On September 1st, 1983, a South Korean commercial airliner inexplicably drifted 200 miles off course into restricted Soviet airspace. In response, a Soviet fighter plane intercepted the aircraft, fired two missiles, and shot it down, killing all 269 people on board. In this standalone episode, we examine one of the most enduring outrages of the Cold War, a mystery that baffled investigators and inflamed political animus for more than a decade.
On September 1st, 1983, a South Korean commercial airliner inexplicably drifted 200 miles off course into restricted Soviet airspace. In response, a Soviet fighter plane intercepted the aircraft, fired two missiles, and shot it down, killing all 269 people on board. In this standalone episode, we examine one of the most enduring outrages of the Cold War, a mystery that baffled investigators and inflamed political animus for more than a decade.
Degani, Asaf. Taming HAL: Designing Interfaces Beyond 2001.
Westad, Odd Arne. The Cold War: A World History. 2017.
Service, Robert. The End of the Cold War. 2015.
Downing, Taylor. 1983: Reagan, Andropov, And A World On The Brink. 2018.
Dobbs, Michael. Down With Big Brother. 1997.
Hersh, Seymour. The Target Is Destroyed. 1986.
Dallin, Alexander. Black Box: KAL 007 and the Superpowers. 1985.
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---- INTRO ---
Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network, and as always, I’m your host Zach Cornwell.
Today’s episode is taking us back to one of my absolute favorite historical eras – The Cold War. More specifically, to the icy shores of the Soviet Union, in the early 1980s.
The last time we crossed paths with Mother Russia on Conflicted was in a huge, 4-part exploration of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That series spanned years and continents, a twisted tangle of espionage and extremism; spies, journalists and freedom fighters.
But the scope of today’s episode will be much narrower. Instead of exploring a decade-long war, we’re going to be looking under a microscope at the events of a single night. On September 1st, 1983, one of the most controversial events of the 1980s took place 35,000 feet in the air, over lonely stretch of coast in the Soviet Union.
That night, a civilian commercial airliner – Korean Airlines Flight 007 – inexplicably drifted 200 miles off-course and into restricted Soviet airspace. The next morning, the plane was at the bottom of the ocean and all 269 people aboard the plane dead.
As families gathered at airports, waiting for loved ones that would never arrive, the international community exploded in outrage and confusion. The world wanted answers. Was this an accident? Was it a hijacking? Was it pilot error or criminal negligence?
It took more than a decade to unravel all the answers, to assemble the facts and clear the fog of conspiracy, but eventually the world did find out what happened to Flight 007.
And the truth, as one writer put it: “is cold, merciless, and needs no embellishment.”
It’s an incredible story. One about paranoia, political tension, and personal frailty. It’s about what inevitably happens when we forget how to trust each other. But most of all, it’s a story about how one tiny decision, on top of another tiny decision, on top of another tiny decision, can compound into some truly horrifying consequences.
It’s been a while since we’ve done a good old-fashioned standalone episode of Conflicted, and I think you’re going to really enjoy this one. So with all that said, let’s get started.
Welcome to Human Error: The Destruction of Korean Airlines Flight 007.
---- BEGIN ---
It’s September 1st, 1983.
About 3 o’clock in the morning.
We’re in the cockpit of a Soviet SU-15 fighter jet, shrieking through restricted airspace on the Pacific perimeter of the USSR.
By contemporary standards, the SU-15 fighter jet was not the most sophisticated combat aircraft in the world. It wasn’t even the second or third or fourth best combat aircraft in the world. It was, as historian Michael Dobbs writes: “a cumbersome gas guzzler, fast-climbing but difficult to maneuver.”
But it does have speed, and it does have firepower. To paraphrase one Soviet military man, it was a ‘missile platform with wings.’
Sitting in the cockpit of this fighter jet, is Maj. Gennady Ossipovich.
As pilots go, Ossipovich was as experienced as they come. For ten years, he’d been stationed at the remote airbase on Sakhalin Island, just north of the Japan. Ten years of flying missions over the same god-forsaken stretch of frost-bitten coast, patrolling the borders of the Soviet Union. Ten years of looking at the same black waves, watching the same grey sky.
It was a paradoxical gig. Exciting yet boring. Thrilling yet monotonous. A rollercoaster that you’ve ridden 1000 times. The scenery didn’t help either. Compared to Ossipovich’s lush home in the Caucasus region, Sakhalin Island had all the charm and warmth of a moon base. But despite its remote location, this area was one of the most contentious geopolitical hotspots in the world.
We tend to think of Soviet Union and the United States as separated not only by ideology, but by vast, immovable distances. And that’s true – from an Atlantic-focused perspective. But in the Pacific Ocean, the Americans and the Soviets were essentially next-door neighbors.
