At 6:27 p.m. last Sept. 1 the flight crew of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 sent a final, frantic message to ground control in Tokyo: “Rapid decompression... descending to one zero thousand.” Then there was silence. Seconds later the 747, which had strayed unaccountably into Soviet airspace while on a routine flight from New York to Seoul, South Korea, plunged into the Sea of Japan, killing all 269 passengers and crew. It took days for the cause of the flight’s disappearance to emerge: it took five days for the Soviet Union to admit that two Soviet SU-15 jets had shot the plane down as it flew over the Kamchatka peninsula. The incident— the worst attack on a civilian airlinersparked protracted U.S.-Soviet recriminations, universal outrage and more than 80 lawsuits—including one for $2.1 million that Canada filed last December against the Soviet Union on behalf of the eight Canadians on board. For one month after the tragedy, South Korean, Japanese and U.S. search teams, unaided by the Soviets, tried to locate the plane’s flight recorder in the Sea of Ja-
pan in the hopes of piecing together the final moments of the doomed flight. But they never found it, and today, after months of inquiry, many critical questions remain unanswered. They include: why KAL Flight 007 was so dangerously far off course, whether the Soviets gave the airliner any warning before shooting it down, and whether the Americans tried to warn KAL 007’s crew that the flight was off course at the time of the shooting.
According to a detailed report released last December by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)—a Montreal-based United Nations agency to which 151 countries, including the Soviet Union, belong— shortly after leaving Anchorage, Alaska at 12:58 p.m. on Sept. 1 on the last leg of its journey to Seoul, the jumbo jet began deviating to the north of its assigned route. The new route took the plane over the Kamchatka peninsula and the sensitive naval base of Petropavlovsk, home to some 90 Soviet nuclear-powered submarines. When the plane approached Sakhalin Island near the Sea of Japan—slightly more than two hours after Soviet radar picked up an unidentified aircraft approaching Soviet airspace—Soviet ground control ordered Soviet SU-15 interceptor jets to destroy the intruder. One jet, using two heat-seeking missiles, succeeded.
The Soviets did not admit to deliberately downing the aircraft until five days after the fiery crash. And since then they have maintained their right to do so, alleging that KAL Flight 007 had doubled as a spy plane for the United States, a claim that the Americans have denied. The ICAO report concluded that the crew members of KAL Flight 007 made an elementary navigational error and that they knew the plane had drifted into Soviet airspace. After a lengthy investigation of the jumbo’s navigation systems and the record of radio contacts with it, the ICAO committee rejected the spy theory as well as two others: that the plane might have been taking a shortcut to save fuel, and that someone might have hijacked it.
Instead, the report embraced the theory that the crew erroneously programmed the navigational systems. The plane’s computer then navigated the plane an additional 500 km to the west—directly into Soviet territory. According to airline industry officials, that theory points to alarming negligence in the Korean cockpit. The ICAO
report conceded that the programming error suggested “a lack of alertness and attentiveness on the part of the entire flight crew”—but, the report added in a chilling rider, “not to a degree unknown in civil aviation.”
Western intelligence experts contend that the ICAO report tells only part of the story. The U.S. and South Korean governments’ early claim that the Soviets had massacred 269 civilians in cold blood initially won wide acceptance. But since then the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that although the Soviets may have been triggerhappy, they believed that they were attacking a military plane: the U.S.
RC-135 electronic intelligence aircraft, an immensely sophisticated flying eavesdropper which uses the same airframe as a Boeing 707, a smaller version of the 747. In the December, 1983, issue of the influential U.S. electronics monthly magazine I.E.E.E. Spectrum, U.S. intelligence officials conceded that Soviet ground radar might not have distinguished a 707 from a 747. They also accept the contention that the Soviet pilot who fired the missiles made visual identification from below and behind the 747. Said one U.S. intelligence source: “From that position, the pilot would probably not know what kind of plane he was shooting down.”
Western military experts have also concluded that the Soviets had reason to expect that a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft might be in the area the night of the shooting. According to the U.S. trade publication Aerospace Daily, on the night of Aug. 31, just hours before the KAL tragedy, the Soviets were planning to test a new missile, which would have landed on the Kamchatka peninsula. The Soviets would have expected the U.S. National Security Agency—the secret eyes and ears of the United States with the most sophisticated electronic spy centre in the world—with its prodigious intelligence capabilities, to try to find out exactly how the missile performed. Among the NSA’s resources in the area: low-altitude Ferret satellites, which monitor Soviet radio transmissions; the six-storey-high Cobra Dane radar facility at Shemya in Alaska’s Aleutian archipelago, and the RC-135, which routinely maintains 24-hour surveillance of Kamchatka.
