Su-15 pilot Aleksandr I. Bosov fired a single R-98MR missile, reporting an explosion and saying that the target was losing altitude. The explosion tore away at a chunk of the Boeing 707 port wing.
Closed in 1949, the Sukhoi Design Bureau was reborn in 1953 to meet an urgent demand for a fast interceptor that would counter the threat posed by NATO bombers. It wasted no time developing a succession of missile-armed, Mach 2 interceptors characterized by delta wings; the single-engined Su-9 (NATO reporting name: Fishpot-B) entered service in 1960, followed by the up-armed Su-11 (NATO reporting name: Fishpot-C) in 1964 and the twin-engined Su-15 in 1967. Though built in modest numbers, the three types became an important asset for the Soviet air defence force—particularly the more capable Su-15 (NATO reporting name: Flagon), which outlasted the Soviet Union, the last being retired in 1996.
The Su-15 saw a good deal of action in defence of the Soviet borders, particularly in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Commercial airliners occasionally strayed into Soviet airspace when they were not supposed to. While such incursions were invariably described as the result of bona fide navigation errors, this was not always the case.
As told by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Sukhoi Interceptors: The Su-9, Su-11, and Su-15: Unsung Soviet Cold War Heroes, on Apr. 20, 1978 a Korean Air Lines (KAL) Boeing 707-321BA-H, registered HL7429 pair (c/n 19363, fuselage number 623), departed Paris—Charles de Gaulle at 1440 hrs., bound for Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska, as flight KE902, with 97 passengers (including five children) and 12 crew. Everything was normal until the aircraft had passed over Greenland and reached Cape Columbia, the northern extremity of Ellesmere Island, Canada. In his book Flights of Terror: Aerial Hijack and Sabotage since 1930, David Gero wrote: ‘Built more than a decade earlier, the aircraft lacked a modern inertial navigation system, and as a magnetic compass is useless in this part of the world [it gives false readings due to the proximity of the North Pole], and with a scarcity in ground aids, the crew would have to rely upon the older but well-proven method of celestial navigation.
‘Trouble first arose in the vicinity of Iceland, when atmospheric conditions prevented the aircraft from communicating with the corresponding ground station. Approximately over Greenland, and following the instructions of the navigator, the 707 inexplicably initiated a turn of 112 degrees, heading in a south-easterly direction towards the USSR. A while later the pilot, Captain Kim Chang Kyu, sensed something was amiss by the rather obvious fact that the sun was on the wrong side of the aircraft!’
The full truth about this incident remains unknown to this day. Some Western media maintain that the incursion was a result of crew error because the pilots were making their first flight in an unfamiliar aircraft along an unfamiliar route. However, it is hard to imagine that an airline would put passengers’ lives at risk by allowing such a combination—an unfamiliar aircraft and an unfamiliar route, which leaves the door wide open for errors. It is equally hard to imagine a navigation error that would lead to a course change in excess of 100°.
Anyway, the aircraft headed east, passing over the Spitsbergen (Svalbard) Archipelago. At 2054 hrs. Moscow time the radar pickets of the 10th Independent PVO Army detected an aircraft flying at 10,000 m (32,800 ft.) some 380 km (236 miles) north of Rybachiy Peninsula and heading toward Soviet territorial waters at about 900 km/h (559 mph). Boris Samoylov, the officer of the day at the 10th Independent Air Defence Army (OA PVO) of the Soviet Air Defence Forces command post, received the first report of the impending incursion when the aircraft was still 300 km (186 miles) from the border, and tried to ascertain what it was. He was told that the aircraft was a Soviet navy Antonov An-12 Cub transport returning from a sortie over the Barents Sea, but did not believe it. Get real, guys. How can the turboprop-powered An-12 go at this rate, considering that its maximum speed is 780 km/h (484 mph) and its cruising speed 570 km/h (354 mph)?
A maximum alert was declared. When the target approached the 100 km territorial-waters strip, at 2111 hrs. Samoylov ordered a scramble. Eight minutes later the Boeing entered Soviet airspace over the Kola Peninsula, which abounds in military installations, and was thus assumed to be a NATO reconnaissance aircraft.
Since the fighter regiment based closest to the coast was in the midst of conversion to a new aircraft type and was not operational at the time, the task of intercepting the intruder fell to the 431st Fighter Aviation Regiment lAP at Afrikanda AB, and a Su-15TM piloted by Capt. Aleksandr I. Bosov scrambled to intercept. After being directed toward the target in head-on mode by GCI control, the pilot reported seeing it on his radar display, executed a port turn, and started closing in on the target. Coming within visual identification range, Bosov reported it as ‘a four-engined Boeing 747′ [sic] but said he could not make out the insignia—they were Japanese, Chinese, or Korean’. (Obviously the pilot had seen hieroglyphic characters of the aircraft’s fuselage but had no way of knowing what language it was.)