And in 1983, the Americans had been peeking over the fence with growing audacity and alarming regularity. As Michael Dobbs writes:
The Americans seemed to delight in testing the mettle of Soviet pilots. U.S. fighter aircraft would head directly for the border, only to veer away at the last moment. American RC-135 intelligence-gathering planes were constantly buzzing around. The war of nerves was taking its toll.
99% of the time, those theatrical maneuvers were just empty provocations. Probes and pantomime, intended to light up the board of Soviet defenses, revealing more information about their location and capabilities to American intelligence operators.
For months, Soviet pilots like OssipOvich had been climbing into their interceptor aircraft and zipping up into the sky to chase ghosts. It was day after day, week after week, month after month of the boy crying “wolf”. Nothing every *really* happened.
But tonight was different.
Just after midnight, Soviet radar operators had detected a blip on their screens. It was a large unidentified aircraft flying hard and fast towards the Soviet Union’s borders. The radar technicians initially assumed it was just another American spy plane playing footsie with their airspace. The little green dot on their screens, they assumed, would soon disappear; just like it always did.
But to their surprise, the blip did not disappear. It got closer. And closer. And when it finally violated Soviet airspace, the border defenses of the USSR came alive like a nest of hornets. Phones rang in offices; Orders were barked into radios; and before long, Major Gennady Ossipovich was pulling on his flight suit.
As he flew his SU-15 through the pitch-black skies over Sakhalin, Ossipovich knew he didn’t have a lot of time. His fighter jet only had enough fuel to stay in the air for about 45 minutes; But in the eyes of the Soviet military, that was a feature, not a bug. As Michael Dobbs explains:
“After a Soviet fighter pilot flew a state-of-the-art MiG-25 to Japan, orders were issued to ensure that PVO planes (that’s the name of the Soviet air force) never had enough fuel to reach a foreign airfield.”
If Ossipovich didn’t find this mysterious intruder aircraft – and fast – there was going to be hell to pay back at base. The idea that a plane – any plane, American or otherwise – could violate the borders of the Soviet Union and escape was intolerable. Unacceptable. As Dobbs continues:
“Kremlin leaders propagated the doctrine of a “sacred” border. The frontiers of the Soviet state had been consecrated with the blood of millions of soldiers and could never be altered. It was the patriotic duty of every citizen to defend these borders to the end.”
As his fuel reserves dwindled, Ossipovich realized his window was rapidly closing.
But then – his eyes locked onto a shape in the darkness. It was a tiny speck, silhouetted against a wisp of cloud. ‘Gotcha’ – thought Ossopovich. As his twin-engine interceptor closed the distance, the speck became a dot became a blob became a shape. And more details came into focus.
The aircraft was huge. Much larger than a standard spy plane. It had four turbine engines, and blinking navigation lights. In his ten years of patrolling the Soviet border, Ossipovich had never seen anything like it. The Americans had clearly gone to incredible lengths to disguise this spy plane as something other than what it was. They’d even installed two rows of windows on either side of the plane. Passenger windows.
It seemed odd, as Ossipovich recalled years later: “I wondered what kind of plane it was, but I had no time to think. I had a job to do.”
Ossipovich pushed his personal misgivings out of his mind. After all, he was not an analyst. He was a pilot. His responsibility was to keep Soviet skies safe, and he radioed his duty officer for instructions. He was told to establish contact with the mysterious plane. As Ossipovich remembered:
“I started to signal to (the pilot) in international code. I informed him that he had violated our airspace. He did not respond.”
Ossipovich tried getting the aircraft’s attention by flashing his lights. When that didn’t work, he rocked his wings. Still nothing. Zero acknowledgement or even awareness from this aircraft that a heavily armed Soviet fighter jet was right next to it.
Ossipovich knew the rules of engagement. If the intruder plane had outright ignored or failed to see basic aviation signals, it was time for more drastic measures. The Soviet pilot activated his fighter’s weapons systems, and fired a series of warning shots from his cannons, four quick bursts of armor-piercing shells that zipped past the side of the intruder aircraft.
Surely this plane could not fail to see live ammunition – 243 rounds of it – racing through the air. Moments later, Ossipovich got his answer. Although it was not the one he wanted.
The intruder aircraft suddenly climbed 3,000 feet, causing it to rapidly lose speed. Ossipovich’s SU-15 fighter went screaming past, unable to slow down in time to stay on its tail. He’s taking evasive action, thought Ossipovich. This plane was clearly an enemy, and clearly trying to escape into international airspace with whatever intelligence it had collected.
Ossipovich swung his fighter around in a tight arc, positioning himself behind the intruder once again. It was 3:25 AM; Ossipovich locked onto the aircraft with a pair of heat-seeking missiles and radioed his ground controller for orders. What came back over the radio was crisp and clear and terrifying in its finality. “Destroy the target.”
Two seconds later, Ossipovich used his index finger to release two air-to-air missiles, each packed with 88lbs of high explosives. The missiles leapt towards the intruder aircraft, attracted to the intense heat of the turbine engines like a pair of bloodhounds.
