Pre-attack Overflights: Review and Analysis
K. J. Halliwell (January 23, 2013 - Revised May 22, 2015)
 
The Naval Court of Inquiry (NCOI) record contains pre-attack overflight testimony from five eyewitness USS Liberty officers.  Below are abridged versions of their testimony, in chronological (local time) order.

Ensign Scott: "… On the morning of the 8th [at about 0515] … we had one reconnaissance plane that flew by us and made a few circles off our port beam.  He circled around about three or four times, then took off. … Due to the distance we could not see any markings or insignia of any sort on it. … The plane circled around several times then took off in a true direction towards Tel Aviv.  About 30 minutes later I got a call from coordination ... Chief CT SMITH was on the phone; wanted to know if I had an air contact that was fairly close in the last half hour.  I told him I did and he wanted to know which direction it went after it left the vicinity of the ship.  I told him, 'Tel Aviv.'  He said, 'Fine, that's all I want to know.' I did manage to take four pictures of the aircraft with the camera on the bridge.  I didn't know what type it was.  It was a double fuselage, twin engine type.  It looked somewhat like an old P38 or a small flying boxcar." 

Commander McGonagle: "…on the morning of 8 June at about 1030, a flight of two unidentified jet aircraft orbited the ship at about 10,000 feet three times at a distance of approximately two miles.  It was not possible to identify any insignia on the aircraft and their identity remains unknown. … At about 1056 … aircraft similar to an American flying boxcar crossed astern of the ship at a distance of about three to five miles. The plane circled the ship around the starboard side, proceeded forward of the ship and headed back toward the Sinai peninsula. … This aircraft continued to return in a somewhat similar fashion approximately at 30 minute intervals.  It was not possible to see any markings on the aircraft and the identity of this aircraft remains unknown."

Lieutenant Golden: "… At approximately 1145, … I noticed a plane flying over. …approximately 25 minutes or so later on, I … saw a plane circling again coming from the port beam, crossing the ship.  While watching it, I glanced up and noticed it just crossing over the stack area, and I noticed a small amount of smoke coming out of my [ship's] stack, and also the flag was flying."

Ensign O'Malley: "… From 1220 to 1230 is when an Israeli twin-engine plane, well we didn't know it was Israeli, just a twin-engine plane very similar to a flying boxcar, circled us once in a long elliptical circle and they drew near. …on questioning … Mr. Ennes said the plane had come out almost periodically every 20 to 40 minutes, and would make one pass in a high circle and head back to land."

Lieutenant-JG Watson: "… At approximately 1245, an aircraft flew over approximately 5,000 to 8,000 feet, and his line of flight took it over the radar mast, and I was watching it and made a comment about it that it looked like a C119 flying boxcar."

Based on the above testimonies, at least six overflights occurred:
                                                               Time  Witness (aircraft type)
                                                               0515  Scott (boxcar)
                                                               1030  McGonagle (jet)
                                                               1056  McGonagle (boxcar)
                                                               1145  Golden (undefined)
                                                               1226  O’Malley (boxcar)
                                                               1245  Watson (boxcar)

The following are Deck Log entries (written after attack, signed by McGonagle) for pre-attack overflights:
"1030 UNIDENTIFIED AIRCRAFT ORBITED (2) MILES AFT PORT BEAN THEN RETURNED TO MAINLAND AT 1057.
1126 UNIDENTIFIED AIRCRAFT CIRCLED SHIP."

The following is text from a situation report (SITREP) message, found in the NCOI record’s exhibits, about a pre-attack overflight at 0850 local time:
080742Z JUN 67: "TWO DELTA WING SINGLE ENGINE JET FIGHTER A/C ORBITED USS LIBERTY THREE TIMES AT 31-27N, 34-00E AT TIME 08/0650Z. NO IDENT. VISIBLE DUE ALT. EST. 5,000 FT, DISTANCE EST 2 MILES. NO AMPLIFYING REPORT WILL BE SUBMITTED."

According to NCOI findings (see below) there was another message about an overflight at 1126.  The message date-time group given was 081022Z (1222 local time).  A copy of this message was not found in NCOI exhibits or other available sources; although, the Deck Log (see above) contains an 1126 entry to this effect.

From the above testimony, log entries and messages, the NCOI wrote the following two findings:
"18. Pre-attack overflights of LIBERTY:
(First air attack occurred at 1403 local)
Unidentified aircraft circled LIBERTY at:
      0850 (5 hours 13 minutes prior to attack) 080742Z [message] refers
      1056 (3 hours  7 minutes prior to attack)
      1126 (2 hours 37 minutes prior to attack) 081022Z [message] refers
Hull markings were clean and freshly painted - ensign was flying from foremast [SIC: flag flew from center mast] halyard."
  ...
"22. Groups of up to two and three jet and propeller aircraft begin coming out from shore and circling ship at altitudes ranging from 500 up to several thousand feet at about eight hundred local on day of attack.  Planes in question were otherwise active over El Arish on Sinai north coast which was plainly visible from the ship some sixteen miles off shore."

Regardless of there being a time and count inconsistency between the findings and evidence, all of the above well supports that aircraft flew over and orbited USS Liberty six or seven times before the attack, and that these aircraft were predominately “boxcar” type; i.e., the Nord 2501 Noratlas used by the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF] air force for transport and reconnaissance missions.

The fact that IDF “boxcar” type aircraft flew regularly from north Sinai (i.e., IDF controlled territory) to orbit the ship, at different times and points along its path of travel, and then returned to north Sinai, well supports that the ship was a target of concern and observation by elements of the IDF.  Also, more likely than not, these flyovers and observations were communicated from the aircraft’s pilots or observers to their ground controller -- even if purely coincidental to some other reconnaissance mission.  To believe otherwise is to infer that the aircraft’s pilots took it upon themselves to perform these regular flyovers and did not communicate any observations to ground control -- a doubtful scenario.

So,  taking into consideration the above evidence and that the IDF's official investigations make clear that Liberty was identified after initial aircraft observation in the early morning (i.e., the aircraft reported by Scott), a strong circumstantial argument exists for USS Liberty's presence and location being known and reported by elements of the IDF air force, about one hour before the attack began.
 
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For a related matter, see essay entitled: Pre-attack Overflight Aircraft Photo?