Receiving orders to force the intruder down at a Soviet airfield, Capt. Bosov made two passes along the 707’s port side with a lateral separation of 50 -60 m (165-200 ft.), positioning himself ahead of the airliner’s flight deck and rocking his wings as a ‘follow me’ signal. Yet, the South Korean crew ignored these `amorous advances’ and pressed on toward the Finnish border, which was only five minutes away. (Afterward, Western media claimed that the interceptor had approached on the starboard side, in contravention of normal procedure.)
Meanwhile, after analysing the target’s track plotted by AD radars, the 10th Independent PVO Army HQ decided the 707 was about to escape and ordered the airliner shot down. At 2142 hrs., Bosov fired a single R-98MR missile, reporting an explosion and saying that the target was losing altitude. The explosion tore away at a chunk of the Boeing’s port wing 3-4 m (9 ft., 10 in.-13 ft., 11/2 in.) long, complete with the low-speed aileron, knocked out the no. 1 engine, and apparently punctured the fuselage, causing the cabin to decompress. The crew initiated an emergency descent, causing the PVO radar pickets to briefly lose sight of the aircraft. Bosov was about to fire a second missile but lost target lock-on because the Boeing was descending rapidly; some sources claim he did fire second R-98 but it missed.
As the action unfolded, a steady exchange of information was going on between PVO command centres at all echelons. The PVO commander in chief, Lt.-Gen. Vladimir S. Dmitriyev, who had ordered the target shot down, was belatedly informed that the target was a civil airliner; hence his new order overruling the previous one (to force the intruder down in one piece) reached the lower echelons too late, when the 707 was already under fire. By then five other aircraft from units stationed in the area had scrambled to intercept the intruder, relieving Bosov’s aircraft, which was getting low on fuel; these were two 174th IAP Yak-28Ps from Monchegorsk, a 524th IAP MiG-25P from Letneozyorsk, a 265th IAP Su-15TM from Poduzhem’ye AB, piloted by Lt. (SG) Sergey Slobodchikov, and one more 431st IAP Su-15TM from Afrikanda, flown by Capt. Anatoliy Kerefov. When the target vanished from the radarscopes, a third Yak-28P, a further MiG-25P, and three more Su-15TMs from the same bases joined the hunt. Obeying orders from the command post, Slobodchikov even fired a missile at a slow-flying target at 5,000 m (16,400 ft.), which was believed to be a cruise missile but later turned out to be nothing more than the severed fragment of the 707’s port wing falling to earth. No sooner had Slobodchikov landed than he was told that the target was still airborne, and he was ordered up again.
Meanwhile, gradually losing altitude, the crippled airliner orbited near Loukhi settlement in the vicinity of Kem’, Arkhangel’sk Region; there it was again detected and tracked by AD radars, and the nearest interceptor (piloted by Anatoliy Kerefov) was directed toward it. Since the Su-15’s radar was not much use against a low-flying target, the pilots had to rely on the Mk 1 eyeball; yet, mortal men don’t have the eyesight of an owl, and even on a cloudless polar night it takes time to spot the target. At 2245 hrs., Kerefov saw the intruder flying at 800 m (2,620 ft.); twelve minutes later the target was spotted by another 265th IAP pilot, Maj. A. A. Ghenberg. Together they gave signals to the crew, trying to force the jet to follow them; once again the airliner ignored the signals, landing on the ice of Lake Korpijärvi, 5 km (3.1 miles) southwest of Loukhi, at 2305 hrs. Of the 109 occupants, two were killed by fragments of the missile’s fragmentation (one passenger was killed outright and another died en route to hospital), and 13 more were injured. The crew and passengers of the 707 were evacuated by helicopters to Kem’ and detained by the Soviet authorities, but most of them were released two days later. They were flown by a Pan American Airlines Boeing 727-121 on a special charter flight from Murmansk-Murmashi to Helsinki, from where another KAL Boeing 707 took them to Seoul. The captain of HL7429 Kim Chang Kyu and navigator Lee Khun Shik pleaded guilty, admitting they had seen the Soviet fighter’s signals but willfully ignored them. They were pardoned by the Soviet government and released as a goodwill gesture. KAL chose to abandon the 707, which was declared a write-off—reportedly because the costs of recovering it were considered prohibitive. The Soviet authorities made good use of this windfall, salvaging the airliner and taking it to Moscow, where it was studied in detail; no intelligence equipment was found, but the airframe and systems design were of interest for the Soviet aircraft industry. The Soviet Union later invoiced South Korea US$100,000 in caretaking expenses.
Sukhoi Interceptors: The Su-9, Su-11, and Su-15: Unsung Soviet Cold War Heroes is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Unknown