35 Years Ago: Russians shoot down KAL 007, all lives lost

 

Thirty-five years ago, on September 1, 1983, Russian jet fighters shot down a Boeing 747 operated by Korean Airlines. KAL flight 007, even the flight number invites conspiracy theories! The facts are that the plane went down in the Sea of Japan with all 269 passengers and crew lost, the aircraft fatally damaged by two short-range air-to-air missiles. This was a dreadful mishap at the height of the Cold War, the civilian aircraft being mistaken for the smaller RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, and it also showed how far Russia would go to defend its territorial integrity from overflights.

RAF operated RC-135; Russians were tracking USAF RC-135s in the area.

Two blogs provide good accounts, with illustrations, of how the Korean Airlines plane got so dangerously off course, and the sequence of Russian air defense responses, ending in fighter pilots watching the crippled aircraft spiral into the sea.

Tragedy on the way home: (Korean Airlines B-747 vs. Soviet Sukhoi Su-15)

The ICAO report, after months of harsh investigation, often obstructed by several attempts of red herring, published his final conclusions:

1) The crew inadvertently flew virtually the entire flight on a constant magnetic heading (in the heading mode) due to its unawareness of the fact that ‘heading’ had been selected as the mode of navigation rather the ‘inertial navigation system’ (INS).
2) An undetected 10 degree longitudinal error was made in inserting the ‘present position’ co-ordinates of the Anchorage gate position into one or more of the INS units.
3) Interceptions of KE 007 were attempted by USSR military interceptor aircraft, over Kamchatka Peninsula and in the vicinity of Sakhalin Island.
4) The USSR authorities assumed that KE 007 was an ‘intelligence aircraft’ and, therefore, they did not make exhaustive efforts to identify the aircraft through in-flight visual observations.
5) ICAO was not provided any radar recordings, recorded communications or transcripts associated with the first intercept attempt or for the ground-to-interceptor portion of the second attempt, therefore, it was not possible to fully assess the comprehensiveness or otherwise of the application of intercept procedures, signaling and communications.
6) In the absence of any indication that the flight crew of KE 007 was aware of the two interception attempts, it was concluded that they were not.

On Mar. 10, 1986, two years and half after the tragedy, the ICAO Council adopted the Amendment 27 of the Annex 2 of the Chicago Convention. In particular, some intercepting rules measures were enhanced regarding the visual signals, the intercepting maneuvers, the coordination with ground units and most important the principle of the interdiction of the use of force against civil aerial intruders was strengthened.

On the operations side, as a result of the incident, the interface of the autopilot used on airliners was redesigned to make it more ergonomic.

Airspace conflict before Open-Skies, Korean Airlines Flight 007

Both missiles detonated via airburst in close proximity to their target, and the shrapnel from them caused extensive damage to the engines, flight control surfaces and fuselage of 007. Initially, the aircraft climbed for approximately 113 seconds, and in fact stayed aloft for about five minutes after missile detonation. The jet never exploded or broke apart, but finally, according to the lead Soviet pilot, began a slow spiraling descent until it finally crashing into the sea near Moneron Island, just off Sakhalin Island. All 269 souls onboard were lost. Initial reports that the aircraft had been forced to land in Soviet territory were quickly discounted as clear information became available. According to transcripts from 007’s cockpit, the aircrew never knew that they had been struck by missiles or that they had strayed into Soviet airspace. For years after the shoot down, the Soviets maintained that they believed that KAL 007 was on a spy mission, and that the U.S. and Korea had utilized a civilian aircraft as a provocation. It was only in recent years that declassified communications between Japan and the U.S. have come to light which show that the Soviets admitted mistaking 007 for an RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft.

An American congressman died on board, and Senator Henry M. Jackson, a Democrat who was strong on defense, died on the day of the shoot-down, after he gave a news conference denouncing the Soviets’ actions.

Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson died suddenly at the age of 71 in Everett of an aortic aneurysm, shortly after giving a news conference condemning the Soviet attack on Korean Air Lines Flight 007. News reports showed video of Jackson in which he was seen reflexively massaging the left side of his chest while talking and speculated that it was his reaction to an early symptom of the fatal attack.

