Even today, debate continues as to what the KAL Boeing 747 was doing for 2.5 hours in a place where it should not have been at all.
On the night of Aug. 31-Sep. 1, 1983 at 1300 hrs. UTC (0400 hrs. local time), Korean Air Lines (KAL) Boeing 747-230B H L7442 (former Condor Flugdienst D-ABYH, c/n 20559, f/n 186) took off from Anchorage, where it had made a refuelling stop en route from New York City to Seoul as flight KE007 (ATC call sign KAL 007). On this leg of the journey the aircraft, with 246 passengers and 23 crew aboard, was captained by Chun Byung-in. According to the flight plan the 747 was supposed to follow the international airway R-20, which passes just 28.2 km (17.5 miles) from the Soviet (Russian) border at the closest point, and proceed straight ahead until it passed Hokkaido Island, whereupon it would turn to starboard in a wide arc toward Seoul. However, just ten minutes after takeoff, HL7442 deviated to the right, assuming a heading of 245° instead of the required 220°, and strayed from its designated airway; the deviation steadily increased until presently the aircraft entered Soviet airspace near the Kamchatka Peninsula, a piece of Soviet territory packed with sensitive military installations (which makes its flight number an apt one, indeed). Of course, orders were given immediately to intercept the intruder.
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, the first attempt was abortive: a 528th IAP MiG-23 piloted by Maj. Vasiliy Kaz’min scrambled from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy/Yelizovo airport when the 747 flew over Kamchatka. Kaz’min 240 caught up with the target but soon had to give up the chase after hitting ‘bingo fuel’. The reason was that after Viktor Belenko’s notorious defection to Japan in a MiG-25P in 1976, the top command distrusted the ‘grassroots’, and the fighters were filled up with just so much fuel as to make a defection impossible! No one seemed to realise, or care, that this jeopardised the PVO units’ ability to fulfil their mission, and that one bad egg does not automatically mean that the whole box of eggs is bad.
Anyway, the 747 left Soviet airspace for a while as it continued in a straight line over the Sea of Okhotsk. However, its course was bound to take it into Soviet airspace again over Sakhalin Island. By then the Soviet PVO system was in turmoil; the aircraft was now assumed to be a spyplane, which was to be shot down, should it intrude again—which it did at 1816 hrs. UTC, being assigned the code ‘target 6065’. By then the airliner was 500 km (310 miles) west of the desired track. At 1742 hrs. and 1754 hrs. UTC (0542 hrs. and 0554 hrs. local time), two 365th IAP Su-15TMs, each carrying a pair of R-98 missiles and a pair of UPK-23-250 cannon pods, scrambled from Sokol AB, near Dolinsk, in the south of Sakhalin Island. One of the Su-15s, piloted by Maj. Ghennadiy N. Osipovich, intercepted the 747, which was cruising at 11,000 m (36,090 ft.); some sources, though, report the flight level as 9,000 m (29,530 ft.). Osipovich tried to contact the crew by radio and fired warning shots from his cannons, ordering it to land. However, the cannon rounds were not tracers, and the Korean crew failed to notice them.
Since the intruder ignored all calls and pressed on toward the border, orders were given to destroy it. At 1826 hrs. UTC, Osipovich fired both of his missiles, which found their mark, damaging the hydraulics and the control system (contrary to some reports, the aircraft did not break up in midair). After climbing briefly to 11,600 m (38,060 ft.) the 747 suffered a complete decompression and began a spiral descent; at 1838 hrs. the jet vanished from the radarscopes at 5,000 m (16,400 ft.). Moments later it plunged into the Sea of Japan off Moneron Island, south of Sakhalin, disintegrating on impact and killing all 269 occupants.