“Launch executed” Ossipovich told his ground controller.
It took thirty seconds for the missiles to close the five-mile gap between the Soviet fighter and the mysterious aircraft. The first missile exploded behind the plane’s left wing, causing the engine to burst into flame. The second missile punched a hole in the rear of the fuselage, causing the lights to flicker, and go dark.
Ossipovich watched with satisfaction as the intruder plane sputtered, rocked, and tumbled toward the pitch-black ocean below. He radioed his ground controller: “Target is destroyed”.
Mission accomplished. A job well done.
A quick glance at the fuel gauge showed he had 10 minutes left to spare. It was time to go home. As he rocketed back to base, Ossipovich couldn’t help but permit himself a little smile of satisfaction. He had successfully intercepted and destroyed an enemy intruder. All those years of chasing ghosts, of monotonous, pointless missions – it had all been leading up to this. It was the culmination of his career. He might even get a medal.
At the exact same moment, thousands of feet below, three Japanese fishing vessels were idling in the dark, placid waters surrounding Sakhalin Island. Technically, the fishermen were not supposed to be there – the Soviets controlled these fishing grounds, but they were the best place to catch squid and shellfish in the area. As journalist Sy Hersh writes: “The risk was worth; they had done it many times before with no problem”.
The fishermen were lowering small lights into the water to attract squid when they heard a boom, and saw a flash in the sky. A few minutes later, they felt a huge rush of air over their heads. Something massive was hurtling over them. The next thing they noticed was a sudden drizzle of rain, a downpour that drenched their clothes and equipment.
But when they smelled the liquid, they realized it wasn’t rain at all. It was kerosene. 38,000 gallons of high-grade jet fuel, spraying from the engines of a plane hurtling towards Earth. The fishermen watched in confusion and fear as the plane roared over them and slammed into the water like a 200-ton brick. The plane exploded into pieces in a flash of yellow light, and then everything went dark as it sank into the sea.
One of the fishermen had the wherewithal to jot down what he had seen in a kerosene-soaked notebook.
35 miles to the north-east, Major Gennady Ossipovich landed his SU-15 fighter jet at Sokol airbase. After many pats on the back and a shot or 12 of vodka, Ossipovich went to bed believing that he had destroyed an American spy plane in direct violation of Soviet air space. He went to sleep a hero. As the supervising commander told him: “Make a hole in your shoulder boards for a new star.” But when dawn broke the next day, news reports around the world revealed the tragic, stomach-turning reality of what had actually happened on September 1st, 1983.
Major Gennady Ossipovich had not destroyed an American spy plane. He had shot down a Boeing 747. A civilian commercial airliner – Korean Air Lines Flight 007, traveling from Anchorage, Alaska to Seoul, South Korea. And all 269 people aboard the plane were dead.
The passenger list included 75 South Koreans, 63 Americans, 23 Taiwanese, 28 Japanese, 15 Filipinos, 12 Chinese, 10 Canadians, 6 Thais, and an Australian family of four. 23 of the passengers were children under the age of 12. An influential US Congressman had also been aboard the flight – Larry McDonald of Georgia’s 7th Congressional District.
It didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem possible.
In those first few days, there were far more questions than answers. The most pressing and elusive of which was: How could a South Korean passenger aircraft have veered 200 miles off its intended flight path into what historian Taylor Downing called “one of the most militarily sensitive areas on the face of the Earth.”
How could the pilots have not known where they were? How could they have failed to respond to clear warnings by Soviet interceptors? And how could Soviet pilots have mistaken a Boeing 747 jumbo jet for a military aircraft in the first place?
How could this have happened?
To answer those questions fully, we need to understand what the world was like in 1983. We need to understand the climate of distrust and paranoia that created the conditions for this disaster. We need to understand why and how relations between the superpowers had degraded to their lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. And how, ultimately, it cost the lives of 269 innocent people.
---- MUSIC BREAK ----
It’s the evening of September 14th, 1982.
One year before the destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight 007.
We’re in Washington D.C, on the second floor of the gated residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s been another long day at the White House, and President Ronald Reagan is winding down for bed.
Long days were nothing new for Reagan.
Since he’d been sworn into office as the 40th President of the United States in January of 1981, his daily schedule had been filled with an endless parade of advisors, lobbyists, and consultants. Congressman from the Hill and reporters from the Beltway. At 71 years old, he shook more hands and kissed more babies than he ever had as a young actor in Hollywood – and that was saying something.
Today’s agenda had been particularly busy.
It began at 9:30 with a meeting with his Chief of Staff. Then onto a National Security briefing at 9:45. After that, an 11 o’clock sit-down with a prominent Eagle Scout. Then, a luncheon briefing about tax credit legislation. From there, he was shepherded to a discussion about trade negotiations with China. But not before meeting with council of Evangelical activists.
And on and on and on. Face after face. Meeting after meeting.