Before the Treaty on Open Skies in 2002, reconnaissance flights over other states’ territory were hostile acts. Civilian air service was first agreed to between the U.S. and USSR in 1990. So, KAL007 was at the mercy of the Soviet commander(s) at a moment when the KGB had concluded they were beginning to lose the Cold War. Secretary General Yuri Andropov, in power for less than a year at this point, had been head of the KGB. Andropov compared Reagan to Hitler, to build domestic support. 

President Reagan took the time to get the facts, as his government gathered and interpreted them, and gave an address to the nation on September 5, 1983. Listen to how he addressed the excuses offered, including overflight of sensitive territory. Consider that two years later, the Soviets shot a uniformed U.S. Army officer, and made his sergeant watch him bleed out, to make a political point: break the surveillance rules and risk death, not prison. KAL007: mistake or calculated shoot-down?

This was the beginning of an incredibly dangerous month. Before the end of September, 1983, a fast-thinking Soviet officer saved the world when he realized a U.S. ICBM launch detection was actually a warning system glitch! We can be thankful that leaders of both countries, while locked in a battle to win the Cold War, kept the world from going over the brink.

There are 17 comments.

  1. JoelB Member

    I know a man who came to the USA from the USSR as a Christian religious refugee in the early 90s. He had worked on one of the surveillance “fishing trawlers” in the Soviet Navy for a time. He said he had talked to many others throughout the Soviet Pacific fleet who had searched for the aircraft and he was convinced that KE 007 was a spy plane. He said that he had seen Alaska many times. I asked him if he ever came ashore there. He said no, our governments were not too friendly with each other then. He did however, enjoy working off the coast of the USA because he got paid in the currency of the country that they were working near. With the exchange rate at the time, he said that he did pretty well. I think he made a little extra for his English-speaking skills as well. He was in charge of the ship’s computer which was about the size of a filing cabinet and had the power of a Commodore 64.

    • #1
    • September 1, 2018, at 12:15 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  2. Stad Thatcher

    I read there was a visual identification by the Russian pilot, but he got the shootdown order anyway . . .

    • #2
    • September 1, 2018, at 12:49 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    That was my Congressman, Larry McDonald who died. It made for some scary times. 

     

    • #3
    • September 1, 2018, at 1:19 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  4. Stad Thatcher

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    That was my Congressman, Larry McDonald who died. It made for some scary times.

     

    Indeed.

    • #4
    • September 1, 2018, at 1:28 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  5. David Foster Member

    The misprogramming of KAL007’s navigation system was discussed at my post When Humans and Robots Communicate. My source had a somewhat different interpretation of what went wrong.

    • #5
    • September 1, 2018, at 3:32 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  6. Doctor Robert Member

    This is a lesson that should not be forgotten. The USSR was authoritarian, brutal and paranoid. I thought at the time, and 35 years have not caused me to feel otherwise, that this was a deliberate provocation. We ought to have obliterated the airbase from which the planes flew, or so I felt at the time, but Mr Reagan had better instincts than do I.

    • #6
    • September 1, 2018, at 3:35 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. Nick H Coolidge

    I’m willing to believe it was a mistake. They do happen (consider Iran Air 655 just a few years later in 1988) and I don’t think the Soviets would have wanted the negative attention they received for shooting down a civilian airliner. Which is not to say that the Soviets did nothing wrong. They clearly failed to make enough of an effort to identify the plane before shooting, and made no attempt to force the plane down. Definitely a Cold War tragedy.

    • #7
    • September 1, 2018, at 5:02 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  8. barbara lydick Coolidge

    What a horrible, horrible tragedy for the victims and the sorrow of their families and friends. It was known very early on that the Russians had perpetrated this and knew it was a passenger plane, not a plane on a spy mission, notwithstanding their statements to the contrary.

    I was flying back from Seoul to LA that very day on a KAL flight. A friend was picking me up at LAX and had read a small notice in the OC Register that a KAL flight had been shot down. No other info was given in that notice and a few calls to the airport and KAL gave him nothing either. Before he drove drive to the airport, tho, it was confirmed that the flight was west-bound, not the direction of the flight I was on. (The flights from the east coast, namely NYC, flew the arctic route, it being shorter, while the west coast flights simply crossed the Pacific.)

    I had met 2 of the passengers through business (Hyundai Heavy Industries).

    • #8
    • September 1, 2018, at 5:58 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. James Lileks Contributor

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    That was my Congressman, Larry McDonald who died. It made for some scary times.

    Oh yes. Pucker time coast to coast when the shoot-down news broke. 