Even today, debate continues as to what the KAL jumbo was doing for 2.5 hours in a place where it should not have been at all. Was it on a premeditated spy mission, as the Soviet government like has always maintained, or was the incursion a result of navigation error? There are several possible explanations and facts to support both theories. Quite apart from the escalation of the Cold War under the Reagan administration, the spy mission theory is backed by the fact that a USAF 55th SRW RC-135 (designated as ‘target 6064’ by the PVC command post) was loitering at 8,000 m (26,250 ft.) over the Bering Sea near Karaginskiy Gulf on the northeastern coast of Kamchatka at the time of the incident—reportedly to pick up telemetry during a scheduled Soviet ballistic missile test. For a while the two Boeings were so close that, in the opinion of some sources, the Soviet AD radar operators may have mixed them up and tracked the 747 in the belief that it was the RC-135. It may be that the 747’s mission was to provoke the Soviet air defence assets into revealing themselves—for the benefit of the RC-135, which would do the actual intelligence gathering. Also, the 747 was tracked by several civilian ATC radars and the US military radar at King Salmon Island, Alaska; yet, none of them alerted the Korean crew about the steadily increasing divergence. Since the flight had originated on US soil and American nationals were among the victims, the National Transportation Safety Board began an investigation; however, the Reagan administration closed it down (on the pretext that it was not an accident) and turned over the investigation to the State Department—which, in turn, deferred it to the International Civil Aviation Organisation. The latter, unlike the NTSB, had no power to subpoena any politically or militarily sensitive information that might embarrass the Reagan administration or contradict its version of the story.
The navigation error theory is based on the fact that the use of the inertial navigation system (INS), with the aircraft following a preprogrammed route with waypoints, is required for the (mostly) overwater leg between Anchorage and Seoul, since the aircraft would be out of range of ground navigation beacons most of the time. It is based on the assumption that either the Korean crew had programmed the INS incorrectly at Anchorage or the INS had lose failed to activate, because the aircraft was already too far off the designated track. Thus the autopilot remained in heading hold mode, and the crew did not recognise the problem; in fact, they never realised they were way off course.
The incident provoked a huge public outcry and a wild anti-Soviet campaign, with political battles in the United Nations Security Council, where a video prepared by the US Information Agency (USIA) was used as a ‘witness for the prosecution’. The Soviet Union was accused of anything from gross incompetence in the air defence system to an intentional and wanton attack on a civil airliner. Transcripts of the radio exchange were presented in such a way as to suggest that Ghennadiy Osipovich had shot down a passenger plane in cold blood. Not until much later, in 1996, was it admitted that the news agencies were given only selective information on the shoot-down. Alvin A. Snyder, USIA’s director of television at the time of the incident, wrote in his 1996 story for the Washington Post: ‘The video became a key factor in what Secretary of State George Shultz promised in a memo to President Reagan would be a massive public relations effort “to exploit the incident”. The intent was to link the incident to nuclear disarmament issues. Raising concerns about Soviet integrity could do serious damage to the Kremlin’s peace campaign to dissuade NATO allies in Europe from placing upgraded American nuclear weapons on their soil. . . . The tapes, which are compiled in the final report of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s investigation of the incident released in 1993, told me what I did not hear. The tapes, the content of which U.S. government officials were aware of at the time of the shootdown, show that Osipovich could not identify the plane, and that he fired warning cannons and tipped his wings, an international signal to get the plane to land. All this failed to get the crew’s attention. The controller said, “The target is military. As soon as it has violated state borders, destroy it. Arm your weapons. . . . The target has violated the state border. Destroy the target”. Former U.S. officials involved in the coverup, who insist on anonymity, have told me that monitoring data was intentionally withheld from our U.N. tape. Beyond the propaganda value, the U.S. did not wish to tip the Soviets to the sophistication of its intelligence along the Soviet border.’ Moreover, as early as Sep. 10, 1983, Flight International raised other issues, questioning the general adequacy of internationally agreed-on interception procedures and asking why the crew of the 747 had not been warned of the deviation from the normal course if it was technically possible.
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: Hansueli Krapf via Wikipedia, CIA and unknown via War History Online