But as Reagan was lying in bed that night, there was one meeting from the day that he could not get out of his head. Just thinking about it filled with him with an indescribable burst of hope and positivity. The meeting had only lasted thirty minutes, but the subject of it had the potential to change the world forever. To bring a lasting peace.
To end the Cold War.
For Ronald Reagan and his generation, the Cold War was a fact of life. As immutable and fixed as a law of nature, or a mathematical equation. It was just the way things were. And the basics of that equation were simple.
When Nazi Germany was destroyed in 1945, the world was cleaved in two. Torn between the competing ideologies of the winners of that war. The United States on one side, and the Soviet Union on the other. The West and the East. Liberal democracy and Communist authoritarianism. Two superpowers with irreconcilable worldviews that somehow, had to share the planet with one another.
Typically, a simple equation like that seeks to balance itself out immediately. Throughout human history when large empires have come into conflict with one another, they will fight and fight and fight until one of them is dead or defeated, annihilated or absorbed. But this conflict between America and the Soviet Union was different. It was complicated by a critical new development, a volatile variable that locked the equation in an unsolvable deadlock:
When American atomic bombs transformed two bustling port cities in Japan into radioactive graveyards in the spring of 1945, Ronald Reagan was 34 years old. And like everyone else in the world, he understood that the destruction Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the beginning of a frightening new era in human history. An era when entire cities, entire populations, could disappear in a matter seconds.
But ‘thank god’, he assured himself, thank god his country was the only nation who could actually unleash these weapons. It was scary stuff, but at least America had a monopoly on nuclear devastation. Well, all that changed on August 29th, 1949, when the Soviet Union created their first nuclear weapon.
From the moment the first reports of Soviet nuclear testing sites began circulating in Washington, an existential chill began creeping up American spines. During World War 2, the Soviets had been allies of convenience; a necessary evil in service of a greater good. But without a common enemy, relations with Moscow had quickly soured, and war with Russia was looking more and more like an inevitability.
And if it ever came to that, nuclear weapons would almost certainly be deployed.
Now anyone who’s seen an action movie in the last 50 years is fully aware of the stakes of a nuclear exchange. It’s always the doomsday scenario. The worst thing that can possibly happen. Buildings flattened, people vaporized, soil irradiated, the end of all life as we know it. But in many ways, we’ve become numb to the possibility. It doesn’t induce the same existential terror that it once did. For most people, nuclear winter is a Hollywood plot point; not a tangible possibility in our lives.
But for Reagan’s generation, the threat of nuclear war was very real, very vivid, and almost omnipresent.
In the late 40s and early 50s, the scenarios were marginally less terrifying. Nuclear weapons are ultimately limited by the systems that can deliver them to their targets. And in those early years, the delivery system was a good old-fashioned airplane. You had to fly directly over your target and drop your bomb. The idea of a Soviet plane successfully penetrating air defenses to reach New York, or an American plane reaching St Petersburg, just wasn’t feasible.
But the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles – or ICBMs - in the late 50s raised the stakes even higher. Now it was possible not only to wipe out a city, but to do so by pressing a button from hundreds, even thousands of miles away. All the old defenses – fighters, radar, anti-aircraft guns – were rendered impotent. And as the arms race intensified, the oombs got bigger and bigger, with the ability to travel farther and farther. As historian Taylor Dawning writes:
“Over the years, every innovation within the United States was matched by an equivalent development in the Soviet Union. A vast arsenal of nuclear weapons was created with the capacity to destroy all forms of life on planet Earth.”
It quickly became clear to both Soviet and American strategists that in an actual nuclear war between the superpowers, there would be no winners. As Michael Dobbs writes:
The dawning of the nuclear age had linked the destinies of America and Russia, creating a symbiotic relationship based on mutual insecurity. The vast open spaces that had allowed Russia to repel invasions by Napoleon and Hitler meant nothing when the Kremlin could be destroyed by a nuclear missile fired from an American submarine with scarcely any warning. The ocean that had protected America from foreign aggression for two centuries could be crossed by a Soviet warhead in less than thirty minutes.
It was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who first floated the term “Assured Destruction”, a deterrence theory that stipulated, according to Taylor Downing:
Neither side would attack the other because they knew it was suicidal: if one superpower attacked, the other had enough nuclear capacity to strike back, causing massive destruction. Someone added the word ‘Mutual’ to this new phrase, and ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’, better known by its acronym MAD, became one of the central tenets underpinning the Cold War. McNamara insisted it was far from madness, that it created a form of stability, as long as neither side perceived it had an advantage over the other.”
American strategists may have coined the term, but the strategic concept behind “mutually assured destruction”, the idea of a weapons system too terrible to actually use…that was a much older idea. A 19thcentury English author named Wilkie Collins, recoiling at the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War, had written:
I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence – the discovery one of these days, of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation, and men’s fears shall force them to keep the peace.
Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and namesake of the Nobel Peace Prize, ruminated on it as well:
“The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.
