Monday, September 01, 2008

The Mystery of Flight KAL007


This article of mine appears in The First Post.

The EU leaders gathering in Brussels today to discuss the growing tensions with Russia have chosen an ominous day on which to meet. It is exactly 25 years since Soviet fighter planes shot down a Korean Airlines Boeing 747, with the loss of life of all 269 passengers and crew.

It marked the nadir in East-West relations in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan called it "a crime against humanity (that) must never be forgotten". And even a quarter of a century later, important questions regarding the incident remain unanswered.

Flight KAL007 was en route from New York to Seoul when, 10 minutes after a refuelling stop in Alaska, it started to deviate from its course and head north towards Russian airspace. The plane continued some 200 miles from its planned flight path. Off the Soviet island of Sakhalin, home to several Soviet military installations, it was shot down by Russian fighters armed with air-to-air missiles.

The Kremlin maintained that the plane had twice violated their airspace. They insisted the airliner had been on a spying mission and their fighter pilots had fired warning shots, but the Korean Airlines pilot did not respond.

Amid international outcry at the Soviet action, it was suggested that a mistake must have been made when programming the plane's inertial navigation system. But if the pilot was genuinely unaware that he was over Soviet airspace, why did he not respond to the Soviet warning shots?

Other mysteries remain: not least, whatever happened to the bodies of the flight's passengers and crew? There was a total absence of human remains - or luggage and
other belongings - on the surface of the sea in the 225 square miles of probable impact area, and when divers eventually located the wreckage of the aircraft weeks later, the remains of only 10 passengers were found.

The 'decompression theory' - that passengers had been sucked out of the plane and scattered over a wider area - appeared the most feasible explanation for the absence of bodies, until the black box recording revealed that the rupture caused by the Russian missile would have been too small for anyone to be sucked out.

It seems that both the Soviets and the US had good cause to keep the background to the tragedy shrouded in mystery. On the very same day that Flight KA007 was shot down, it transpired that the Soviets were secretly test-launching their new SS25 missile, in violation of the SALT2 arms treaty. The missile was launched from northwest Russia and was due to come down in a target range on the peninsula of Kamchatka, over which Flight KAL007 had strayed.

At the same time, a US spy plane was in the area - just 75 miles away from Flight KAL007's route - with a mission to capture the telemetry of the SS-25. In short, if KAL007's deviation into Soviet airspace was a genuine navigational error, it could not have picked a worse day for it.

The incident proved a turning point in the Cold War. The US broke off its arms treaty negotiations and the widespread disgust at the Soviet action paved the way for the deployment of a new round of US Pershing missiles in Europe. By shooting down Flight KAL007, the USSR provided its enemies with a huge propaganda coup - and helped bring into action a chain of events which contributed to its own demise.

4 comments:

neil craig said...

In terms of impropriety/incompetence it does not compare with the US shooting down of an Iranian Airbus crossing the Gulf.

The latter was on its proper course & actually in Iran waters. As a result Reagan gave the captain of the ship shooting it down a medal whereas the Russians gave the general in command the sack.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_Air_Flight_655

For obvious reasons the westermn media gave far more coverage to the Soviet action.

The US shooting did not have such a great effect. It was initially thought that the Lockerbie bombing was done by Syria at Iran's behest but as soon as Syria joined us in Iraq 1 it was found that they were totally innocent & Libya dunnit. A British court decided that it was Libyans so that must be true then.

Anonymous said...

High gambling with so many lifes for gathering info and spying, im sure the US where capable of it.

David said...

Thanks for a very interesting article. I'm sure the plane was spying (any other explanation of why it was so far into Soviet airspace on the day the Russians were testing their new missiles is too much of a coincidence), which really put the Soviets in an awkward no-win dilemma. They were damned if they shot the plane down and damned if they didn't.

Anonymous said...

Small point of interest or not the said RC-135 which was of interest to the Russians at the time of the loss of KAL 007 turned up at RAF Milednhall within a few days sporting a KAL Logo on the nose cheeks of the RC-135 below the crews windows. Many saw this as bad taste.