Writing in the Denver Post in Sep-
Soviet authorities argued that their interceptor pilot mistook a Korean Air Lines jumbo jet for a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.
Boeing 747-200 Length: 225 ft. 2 in. Wingspan: 195 ft. 8 in. Height: 63 ft. 5 in.
RC-135 Length: 145 ft. 6 in. Wingspan: 145 ft. 9 in. Height: 42 ft. 5 in.
tember, Tom Bernard and T. Edward Eskelson, two former RC-135 pilots, claimed that the NSA adjusts RC-135 flight paths from time to time “so that they will intentionally penetrate the airspace of a target nation to bring its air defence systems into alert,” making
it possible to better examine them for potential weaknesses. The two concluded that an RC-135 must have been in the area when the Korean flight entered Soviet territory. In February the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) at the request of the NSA, warned Bernard and Eskelson that they had “technically violated U.S. espionage laws” by revealing previous spy missions in the Sakhalin area. Since then the pair has refused further comment on the matter except to admit that, if the FBI meant to intimidate them with the warning, then the agency had succeeded.
It may be left to U.S. courts to decide whether U.S. intelligence officials took any steps to warn the ill-fated 747 that it was deep in Soviet airspace. One lawsuit has combined 81 actions filed by 100 families of the dead. The suit, in a U.S. Federal Court in Washington, D.C., claims negligence by Boeing, the plane’s builder, by Litton Industries, the maker
of the 747’s navigational gear, and by the U.S. government. A trial date has not yet been set. The government also faces charges that it failed to warn KAL 007 of the danger, and that it jeopardized the lives of the passengers by operating an RC-135 in the vicinity of the commercial aircraft. For its part, the U.S. government has asked to be excused as a defendant on the grounds that the Soviet Union is the true villain.
Ottawa’s case against the Soviet Union on behalf of the eight Canadians killed on the flight “will take time,” according to an External Affairs spokesman in Ottawa. Said John Noble: “Remember how long it took to get compensation after the nuclear-powered Soviet satellite disintegrated over the Northwest Territories in 1978? Three years.” South Korea is a signatory of an international insurance convention that limits compensation payments to $75,000 per passenger. Still, last November, Korean Air Lines approved $100,000 in compensation payments for each of the 81 Korean passengers and 29 crew on Flight 007. The airline will also pay for the education of the 105 children of the Korean victims. And a spokesman for the airline said that KAL will negotiate compensation for the foreigners killed with the individual countries involved. Last month there was a
corporate shakeup at Korean Air Lines. Airline officials announced that the president, as well as other senior executives, had been moved to other positions within the company. Also, 14 pilots were forced to resign, but company spokesmen denied that the changes suggested that pilot screening had been lax. Since the downing of KAL 007 the airline has altered its route so that planes fly farther from Soviet-occupied Sakhalin Island. Now Korean Air Lines designates its New York to Seoul route Flight 017.
For their part, the Soviets have already reviewed, and rejected, the ICAO report. Boris Rygenkov, a senior Soviet delegate to the ICAO, called it “a gross misrepresentation” riddled with “assumptions” and “bias.” But Rygenkov did not supply any counterevidence. And Soviet watchers detected partial acknowledgment of responsibility for the aircraft downing in the January issue of the Soviet Air Force magazine Aviatsiya i Kosmonavtika. An article signed by Col.-Gen. Sergei V. Golubev, a deputy commander-in-chief of the air force for combat training, criticized the conduct of ground officers who “hide behind the backs of others,” and implicitly condemned the conduct of the SU-15 pilot who shot down the Korean plane. The general noted that in combat, “the main person is the pilot____The situation
may be such that the pilot himself must take the final decision, for example, to force the intruder to land at the closest airport.”
In Washington the disaster is no longer the object of punitive diplomatic moves. The Americans continue to deny the Soviet airline, Aeroflot, landing rights in the United States. But with the installation of Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko, the Reagan administration is eager to improve relations with Moscow. Said one state department Soviet affairs expert: “It was a terrible thing, but the picture is more ambiguous now than it at first seemed. Now people want to see arms-control talks back on the track. They do not want old business to stand in the way.” The official added that it is doubtful that the Soviets will ever pay compensation, “but there is some recognition that it was a mistake.”
The diplomatic and legal game of trying to find the culprit continues, but Western military experts and ICAO members fear that the truth may never be known. The real reason KAL Flight 007 strayed so far off course may remain with its flight recorder, which now lies at the bottom of the Sea of Japan.
-WILLIAM LOWTHER and DAVID COX in Washington, with Jane Mingay in Toronto.
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