    • #9
    • September 1, 2018, at 7:23 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  10. Doug Watt Member

    Yes the Russian fighter pilot made a visual identification of KAL 007 as a commercial airliner, and was told to engage it.

    Then there is Iran Air Flight 655:

    Toward the end of the war, on July 3, 1988, a U.S. Navy ship called the Vincennes was exchanging fire with small Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy kept ships there, and still does, to protect oil trade routes. As the American and Iranian ships skirmished, Iran Air Flight 655 took off from nearby Bandar Abbas International Airport, bound for Dubai. The airport was used by both civilian and military aircraft. The Vincennes mistook the lumbering Airbus A300 civilian airliner for a much smaller and faster F-14 fighter jet, perhaps in the heat of battle or perhaps because the flight allegedly did not identify itself. It fired two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 290 passengers and crew members on board. – Washington Post

    …and the Russian shootdown of a Malaysian Airliner over Ukraine. 

    • #10
    • September 1, 2018, at 10:15 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  11. Keith SF Member

    David Foster (View Comment):

    The misprogramming of KAL007’s navigation system was discussed at my post When Humans and Robots Communicate. My source had a somewhat different interpretation of what went wrong.

    Thanks @davidfoster, interesting post. I first read about “the paradox of automation” a few years ago-

    https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/11/crash-how-computers-are-setting-us-up-disaster

    …and I worry that these types of problems aren’t going away anytime soon.

    • #11
    • September 1, 2018, at 10:56 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Whether misidentified or not, fighter jets were in no danger from an unarmed (whether civilian or military reconnaissance) aircraft. Pulling up alongside, unless under zero illumination, would reveal the obvious fuselage profile. Pulling in front would have the airline crew staring at a fighter’s glowing exhaust. So, there would seem to have been non-lethal options.

    Before the Treaty on Open Skies in 2002, reconnaissance flights over other states’ territory were hostile acts. Civilian air service was first agreed to between the U.S. and USSR in 1990. So, KAL007 was at the mercy of the Soviet commander(s) at a moment when the KGB had concluded they were beginning to lose the Cold War.

    Secretary General Yuri Andropov, in power for less than a year at this point, had been head of the KGB. Andropov compared Reagan to Hitler, to build domestic support. Before the end of September, 1983, a fast-thinking Soviet officer saved the world when he realized a U.S. ICBM launch detection was actually a warning system glitch!

    • #12
    • September 2, 2018, at 12:11 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  13. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    I appreciate the breadth of Ricochet members’ experiences, reflected in the comments above.

    • #13
    • September 2, 2018, at 12:16 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  14. David Foster Member

    Keith SF (View Comment):
    …and I worry that these types of problems aren’t going away anytime soon

    Indeed, they unfortunately aren’t. See my post Automation, Aviation, and Business, which includes a link to a classic talk by an American Airlines captain: The children of magenta.

    • #14
    • September 2, 2018, at 2:43 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. John Seymour Inactive

    Stad (View Comment):

    I read there was a visual identification by the Russian pilot, but he got the shootdown order anyway . . .

    That’s my recollection as well. I recall the U.S. playing the intercepts we had of the Russian pilot identifying the plane as a 747 and getting the shoot down order. I was stunned. That happened on the day I was checking into my Unit at Ft. Meade after two years at 6903rd ESG (Skivvy Nine) in Korea. TS codeword stuff. But of course the President gets to decide when and how to use intel.

    • #15
    • September 2, 2018, at 4:06 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Keith SF (View Comment):
    …and I worry that these types of problems aren’t going away anytime soon

    Indeed, they unfortunately aren’t. See my post Automation, Aviation, and Business, which includes a link to a classic talk by an American Airlines captain: The children of magenta.

    Excellent talk, understandable by lay viewers.

    • #16
    • September 2, 2018, at 4:16 PM PDT
    • Like
  17. Doctor Robert Member

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Keith SF (View Comment):
    …and I worry that these types of problems aren’t going away anytime soon

    Indeed, they unfortunately aren’t. See my post Automation, Aviation, and Business, which includes a link to a classic talk by an American Airlines captain: The children of magenta.

    Excellent talk, understandable by lay viewers.

    Indeed, thank you David for linking it. Pilots, with their scrupulous study of methods and mistakes, are a laudable model for high-skill, high-stakes professionals.

    • #17
    • September 4, 2018, at 8:12 PM PDT
    • 1 like