The disaster caused almost universal horror. Just before dawn on Sept. 1, 1983, a Russian fighter shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 as it passed over Sakhalin Island in the Eastern Soviet Union. All 269 people aboard were killed, including 10 Canadians. “Words can scarcely express our revulsion,” said President Ronald Reagan, while the Canadian government led an international boycott against all incoming flights by Aeroflot, the Soviet airline. Two years later the U.S. government account of the tragedy has taken on the authority of history. According to both Washington and a December, 1983, report by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), KAL 007 innocently strayed over sensitive Soviet military installations some 400 miles from its authorized flight path because of an error made by the pilot in programming the plane’s navigational computers; flying on automatic pilot, none of the crew noticed the drift. But with court cases still pending by the victims’ families against KAL and by KAL against journalists, serious doubts about that account persist.
One of the most troubling developments emerged in Japan in May. Under pressure from opposition members of Parliament, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone released previously classified data from the Japan Defence Agency —radar records of 17 minutes near the end of Flight 007. These showed the plane at various altitudes and speeds within a short space of time—changes that apparently contradicted the claim that its crew was relying on automatic pilot. That 17-minute period was also the time when, according to Soviet accounts which the United States denies, the plane was trying to evade two Soviet fighter interceptors. The radar data showed that while Soviet jets pursued him, 007 Capt. Chun Pyung In dropped to 29,000 feet from 32,000 feet —without telling air-traffic control in Tokyo. Shortly after, reporting himself at 33,000 feet, he requested permission to climb to 35,000 feet. But, when he radioed that he had reached 35,000 feet, the radar tracked the plane at 32,000 feet. Said Yoshitaro Masuo, of the Japan Association for Inquiry into the Truth of the KAL Incident, a lobby group of victims’ families and concerned citizens: “This was no mistake. Pilots know when they are going up and down—and that it is illegal and dangerous not to report all changes.” But U.S. state department spokesman Thomas Maertens said, “The data, while not necessarily wrong, is only fragmentary. It shows three disconnected segments of level flight.”
The controversial Japanese information is only the most recent challenge to the official account of the disaster. Still, one point on which both the official account and the skeptics agree is that 007 began to deviate from its stated flight path early—just west of its fuelling stop at Anchorage, Alaska. Many professional pilots have commented
that either Chun made a dozen subsequent errors and breaches of procedure and safe practice—such as failing to check his correct position with other instruments—or else he knew exactly what he was doing. Indeed, two months after the release of the ICAO account, the ICAO’s Air Navigation Commission, the organization’s own panel of technical experts, refused to validate the report’s conclusions of pilot programming error. Wrote the commissioners: “The magnitude of the deviation cannot be explained.”
As 007 continued its westward flight, the variance increased until by 3 a.m. it was flying some 400 miles west of its scheduled route. Still, U.S. military radar did not warn the crew members of their dangerous course. Nor did a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane which flew close to the passenger jetliner shortly before 007 entered Soviet airspace. For its part, the U.S. government explained that failure by claiming that the RC-135 never detected 007.
Still, the silence piqued the curiosity of David Pearson, a Yale University sociology PhD candidate at work on his thesis on the U.S. World Wide Military Command and Control System—which provides the White House and the joint chiefs of staff with global intelligence on a day-to-day basis. After a yearlong investigation of the crash, he published his findings in the Aug. 18,1984, issue of the Washington-based journal The Nation. His conclusion: that the U.S. intelligence-gathering network had considerable resources trained on the region where KAL 007 was flying. Pearson told Maclean's, “If the White House did not know what was going on, it was the most serious failure in the history of U.S. communications, command, control and intelligence.”
If indeed U.S. intelligence deliberately chose not to order 007 back from its incursion, Pearson’s article suggested a possible explanation: in co-operation with U.S. intelligence, 007 had deliberately set its course, not to spy itself but instead to draw the attention of Soviet radar defence systems so that U.S. planes and ground radar could monitor Soviet response capabilities.
Pearson’s article created an immediate controversy, and former assistant secretary of defence Henry E. Catto Jr. described it as “drivel.” But writing in The New York Times on Oct. 21, 1984, columnist Tom Wicker noted that no one had mounted a detailed rebuttal of Pearson’s exhaustive study.
The Japanese radar data—the latest challenge to the official account—was known to both Japanese and U.S. governments at the time of the tragedy. Neither gave it to ICAO. As a result, ICAO absolved 007’s crew of responsibility for not acknowledging the Soviet jet interceptor and landing in Soviet territory —as an errant KAL airliner had been forced to do in 1978. But knowledge of the radar data might well have changed that finding, because it raises the possibility that 007’s crew members were aware that they had been intercepted and were either trying to evade the Soviets or give the appearance that they intended to land.
Explanations for the disaster could still emerge in court. But a date has not yet been set for a KAL libel suit against the British newspaper The Guardian, which suggested in an article on Dec. 25, 1983, that a KAL pilot may have put passengers at risk by participating in intelligence-gathering. Nor have U.S. authorities set a date for a suit brought by California lawyer Melvin Belli on behalf of more than 100 of the victims’ families against KAL and the U.S. government. Belli has stated on several occasions that widows of the KAL crew told him in the presence of three other lawyers that their husbands accepted money to fly over Soviet territory on the night of the shooting. For now the questions persist, while many of the answers lie with KAL 007’s wreckage at the bottom of the Sea of Japan.
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