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.
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.
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.