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On This Day: Korean Airlines 007 Shot Down by Soviets

Last updated: February 15, 2023

September 01, 2011 05:00 AM

by findingDulcinea Staff

On Sept. 1, 1983, the commercial airplane was shot down by a Soviet jet fighter, killing all 269 passengers, including U.S. Congressman Lawrence McDonald.

Airplane Shot Down by Soviets for Entering Airspace

KAL 007 started out in New York City and had made a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska, before heading to its final destination: Seoul, Korea.

The Boeing 747 started to stray from its normal path almost immediately after takeoff, and ended up nearly 200 miles off course. It crossed into Kamchatka Peninsula, the location of top-secret Soviet military installations. At the time, a U.S. reconnaissance plane that resembles a 747 aircraft was moving in and out of the range of the Soviet defense system.

The Soviets, not recognizing that KAL 007 was a passenger airplane, sent two jet fighters to intercept it. They tried to make contact and failed to receive a response.

A Soviet Su-15 fired a heat-seeking missile at the plane, which crashed into the Sea of Japan near Sakhalin Island.

The event sparked tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. President Ronald Reagan called it a “massacre” and said that the Soviets had turned “against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere.”

What Really Happened to KAL 007?

Sources in this Story

  • NASA: Intelligent Systems Division: Taming HAL: The Crash of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (PDF)
  • Korean Airlines Flight Shot Down by Soviet Union
  • Time: Fallout From Flight 007
  • Time: Backing Down on Flight 007
  • Rescue 007: The International Committee for the Rescue of KAL 007 Survivors, Inc.
  • The New York Times: Korean Bribe Rekindles Flight 007 Issues
  • The New York Times: Why Sparks Flew in Retelling the Tale of Flight 007

Officials from the United States and Soviet Union eventually agreed that the event was the result of a fatal misunderstanding. The pilots innocently flew off course and the Soviets, with good reason to believe that it was a spy plane, shot it down without knowing that it was a passenger plane.

Asaf Degani of NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System explains how the pilots may have flown so far off course. He details the navigation system of the plane and surmises that the pilots, weary from a five-day trip, did not notice that the “Inertial Navigation” system, the most accurate system available to them, never engaged, leaving the plane to be flown under the far less accurate “Heading” system.

The indicator lights in the cockpit did not explicitly indicate the plane was in Heading mode, instead using a color-coded system to show that the Inertial Navigation system was not engaged.

Degani writes, “What we do know is that the lack of indication about the autopilot’s active mode deprived the crew of an important cue. Such a cue might have drawn their attention to the fact that the Inertial Navigation was not engaged and that the aircraft was actually flying on Heading mode. Following the accident, all autopilots were modified to include this information. … But this, as is always the case in accidents, is the blessing of hindsight. This design change came too late to help the crew and passengers of Flight 007.”

However, many believe there is more to the story. There have been a wide variety of conspiracy theories regarding the incident. Many claim that the U.S. government was involved in espionage, or that it did nothing to prevent the Soviet attack.

In 1984, an article by an anonymous author in the British magazine Defence Attaché claimed the plane intentionally flew into enemy territory to test the Soviet air defenses. The South Korean government called the article “outrageously distorted,” and one official said, “We hope the court settlement will put an end to the seemingly endless speculations about unauthorized missions of Flight 007.”

The dearth of human remains found after the attack has also raised the question of whether there were survivors.

“A first in the documented history of air flight occurred. A designated crash site at sea with a declaration of ‘no survivors,’ but also with no bodies, body parts or tissues, and no luggage on the surface of the sea, and none of the above under the sea … ” writes Bert Schlossberg, the author of “Rescue 007: The Untold Story of KAL 007 and Its Survivors,” and the director of The International Committee for the Rescue of KAL 007 Survivors, Inc. He and others maintain that the Soviets took the survivors of the missile attack into their custody.

In 1996, it was discovered that Chun Doo Hwan, the president of Korea at the time of the attack, had taken a nearly $4 million bribe from Korean Airlines to give it “government protection” during the event’s investigation.

The action “impeded and continues to hamper the investigation of the downing. The Korean courts failed to address the wrongful death claims of the surviving families,” wrote Hans Ephraimson, chairman of the American Association for Families of KAL 007 Victims New York, in a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Flight 007 in Popular Culture

The tragic incident has inspired several films, including 1998’s “Shootdown,” starring Angela Lansbury as Nan Moore, the mother of one of the victims.

Former NBC vice president Alan Gerson described the difficulty of making the made-for-television film, which took five years in production time, in The New York Times. He says that the film tried to incorporate a variety of theories and opinions, many of them conflicting, about the event.

“No one really knows for sure what happened to Flight 007,” Gerson said.

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