For many people born after about 1975, the 80’s was a time of adventure and rebirth from the gas shortages and economic downturn of the decade before. The first space shuttle, Columbia made its maiden flight in 1981; movie goers could take in everything from Terms of Endearment to Friday the 13th; and the geek in us could spazz out over the first personal computer launched by IBM in 1981 or the release of the megahit video game Pacman in 1980 and later Nintendo gaming system. But a dark cloud, left over from the end of World War II, hung over the 80’s as well. Ever since their troops first met and shook hands at the Elbe River crossing, all but signaling the end of the European theater of war, tensions had run high between the Soviet Union and the superpowers of the West.
The building of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and defectors dominated the news. But things weren’t always so direct. Both behind the scenes and center stage, the West and the Soviets played a cat and mouse game of proxy war (read: Korea, Vietnam, Africa, etc.) and the proxies paid the price. Many innocent lives were loss, and one of the most infamous examples of this took place on 01 September 1983 over the skies of the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan when a Soviet interceptor aircraft shot down Korean Airlines (KAL) Flight 007, killing all 269 passengers and flight crew.
Flight 007, operated by Korean Airlines, was a Boeing 747-230B commercial aircraft, and the originated at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on August 30, 1983, bound for Gimpo International Airport in Seoul, South Korea. At the time, the aircraft was carrying 246 passengers and, unusual due to another partial crew “dead heading,” a crew of 23. The 747 made a scheduled refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska, then departed for its South Korean destination at 0400 on August 31, 1983. As a passenger break down, according to passenger lists and Wikipedia, 12 passengers occupied the upper deck first class, while in business almost all of 24 seats were taken; in economy class, approximately 80 seats did not contain passengers. Tragically, there were also 22 children under the age of 12 years aboard.
What should have happened: once the 747 took off, Air Traffic Control (ATC) would have instructed the pilot to turn to a designated heading. Shortly thereafter, ATC would then instruct the crew to proceed into one of the 50 – mile wide “airways” that connects the U.S. (Alaska) and Japanese coasts, and taking out some of the more technical details, 007 is on its way to Seoul.
What actually happened: after take-off and onto its designated heading, 007 began to drift, or deviate from its intended course onto a more northerly heading, for reasons not clearly known to this day, it would do so for the next 5.5 hours. Some experts believe that it was a combination of events, beginning with the aircraft’s HEADING mode not being switched over to the Inertial Navigation System (INS) mode at a predesignated point in the flight. Second, the autopilot system had not been manually switched between the two modes, OR the crew did make the switch, but the computer failed to make the transition over. Whatever the reason, flight 007 was now 5.6 miles north of its intended course.
The effects of 007’s drift were immediate. By now the aircraft was more than 12 miles north of where it should have been, and this prevented the crew from transmitting their position via the short-range very high frequency (VHF) radio. Because of this, the crew was forced to request that its sister flight in the area, KAL 015, to relay their position three times. Halfway between checkpoints, KAL 007 passed through the southern portion of the North American Defense Command buffer zone, which is off-limits to civilian aircraft. Sometime during all of this, 007 crossed the International Dateline, and the date shifted to September 1, 1983, local. Eventually, KAL flight would end up 160 nautical miles off course from one of its waypoints, and would eventually reach the Soviet territory of Kamchatka Peninsula.
By this time, the Soviet military was well aware of the approach of 007, but not, allegedly, to its civilian status. While 007 unknowingly entered, left, then re-entered Soviet airspace, Soviet air defense units tracked it closely, designating it as a military flight. Eventually, three Sukhoi SU-15 (NATO designation “Flagon”) and one Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (NATO designation “Flogger’) interceptor were launched to overtake and make a visual ID on the aircraft. They did so, and the lead Su-15 fired warning shots that the pilot later recalled as being useless because it was pitch black and the rounds the fighter carried were armor-piercing and not the illuminating incendiary type that would have been more easily seen by the KAL aircrew.
Still unaware of their location or the presence of the Soviet fighters, the aircrew requested clearance from Japan’s Tokyo Area Control Center to climb to a higher altitude to save fuel. The request was granted, and may have (my opinion) sealed KAL 007’s fate. When the 747 began to decrease its speed and climb, Soviet ground control intercept saw the action as an evasive maneuver. Finally, the order to shoot down the aircraft before it left Soviet airspace was given, the lead SU-15 moved into an optimal firing position, then ripple fired two K-8 (NATO designated AA-3 “Anab”) air-to-air missiles at the still unaware aircraft.
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.
Featured image courtesy of CIA.