Unanswered Questions — Korean Airlines (KAL) Flight 007

The Boeing 747 KAL Flight 007 left JFK on August 31, 1983, with 269 occupants including 240 passengers, 22 of which were children, and flight crew personnel. The majority were American and Korean, with a few other nationalities such as Taiwanese, Japanese, and Filipino. After refueling, the plane took off from Anchorage, Alaska at 4 am (1300 GMT) on September 1, 1983 bound for Kimpo Airport in Seoul. Shortly after departure, the airplane began to deviate from its assigned North Pacific course to Japan. This route was extremely close, within 17½ miles, to Soviet airspace and the off-limits zone for civilian aircraft. Failing to make radar detection at Bethel, the last navigational point on the mainland of the U.S., it continued off course to enter the designated Air Defense buffer zone of the Kamchatka Peninsula. The area was carefully monitored by Soviet surveillance, and plans were in place to test fire their SS-25 ICBM, a missile declared illegal through the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties (SALT) between the Soviet Union and the U.S.

Information from the cockpit voice recorder indicates that the pilot and crew were unaware that they were entering a controlled airspace. It has been considered, but it is doubtful, that they chose this particular flight path to save fuel. After attempting to contact the pilot of Flt 007 and getting no response, the Soviets fired several warning shots at the aircraft. Within minutes, the order was given to bring down the airplane as it was about to leave the airspace for the second time. After two missiles were fired by the Soviet interceptor jets, Flt 007 disappeared from the radar, but there were no Mayday broadcasts as it continued to descend. There is considerable discrepancy in the time element with some information pointing to a rapid descent and decompression. Other data reflect a leveling off of the aircraft for at least 5 minutes after being hit. This would indicate that Captain Chun, the pilot, was able to switch to manual control as the plane descended.

Although the initial press report stated that the plane had landed safely on Sakhalin Island, a disputed territory between Japan and Russia, this proved untrue. KAL Flt 007 crashed in the sea just north of Moneron Island, with no survivors. Just 9 days after the crash, the Chief of General Staff of the Soviet Union said they did not know where the crash had occurred and could not locate it. This was refuted, however, 9 years later, when military communications revealed that within minutes, the Soviets had launched KGB border guard boats, helicopters, and civilian ships to the site. Whether or not this was only a simulated rescue effort was not determined. Although they claimed nothing of the wreckage was found, Yeltsin’s report in November 1983 stated that the black box tapes were top secret, but had been recovered and sent to Moscow for interpretation. Apparently, they did not furnish proof that the plane was on a spy mission or actually in Soviet airspace when shot down. Further rescue efforts through October by the U.S., South Korea, and the Japanese were met with hostile interference by the Soviets, who claimed territorial rights to the crash site.

The Soviet interceptor pilot, Major Osipovich, admitted in a 1996 interview with the NY Times that he was aware that it was a civilian aircraft because of the double rows of windows and blinking lights. Yet, he failed to alert the ground controllers of its probable identity, and these lights were not detectible by them. However, he added that he could not be sure that the plane was not an RC-135, a U.S. reconnaissance plane, or possibly a civilian aircraft that had been converted for military purposes. This argument was weak, however, as there was little similarity between the Boeing 747 and the 135.

Through intensive investigations, numerous theories were offered, with differing opinions on all sides. A suggestion that the plane was indeed a military aircraft, carrying no civilian passengers, was quickly dismissed. The strategic commander of the Soviet operation proposed a theory of a wind tunnel formed when the nose and tail broke off, and passengers were then sucked through and out of the plane. If so, then why were there no remains? Although the passenger cabin was punctured in numerous places, the overall area was too small for anyone to be sucked out from there. According to a flight crew broadcast, oxygen masks were deployed and passengers were warned of an emergency descent. There should have been enough oxygen left for some to remain conscious for at least 12 minutes after impact.

There was yet another theory proposed – an assassination plot planned by the Soviets. The most noteworthy passenger on the flight was U.S. Congressman, Larry McDonald, a well-known anti-communist on his way to the 30th anniversary of the U.S./South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty. McDonald was also president of the John Birch Society, whose mission was to expose the communism of the Soviet Union. No evidence existed, however, that the Soviets knew of this passenger until the media revealed the information after the crash occurred.

The pilot of the accompanying KAL Flight 015, also carrying U.S. Congressmen, believed that the coordinates of the flight plan might have been improperly entered in the Inertial Navigation System. When discovered, Captain Chun of Flt 007 then chose to follow the aircraft’s magnetic compass, rather than returning to Alaska, which might explain the flight path deviation.

Overall, a total of 1,020 items were recovered, and of this total, only a few unidentifiable body parts were found eight days after the crash along the shores of Hokkaido, Japan. Reports from the media stated that a few items of clothing had apparently been dry cleaned before being sent to Japan, and others were found zipped up, but nothing inside. Some speculated that giant crabs or sharks may have devoured the bodies, but this would not explain the absence of any bones. Other non-human remains were also found including seats, books, shoes, and a camera, but no luggage was found by either the Russians or the international search parties. This led many to suppose that the passengers and their belongings were trapped within the aircraft itself. Civilian divers claimed to have found a plane filled with garbage, but again no bodies.

The U.S. and Korea were understandably outraged at this unbelievable tragedy, and protests arose around the world. President Reagan deemed this a “massacre…a crime against humanity…,” and proceeded to revoke the license of Soviet Aeroflot flights to the U.S, the revocation enforced until 1986. Although the Soviets expressed their regret over the loss of lives, they insisted that the entire unfortunate incident was caused by the CIA’s involvement and instigation of a spy plane mission. The International Civil Aviation Organization disagreed and determined that the violation of Soviet airspace was accidental. As a result of the disaster, military radars from Anchorage were extended, and Reagan directed that GPS be used for civilian as well as military aircraft (a directive finalized by Clinton in 1996).

There is no question that KAL Flt 007 was shot down, but what really happened to those inside the aircraft? Was the plane within the off-limits zone, or in neutral waters? Was it a deliberate “act of brutality” by the Soviets, or a justifiable defense of their territorial zone? Why did Air Traffic controllers in Anchorage somehow fail to note the positions of both KAL flights? These are just a few of the many questions that may remain unanswered, for one reason or another.

Sharon Slayton

Filed Under: Travel mysteries

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