A Soviet Sukhoi-15 interceptor
Korean Airlines Flight 007 was one of more than 125 international flights leaving New York's JFK Airport on August 31, 1983 and one of five passenger flights scheduled weekly by the airline connecting New York and Seoul, South Korea. At 12:24 AM, the Boeing 747-200B jumbo airliner lifted off, carrying 244 passengers, including Congressman Lawrence McDonald (D-GA), who was scheduled to attend the 30th anniversary celebration of a mutual defense treaty that existed between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea. Also aboard: the 18-year-old daughter of Kwon Jung-dal, member of South Korea's parliament and Dr. Jong Jin Lim, a Columbia University researcher. Scheduled to be on KAL 007, but taking different flights for various reasons, were ABC reporter Geraldo Rivera and Senator Steven Symms (R-ID).
Refueling at Anchorage, Flight 007 got a new flight crew, commanded by 45-year-old Chun Byung-in, a former Korean Air Force colonel with over 10,000 hours of flying experience. He was one of KAL's best pilots, and he was very familiar with the route he would take to Seoul -- Romeo-20 (or Red Route 20) was one of five parallel commercial air routes connected Alaska and Southeast Asia. The flight departed Anchorage at 4 AM with 246 passengers and a crew of 23; it was scheduled to arrive in Seoul eight hours and twenty minutes later. Within thirty minutes of takeoff, Flight 007 was already six nautical miles north of its assigned course; it would consistently fly outside the boundary of Romeo-20. An hour-and-a-half out of Anchorage, Captain Chun turned KAL 007 directly toward the Kamchatka Peninsula, where a number of military installations were located, and entered the Soviet buffer zone. Since the U.S. Air Force performed normal surveillance and tracking procedures for every plane, military or otherwise, flying into that zone, the Regional Operations Control Center at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, should have been informed of this deviation. But it wasn't. A USAF RC-135 reconnaissance plane was in the air off the coast of Kamchatka on a routine mission to eavesdrop on Soviet air defense activity. The RC-135 should have "spotted" and identified the civilian aircraft. But no warning was issued.
Radar operators of the PVO (Soviet Air Defense) on Kamchatka spotted both Flight 007 and the RC-135 on their screens. At 1600 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the radar blips representing the two planes merged on the Soviet screens, confusing the operators. Nonetheless, Flight 007 should have been identified as a commercial airliner; the Soviet operators could have queried its transponder, which would have provided a four-digit identification number as well as course and altitude data. But the PVO logged Flight 007 as an unidentified aircraft entering Soviet airspace at 26,000 feet -- an unauthorized altitude for a commercial flight -- and instituted a state of emergency that included scrambling interceptors. As the airliner passed over missile-testing areas, several phased-array radar installations and the Petropavlovsk submarine pen, home to 90 nuclear-powered subs, the Soviets claimed later that they picked up coded transmission signal bursts from the craft. But before it could be intercepted, Flight 007 entered international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk, on a course for Sakhalin island and, beyond that, Vladivostok, a main base for the 820-ship Soviet Pacific Fleet.
Sakhalin, a former Czarist penal colony and birthplace of actor Yul Brynner, was the location of seven Soviet naval bases and several airbases. When Flight 007 reentered Soviet airspace over Sakhalin, six interceptors took off with instructions to make visual contact with the intruder and identify themselves. A few moments later, the pilot of a Sukhoi-15 fighter informed ground control that he could see the airliner. On orders, the pilot fired a warning burst from the SU-15's cannons -- four bursts of 120 shells containing tracers. Flight 007 abruptly slowed down. Time was running out for all concerned; the SU-15 pilot was running out of fuel and the Soviet air defense commander, Anatoli Kornukov, had only minutes to decide what to do about an unknown intruder that would soon be in international airspace. Standing border-integrity regulations were to order interlopers to land -- and shoot them down if they failed to comply.
Following instructions, the Su-15 pilot dropped back eight kilometers, and when Flight 007 was 90 seconds from international airspace he launched both of his Anab AA-3 missiles, one radar-guided and one heat-seeking. The latter struck one of the Boeing 747's four engines. Flight 007 remained aloft for twelve minutes. A garbled message picked up by Tokyo air traffic control indicated something about loss of cabin pressure. But no Mayday signals were sent. At 1838 GMT, the plane suddenly vanished from radar screens at the Japanese Defense Agency installation on Hokkaido Island. Japanese fishermen from Moneron Island reported hearing an explosion and seeing a fiery flash in the dark, pre-dawn sky.
Seventeen hours later, presidential counselor Edwin Meese called President Ronald Reagan, who was vacationing at his California ranch, to confirm that the missing KAL Flight 007 had been shot down by a Soviet interceptor. Reagan described the shootdown as a "barbaric act" and returned to Washington for an emergency meeting of the National Security Council. After several days of sullen silence, the Soviet Union charged that the airliner had been conducting a "spy mission." In the UN Security Council, U.S. representative Charles Lichtenstein said the Soviets were "lying -- openly, brazenly and knowingly. It is the face of a ruthless, totalitarian state." In South Korea, tens of thousands marched in angry protest. Governments around the globe condemned the act. The death toll of 269 was the fifth highest in aviation history; it included 61 Americans and citizens of 13 other nations.
