruded into its “zone,” and he was too busy to notice the frigate on our right.

All of this happened seemingly in less than a few minutes, and demonstrates to me at least, just how tense and dangerous the region can be. One or two small mistakes or misunderstandings can suddenly escalate and the results can be catastrophic.

None less so than the accidental shooting down of the Iranian Airliner Flight 655 on July 3, 1988, with the loss of all 290 passengers and crew. The USS Aegis Cruiser Vincennes had incorrectly identified the Airbus A300 as an Iranian F-14 Tomcat fighter and targeted the airliner with two missiles with devastating results. (Read a Washington Post story on the incident here)

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