It all boiled down to two enemies saying, “Look, I won’t use mine, if you won’t use yours”. Of course, the inverse had to be true as well: If you use yours, I will use mine.
And so, Mutually Assured Destruction – or MAD - became the core deterrence strategy for both the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. In a kind of twisted irony, nuclear weapons became the greatest force for peace in the 20th century.
But the ever-present possibility of nuclear Armageddon kept a tight grip on the shoulders of Cold War politicians. A warm breath on the nape of our necks. It was always there, always in the background, one wrong move, one bad call, one stupid decision away. And there had been so many close calls. The Suez Crisis in ’56. The Cuban Missile Crisis in ‘62. The Yom Kippur War in ’73. Solar flares in ’67, and computer errors in ’79.
Many began to ask: “is peace resting on the edge of a knife really peace at all?”
That was the question that consumed President Ronald Reagan from the moment he was sworn into office in January of 1981. As he wrote:
“As President, I carried no wallet, no money, no driver’s license, no keys in my pocket – only secret codes that were capable of bringing about the annihilation of much of the world as we knew it. On inauguration day, after being briefed a few days earlier on what I was to do if ever it became necessary to unleash American nuclear weapons, I’d taken over the greatest responsibility of my life – of any human being’s life.”
An advisor named Thomas Reed remembered the weight of that authority, and the effect it had on Reagan:
It was made clear to the President that ‘with a nod of his head all the glories of Imperial Russia, all the hopes and dreams of the peasants in Ukraine, and all the pioneering settlements in Kazakhstan would vanish. Tens of millions of women and children who had done nothing to harm American citizens would be burned to a crisp.’
Every President since Eisenhower had lived with the reality of Mutually Assured Destruction, and accepted it as the only feasible path to peace. Reagan was the first to seriously, legitimately question that orthodoxy. To say, in absolute sincerity, “We cannot live like this.” Mutually Assured Destruction, Reagan wrote, was:
The craziest thing I ever heard of: simply put, it called for each side to keep enough nuclear weapons at the ready to obliterate the other, so that if one attacked, the second had enough bombs left to annihilate its adversary in a matter of minutes.’
It was a responsibility he felt was too big for any individual, himself included:
Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?…
There had to be a better way. As Taylor Downing writes of Reagan:
He reflected on the terrible dilemma that would face the President if the US came under nuclear attack, and concluded, ‘The only options he would have would be to press the button or do nothing. They’re both bad. We should have some way of defending ourselves against nuclear missiles.’
By the standards of his day, Ronald Reagan’s position on nuclear policy was radical. He was a nuclear abolitionist; He wanted to rid the world of nuclear weapons entirely. He did not believe they should exist at all. Not even America should possess the capacity for that much death and destruction. According to his wife Nancy:
“Ronnie had many hopes for the future, and none were more important to America and to mankind than the effort to create a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Reagan looked at the MAD dynamic and didn’t see peace; He saw a Mexican stand-off: “It’s like having two westerners in a saloon aiming their guns at each other’s head–permanently”
Sooner or later, someone would mess up. Someone would make a mistake. On a long enough timeline, human error would spark what he called “the ultimate nightmare”. But how could anyone, even a President, hope to un-entrench 30 years of Cold War gridlock? It was a pipe dream. A fool’s errand. As one cynical advisor admitted:
‘When Reagan began to talk privately of a dream he had when someday we might live in a world free of all nuclear missiles, well, we just smiled.’
Well on September 14th, 1982, at about three in the afternoon, the solution to Reagan’s problem walked into the Oval Office for a thirty-minute meeting.
His name was Edward Teller, a wizened old scientist who hobbled in on a wooden cane. At the age of 74, Teller was only three years older than the President, but he could’ve easily passed for Reagan’s father. Teller may have not looked like a dynamo, but everyone at the White House treated him with the utmost reverence. Because when the “father of the hydrogen bomb” stops by for a visit, you roll out the red carpet.
Edward Teller was one of the most influential, and controversial, figures in American nuclear policy. As a young man, he had been a part of the Manhattan Project, the team that had developed the original atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico.
And in the years since, Teller had advised Presidents, polarized peers, and cultivated a lightning-rod reputation. He was eccentric, prickly, and brilliant. He was even rumored to have been a key inspiration for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. But Edward Teller wasn’t in Reagan’s office to discuss the past. He was there to share his vision for the future.
In that 30-minute meeting, Teller did nothing short of blow Reagan’s mind.
Mr. President, he said, nuclear technology is advancing at such a rate that in the very near future, it will be possible for America to intercept and destroy incoming Soviet warheads even after they are launched. Just imagine - a world in which we are completely safe from even the most overwhelming nuclear attack.
How – how could that be possible? Reagan wanted to know.