The tragedy presented President Reagan with a dilemma. In past months his administration had worked to relax superpower tensions, signing a new multi-year grain agreement with Moscow, giving a nod to the sale of pipeline equipment to the Soviets by American firms, and preparing for new arms limitation talks. The U.S. was reluctant to engage in an about-face on any of these matters, even though Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) insisted that the incident was "the best chance we ever had to paint those bastards into a corner." Instead, the administration orchestrated mild and purely symbolic economic sanctions against the USSR, and Reagan called for a national day of mourning in a televised address. A majority of Americans polled thought the president's response was not tough enough.
Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko used a session at Madrid's human-rights conference to denounce South Korea for a violation of the USSR's "sacred borders." An angry meeting with U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz followed. The Cold War was turning frosty. (Some scholars speculate that the shootdown ended any hope for meaningful arms negotiations in the years to come.) In Moscow, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov held a press conference in which he stoutly defended the Soviet action. Review of Soviet radio intercepts by American experts indicated that the way Flight 007 was handled was not all that unusual. "There is such a terrible pressure on Soviet officials to do things by the book," said Sovietologist William F. Hyland, "that it would have taken an Andropov, a Gromyko . . . to say 'Don't shoot.'"
As it turned out, the Soviets' insistence that KAL 007 was being used for intelligence gathering was not as far-fetched as it seemed. The Cuban airline, Cubana, routinely sent planes veering out of authorized flight paths to overfly U.S. military facilities. In Eastern Europe, Finnair flights often intruded on Soviet territory to gather intelligence. Israel's national airline, El Al, was used for the same purpose. And the Soviet national carrier, Aeroflot, was notorious for unauthorized overflights. In November 1981, an Aeroflot airliner bound for Dulles International Airport took advantage of the air traffic controllers' strike to overfly the Strategic Air Command center at New Hampshire's Pease AFB as well as the General Dynamics shipyards at Groton, Connecticut. Soviet aircraft often invaded American Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) -- from January to September 1983, 77 Soviet planes entered the Atlantic Coast ADIZ. Their main purpose: to pick up U.S. radar frequencies and record how long it took American interceptors to respond. U.S. reconnaissance planes sometimes violated Soviet airspace, as well. But the U.S. vigorously denied that KAL 007 had been used for intelligence-gathering.
Regardless of the validity of the Soviet charge, the consensus was that they had gone too far in shooting down a commercial airliner. Referring to the Soviet and Cuban aircraft, commercial or otherwise, that had violated restricted zones, an American official said, "We never blasted them out of the sky." It wasn't until 1996 that the pilot who shot down Flight 007 admitted that he knew it was a civilian plane. "But for me this meant nothing," he said. "It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use." The pilot insisted that the plane was on a spy mission. He acknowledged that he had flashed his lights and fired warning shots. But he had not tried to radio the plane, or bothered describing the Boeing 747 to ground control.
Like all commercial jets on international flights, KAL 007 was equipped with three separate Inertial Navigation Systems (INS). INS computer systems alert pilots to course deviation and are virtually failsafe -- unless they are programmed incorrectly. Data such as geographic coordinates for the upcoming flight to Seoul were manually entered into Flight 007's system at Anchorage. The answer to the mystery of why the airliner veered so far off course lay in the flight data and cockpit voice recorders lying somewhere in the Sea of Japan. American and Japanese naval vessels searched in vain for six weeks for these items -- a search interrupted by occasional tense confrontations with Soviet destroyers, and one that was finally called off in late October. In 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin gave South Korean President Roh Tai Woo what he alleged to be KAL 007's "black boxes" -- which the Russians had previously denied having. The flight data recorder box was empty. The cockpit voice recorder box contained four copies of the original tapes, none of which were intelligible.
It Had Happened Before
In April 1978, a Korean Airlines Boeing 707 strayed into Soviet airspace. The Soviets claimed they tracked the airliner for two hours, flew past it, and fired warning shots with tracers. The Korean pilot, however, testified that even though he reduced speed and activated landing lights -- the international signal that one aircraft will follow the directions of an interceptor -- a Soviet fighter fired a missile that sheared off part of the Boeing 707's left wing and ripped a hole in the fuselage, killing two passengers. The crippled airliner nose-dived from 35,000 to 3,000 feet. The pilot managed to regain control and landed the plane on a frozen lake near Murmansk. The Soviets submitted a $100,000 bill to South Korea for expenses incurred in rescuing, feeding and housing the survivors.
In 1973, a Libyan Airlines 727 entered airspace above the Israeli-occupied Sinai Desert, a war zone. Israeli Phantom F-4E interceptors shot the plane down, killing all but eight of the 116 passengers. Israel apologized and paid $3 million in compensation.
Newsweek, 12 September 1983, 19 September 1983
Time, 12 September 1983, 26 September 1983, 17 October 1983
KAL 007: The Cover Up
David Pearson (New York: Summit Books, 1987)
Shootdown: Flight 007 and the American Connection
R.W, Johnson (New York: Viking, 1986)
"The Target Is Destroyed": What Really Happened to Flight 007...
Seymour M. Hersh (New York: Random House, 1986)