On August 31, 1983, at JFK Airport in New York, 269 passengers boarded a Korean Air Flight (KAL) 007 to Gimpo International Airport (GMP) in Seoul, South Korea, oblivious to the tragedy that would befall them in a few hours.
The plane took off from New York at 23:50 Eastern Time Zone (EDT) and was due to make a stop at Anchorage International Airport, Alaska, to refuel before flying to Seoul. The flight was piloted by Chun Byung and his co-pilot Sun Donh Hwin, both experienced pilots with good safety records.
After refueling at Anchorage, the aircraft departed for Seoul at 04:00 am Alaska Time Zone (AHDT). The plane was set on autopilot mode but began deviating off its planned course, heading toward the Soviet territory.
The passenger aircraft had reportedly flown on a magnetic heading of 246 degrees shortly after leaving Anchorage, probably accidentally, as its pilots failed to link the plane’s compass heading to its instrument navigation system (INS).
Korean Airliner’s Wrong Path
The Americans were expecting the Soviet Union to conduct a test of their new missile later that day. This missile was supposed to land near the Petropavlovsk Navy Base, where dozens of nuclear submarines were stationed.
It so happened that the KAL 007’s 246-degree heading set it on a direct course to this sensitive naval facility.
Hours into the flight, passengers aboard, heard the voice of an aircrew member on the address system, “Ladies and gentlemen, we will land at Gimpo International Airport in Seoul within 3 hours. It is now 3 in the morning in Seoul. Before we land, we will serve you breakfast.”
Around the same time, a US Air Force (USAF) RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft was flying over the same area.
USAF’s RC-135s, equipped with electronic equipment, would conduct regular sorties near the Soviet territory to spy on the Soviet Defense System.
These aircraft looked like civilian aircraft and reportedly only flew along the routes taken by passenger planes. However, they used to go only as far as the Soviet border and would be careful not to cross it.
So, when the Soviet forces detected the target of interest flying toward the Petropavlovsk Navy Base, they scrambled a response based on the assumption that the aircraft, if it were an RC-135, would stay outside the roughly 20 kilometers prohibited zone that marked the boundary of Soviet territory.
However, the KAL 007 did not stop and continued flying in the same direction.
The Soviet commanders dispatched two Sukhoi Su-15 fighters from its Dolinsk Sokol air base to intercept the plane.
Meanwhile, the Korean passenger aircraft soon entered the international maritime territory and, shortly after that, again entered the Soviet-controlled Sakhalin area for the second time. The Soviet Air Force felt that this plane was on a military mission.
Nevertheless, the Su-15 pilot, Colonel Gennadi Osipovich, tried to contact the plane on the international distress frequency. The Korean pilots probably could not hear him, and Osipovich did not get a response.
He was under pressure from his commanders not to allow the plane to leave the Soviet territory the second time, despite exercising significant restraint.
In an interview in 1988, Osipovich said, “I was able to see a Boeing 747 plane with double-decker windows. Military cargo planes don’t have such windows. I didn’t understand why. What kind of plane is this? But I didn’t have time to think. I had to do my work. I signaled the international code to the pilot of that plane that he violated our airspace, but there was no response from his side.”
Unaware Of The Dangers
Inside the cockpit of KAL 007, the pilots had no idea that Soviet fighters were flying alongside them all this time, as they had no reason to believe that they were in danger.
So, while the Soviet fighters were flying alongside the Korean passenger aircraft, its pilots called the Tokyo Air Traffic Control to seek permission for a ‘step-climb,’ which involves the aircraft flying higher and faster during the end phase of a long flight when the plane has burned off most of its fuel.
The pilots were granted permission for a ‘step climb’ from the Tokyo Air Traffic Control and were asked to ascend to an altitude of 35,000 feet.
However, when the aircraft started going higher, the Soviet officials thought that the American spy plane was heading upward to avoid their plane reach, and the decision was made that the aircraft would not be allowed to go outside the Soviet border.
Osipovich recalled, “I was given orders to destroy the aircraft. I accomplished my goal.” A Soviet commander later admitted that he had orders to shoot down the plane at all costs, even if it left the Soviet border and crossed into the international airspace.
At 3:26 am Tokyo time, Osipovich fired two air-to-air AA-3 missiles at the Korean passenger plane, and pieces of the Soviet missile were embedded in the rear of the aircraft, destroying three of the aircraft’s four hydraulic systems.
However, this did not decrease the pressure in the cabin, allowing all four aircraft engines to continue operating.
Osipovich sent a message down to the control room, “The target is destroyed,” which was not the case, as the plane, though damaged, continued to fly for the next 12 minutes.
Eventually, the plane crashed into the sea off the island of Moneron, west of Sakhalin, despite the pilots’ best efforts to control the plane. All 269 passengers aboard had probably drowned in the ocean.
The pilots did not realize until the last minute that missiles had hit their aircraft. In those last 12 minutes, the Korean plane did not send any ‘May Day’ signal.
Seymour Hersh, an American journalist, writes in his book ‘The Target Is Destroyed’ that 40 seconds after the missile strike, the KAL 007 sent a message to Tokyo Air Traffic Control, with only a few words heard, “Rapid Compression.. and Descending Two one zero thousand,” which meant that the plane was descending to 10000 feet where passengers can breathe in the depressurized air.
According to the radar tracking data from Japan, the KAL 007 had descended to 16,000 feet for the next four minutes after the message from the plane, and at that altitude, the pilot tried to control the speed of the plane coming down, but without success.
In its final phase, the aircraft rolled on its back, and the pilot tried to avert the accident by using engine power, but to no avail.
Geopolitical Hypocrisy Ensues
The news of the downing of the plane soon reached the US and was met with a harsh response from the US government. There were 61 Americans among the 269 deceased passengers, and one of them was US congressman, Rep. Larry McDonald, a conservative Georgia Democrat and an outspoken anti-communist.
Then US President Ronald Reagan called the incident a ‘genocide,’ while the US Secretary of State at the time, George Schultz, strongly condemned the Soviet action in a press conference.
The Soviet Premier at the time, Yuri Andropov, accused the US of using Korean aircraft for intelligence purposes.
The Soviet Chief of General Staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarchov, insisted for days after the incident that the passenger aircraft was actually a false flag job, and the Americans had painted an RC-135 to look like a regular 747 or had somehow spoofed Soviet radar.
According to one of the sentries aboard the RC-135 flying in the same area, the Su-15 pilot who fired the missiles on the Korean airliner actually thought that the target was an RC-135.
Two former US National Security Agency (NSA) told Murray Sayle, an American journalist, that the agency was convinced for a brief moment in the commotion after the shoot-down that the Soviets had shot down an RC-135.
Following the incident, the Soviet Union never told the world whether it found the plane’s wreckage, the flight data recorder, or the bodies of the dead. The relatives of the deceased passengers were forced to mourn them without performing their last rites.
It was not until the Soviet Union disintegrated that Russia released the details of the cockpit voice recorder’s conversation. Only then did people know that the Korean plane was not destroyed in the air.
President Reagan decided to take advantage of the incident to make the case about Soviet aggression on the global stage. He said, “Make no mistake … this was the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere. It was an act of barbarism.”
However, only five years after this incident, a US Navy guided-missile cruiser boat, the USS Vincennes, shot down an Airbus A300 aircraft of Iran Air flying from Tehran to Dubai, mistaking it for a fighter jet.
The guided-missile cruiser fired surface-to-air missiles at the aircraft, causing it to break apart mid-air, with its wreckage falling into the sea below. The incident claimed the lives of all 290 passengers onboard, and the aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorders were never found.