Well, Mr. President. ICBMs – intercontinental ballistic missiles – they don’t fly in a straight line towards their destination. They have to briefly leave Earth’s atmosphere before plummeting down to hit their intended targets. And there, in the vacuum of space, they are vulnerable. Very soon, Mr. President, it will be possible to destroy incoming warheads using orbital battle stations, equipped with particle beams and X-ray lasers. To stop a nuclear strike as if we were swatting away insects.
Everyone else in the Oval Office thought they were listening to the far-fetched plot of a sci-fi blockbuster, but Reagan’s eyes lit up like he had seen the face of God.
Teller went on to explain that while this technology was possible, it would take years to research, build, and implement. But Ronald Reagan was already infatuated with the concept. He was smitten; That night, he even wrote in his diary about the meeting. To the President, Teller’s plan offered real, tangible hope of a world where nuclear weapons were obsolete. This would make the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction a relic of the past. As one National Security Advisor put it:
For thirty-seven years we have relied on offensive deterrence based on the threat of nuclear counter-attack with surviving forces because there has been no alternative. But now, for the first time in history, what we are hearing here is that there might be another way
It was, according to another member of the administration “a system that would protect, rather than avenge, our people.”
The Strategic Defense Initiative – SDI - as it came to be known, occupied the forefront of Reagan’s mind. He put the Pentagon to work on it immediately. Six months later in March of 1983, he told the American public about it in a televised speech, outlining his dreams of nuclear abolition:
What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?… I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.’
‘My fellow Americans, tonight we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history. There will be risks, and results take time. But I believe we can do it. As we cross this threshold, I ask for your prayers and your support.’
Reagan did not get the reaction he hoped for.
The media mocked the idea as a science-fiction hallucination. Lasers in space? Particle beams? Orbital battle stations? All that was missing was Darth Vader and a squadron of X-wings. The Strategic Defense Initiative quickly became known in the press as the “Star Wars” program. Every journalist in America seemed to be laughing at Reagan and his space laser delusion.
But someone else was listening. And they were not laughing. To Moscow, the Star Wars program was, as one writer out itL “the Death Star.”
When Ronald Reagan had been elected in 1980, the Kremlin bristled with distaste and apprehension. Reagan had a long, long history of anti-Communist activism. He seemed combative, hawkish, arrogant, and his elevation to the highest office in the land did not bode well for relations between the superpowers.
Reagan may have wanted to live in a world without nuclear weapons, but he damn sure didn’t want to share it with the Soviets – or any Communist for that matter. He was not a pacifist. It’s not an overstatement to say the Ronald Reagan despised the USSR in those early days of his Presidency. As the Commander-in-chief told a journalist:
The only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that.’
In a very famous speech to a crowd of Evangelicals, Reagan defined the Cold War in terms of literal good and evil, urging his audience to:
‘pray for the salvation of all those who live in that totalitarian darkness–pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.”
The Soviet Union, Reagan intoned, was a “evil empire.”
Reagan and his administration were, as journalist Alexander Dallin writes: “some of the most ideologically and vigorously anti-communist officials to ever preside in Washington”
Moscow was understandably alarmed by this hostile rhetoric. Relations between America and the USSR had never been warm & fuzzy, but in the 70s, there had been an abatement of tensions. A slightly chiller vibe. A general sense of live-and-let-live, but don’t live too close, alright? The pot was softly simmering, but Reagan walked over to the stove and cranked it up to a hard boil. As the Soviet ambassador to Washington recalled:
‘It had been quite impossible for me at that moment to imagine anything much worse than Jimmy Carter. But it soon became clear that in ideology and propaganda Reagan turned out to be far worse and far more threatening.’
The vitriol pouring out of the Kremlin itself was even more viscous. The Soviet Union’s leader, former KGB chief Yuri Andropov said that Reagan: ‘can think only in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-communism’.
Even Americans noticed how pugnacious their President was toward the Soviets. As Taylor Downing writes: “Reagan was increasingly seen as a hawk, even a warmonger. In one opinion poll, 57 per cent of Americans said they feared that Reagan would involve the US in a nuclear war.”
So looking at all this from the Kremlin’s perspective: It’s 1983 and the United States is led by a President that thinks you and your system of government are literally evil. And then, he goes on TV and says he wants to build a network of space lasers that will make America impervious to nuclear attack. Naturally, you are going to freak out. And the Soviets most definitely did freak out.
American journalists may have looked at the Strategic Defense Initiative and saw a fantasy. But the Soviets believed the United States, with its vast resources, mountains of money and technological know-how…could actually pull it off. As one Soviet Defense Minister said that same year:
‘We cannot equal the quality of US arms for a generation or two. Modern military power is based on technology, and technology is based on computers. In the US, small children play with computers… Here, we don’t even have computers in every office of the Defence Ministry. And for reasons you know well, we cannot make computers widely available in our society. We will never be able to catch up with you in modern arms until we have an economic revolution.’
