In a few cases pilots have been rendered unconcious or killed and their planes have flown on as 'ghost' planes.

So imagining a situation where the pilots of an airliner suddenly die and the passengers are unable to break their way into the cockpit, but this plane is on a direct collision course for a major place like Times Square or the Whitehouse.

Is it possible for the military to legally shoot down a plane over a rural area before it reaches a location where it will kill possibly hundreds?

  • Given your examples ("Times Square or the Whitehouse") you're asking about the USA, presumably. I remember that the Canadian PM was prepared to give the order (to shoot down a non-responsive plane, if it approached a city) on 9/11. – ChrisW Jul 19 '16 at 11:48
  • Why wouldn't it be legal? In the hypothetical situation, the death of the people on board was unavoidable and therefore cannot be blamed on the military. Of course, that's hypothetical. In reality, the military can't know for certain whether the pilots will remain unresponsive. – MSalters Jul 19 '16 at 12:59
  • @ChrisW You are correct. That flight was Korean Air Flight 85. – Zizouz212 Jul 19 '16 at 21:29
  • @Zizouz212 IIRC someone later asked him how he'd have reconciled that with his Christian conscience, and he replied to the effect that he'd have had to consider the people on the (hijacked/doomed) plane to be already dead (lost). – ChrisW Jul 19 '16 at 21:44
  • Why wouldn't it be legal? Because most average airliners can have up to 300 passengers and as far as the public sees it you will be shooting down a civilian plane and killing 300 people. – Hyden Jul 25 '16 at 13:00

Unequivocally yes.

An Australian judgement asserted this by (happily) adopting the reasoning of the US courts:

The matter also came up for discussion in the Communist Party case where Justice Dixon adopted the U.S. view that:

... it is within the necessary power of the Federal government to protect its own existence and the unhindered play of its legitimate activities. And to this end, it may provide for the punishment of treason, the suppression of insurrection or rebellion and for the putting-down of all individual or concerted attempts to obstruct or interfere with the discharge of the proper business of government ...

A plane (or ship, or train etc.) that is not responding to hails and acting to put citizens at risk is a legitimate target of military force. It doesn't matter if it is acting that way because of a deliberate decision of its controllers (e.g. terrorists), because it's not under control or because it's controllers are idiots.

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