All of a sudden, Mutually Assured Destruction, the deterrence strategy that had kept the peace for almost four decades, was not so assured. To paraphrase Robert Gates of the CIA:
To the Kremlin leadership, SDI seemed to offer Reagan the opportunity of launching a first strike of nuclear weapons without fear of retaliation and that this was ‘a Soviet nightmare come to life’.”
It was a recipe for disaster. A nuclear abolitionist, in a desire to rid the world of nukes, had accidentally convinced his sworn ideological enemies that he was plotting a way to wipe them out once and for all. The world was on a hair trigger. As historian Odd Arne Westad writes:
By 1983 Cold War anxiety in Europe was at its highest level since the early 1960s because of the rhetorical confrontation between Reagan and the Soviet leaders. More than half of all western Europeans polled believed they would see a war between the Superpowers in their lifetime.”
And into this cauldron of paranoia, flew a Boeing 747 passenger jet bound for South Korea.
---- MUSIC BREAK ----
It’s September 1st, 1983.
We’re in a crowded terminal at the Anchorage International Airport.
It’s about 3 o’clock in the morning, Alaska time - and all 240 passengers of Korean Airlines Flight 007 are preparing to board.
For most of them, Anchorage was a layover; a short pit-stop on their way from New York City to Seoul, South Korea. And the passengers killed time the way everyone kills time in airports. Poking around in gift shops, reading a book, catching a nap, grabbing a snack, stretching their legs, whatever.
And then finally, the gate attendants announced that it was time to board. One by one, the passengers filed onto the plane and took their seats. Like all international flights, it was a mix of many different people, from many different places, traveling across the globe for many different reasons.
There was Jessie Slaton from Detroit; a 75-year-old woman who was about to begin a 2-week sightseeing tour of East Asia with five of her girlfriends. It was the trip of a lifetime, and she couldn’t wait to glimpse some of the places she had only ever read about in books.
Then there was Dr. Jong Lin Kim, a 51-year-old ophthalmologist. Dr. Kim was returning home to Korea with his brother to attend their mother’s funeral.
23-year-old Edith Cruz was heading to Singapore to reunite with her ailing grandmother.
John Oldham was a 27-year-old graduate of Columbia law school; He was heading to Beijing for a year of study. Technically, John was supposed to be on an earlier flight to Seoul, but he’d missed it to help some visiting Chinese academics find housing accommodations in New York.
Rebecca Scruton was a 28-year-old Sunday school teacher who was on her way to visit her parents in Korea. It had been a hard year for Rebecca; She’d lost her husband to cancer the year before, and in her time of grief, she craved the calming familiarity of her Mom and Dad. She’d actually been booked on a flight to Seoul three days earlier, but when she got to the airport, she realized she’d forgotten her passport, and she was forced to wait for the next available flight, KAL 007.
There was also Noelle and Stacey-Marie Grenfell, ages three and five. Noelle and Stacey-Marie were traveling with their parents back to Seoul, where their Dad worked as a Marketing Director for the Eastman Kodak Company. They were cute, rambunctious little kids, and the other passengers couldn’t help but chuckle and wave as the girls blew kisses at them while they took their seats.
After everyone had settled in, a calming voice came over the intercom. It was Captain Chun Byung-in. Captain Chun was probably one of the most seasoned pilots in the entire KAL fleet, as Taylor Downing describes:
He was a tall, stocky man, larger than most Korean males. He had been a fighter pilot in the Korean Air Force and was known then as an aggressive, bold flier. He had joined KAL in 1972 and was one of their most experienced pilots, having clocked up 6600 hours flying Boeing 747s, and had been flying the Anchorage to Seoul route for five years. He had just received a commendation for his long accident-free record. He had also been picked out to fly the South Korean President on three international journeys–a highly prestigious honor. He was one of the best-known pilots in Korea and certainly one of the most respected.”
If anyone could get all 269 souls aboard that plane safely to Korea, it was Captain Chun. He was a meticulous, by-the-book guy. An absolute pro. As his wife later told People magazine: “You never saw such a methodical man as my husband. Just about everything had to be precisely at its proper place."
For a capable perfectionist like Captain Chun, getting this plane to Seoul would be as natural and thoughtless as respiration. He’d made this exact same flight literally dozens of times before. In fact, tonight was going to be the 84th time he had flown along this route.
That’s not to say he was looking forward to it, though. As Taylor Downing writes:
Flying long-haul flights at night for thousands of miles over featureless ocean is known to be among the most boring jobs for flight crews. By the early eighties computers did most of the flying and had taken the fun out of aviation. The three men on the flight deck simply had to keep awake and double-check what was going on. There was nothing else to do or to see.
The preferred international flight path from Anchorage to Seoul, R-20, was notoriously, mind-numbingly tedious in particular. According to FAA rep David Wilham:
“It’s so boring. So damn boring. The only thing that’s happening is the Kurile Islands going by. “
But boring or not, Captain Chun and his flight crew had a job to do, and around 4am Anchorage time, KAL Flight 007 lifted off the runway and disappeared into the night skies over Alaska. As per standard procedure, about ten minutes or so after getting airborne, Captain Chun and his co-pilot would engage the auto-pilot system, a simple but ingenious mechanism called the INS – or Inertial Navigation System.
Back in the sepia-tone days of Charlie Lindbergh, pilots had to rely on a compass, a clock, and good-old fashioned math to cross vast oceanic distances. But by the 1980s, most commercial airliners were relying on computers to get them from A to B. The Inertial Navigation System, or INS, was one of these systems.
What is an INS?
Well, at the risk of turning this into an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy, the INS, essentially, is a triad of computer-linked gyroscopes. These three gyroscopes maintain precise alignment with the earth’s rotation and the position of the stars in the sky, so that the pilots can know exactly where they are at all times – with pinpoint accuracy down to a single mile. The reason there are three gyroscopes is that so if one of them fails, there are two backups. If one of those fails, there’s another backup. And if all three fail, well, you have a better chance of winning the lottery every single week for an entire year, while picking numbers with your eyes closed.
Just - astronomical odds.
On September 1st, 1983, the INS would guide KAL Flight 007 along a series of nine waypoints that linked Anchorage to Seoul. Think of it like an aerial highway, a chain of invisible checkpoints that comprised the plane’s 4,100 mile route over the Pacific.
Naturally, it was going to be a long flight – about 8 hours.
Thankfully, the passengers had plenty to keep them occupied. Shortly after takeoff, projector screens lowered in the cabin to show an in-flight movie. 1983 was a great year for movies. That year, audiences flocked to blockbusters like Return of the Jedi, Flashdance, Trading Places and Risky Business. But the passengers on KAL 007 didn’t get any of those classics; instead they were treated to a little-known sap-story called Man, Woman and Child starring a young Martin Sheen. But still, it was better than staring out the window. There wasn’t much to see out there except endless miles of cold, black ocean.
As the hours ticked slowly by and the Boeing 747 made its way across the Pacific, food was served as well. The first-class passengers dined on Chicken Florentine and Zucchini Au Gratin, while the rest in Economy enjoyed orange juice and sandwiches. Up in the cockpit, Captain Chun and his co-pilot chatted to pass the time, making occasional small talk with each other, as well as their sister flight, KAL Flight 015.
Flight 015 was also en-route to Seoul that night via Anchorage. It was flying along the exact same route as 007, but just 15 minutes behind.
Several hours into the flight, Captain Chun is making small-talk over the radio with the pilots on the sister flight, KAL 015. And then a weird little detail emerges. The pilot of 015 said he was experiencing very intense tailwinds at speeds of 35 knots. Captain Chun and his co-pilot glanced at their instruments; they weren’t experiencing those weather patterns at all. No tailwinds, and certainly not at 35 knots. It was smooth sailing for Flight 007.
Captain Chun may have been a detail-oriented guy, but for whatever reason he shrugged that observation off. Maybe he was tired, maybe he was bored, maybe he was distracted. Pilots after all, are human beings. But the transmission from Flight 015 was the first clue that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Why on earth, would two flights 15 minutes apart be experiencing completely different weather patterns? Had Captain Chun followed up on that little discrepancy, he would have realized that his airplane was nowhere near where he thought it was. For the past several hours, they had been drifting off-course. Rather than heading safely towards their destination in South Korea, they were flying towards the shores of Siberia.
Now - a highly accurate computer navigation system like the INS would have prevented this. Computer-controlled gyroscopes, perfectly aligned with the stars and sky, in a fail-safe triple redundancy. The INS would have kept Flight 007 humming along the chain of waypoints all the way to Seoul.
The problem was, the INS had never been activated.
We will never know for sure why. But there are really only two possibilities. Either Captain Chun and his flight crew simply forgot to activate the INS; or they switched it on, and it failed to engage. We don’t know and we probably never will. But whatever the reason for the failure, Flight 007 was stuck in standard “Heading” mode, which just uses a simple magnetic compass. It provides nowhere near the amount of accuracy you would need for an international flight over open ocean.
NASA scientist Asaf Degani expounds: “HEADING mode is not how one is supposed to fly a large and modern aircraft from one continent to another.”
As the passengers sipped their orange juice, ate their sandwiches, and watched a bad Martin Sheen movie, they were flying closer and closer towards the jaws of the USSR. With every passing hour, they veered farther from their intended route. 10 miles off course, 50 miles off course, 100 miles off course.
And worst of all, no one realized this was happening. Captain Chun and his co-pilot were under the assumption that the INS was functioning as intended.
But it’s worth noting, flying off-course is not an automatic death sentence. It’s not a guaranteed pre-cursor to catastrophe. Commercial airliners adjust their routes all the time due to necessity, changes in weather, etc. KAL Flight 007 was not destroyed simply because of an overlooked auto-pilot setting. But unfortunately for the passengers, the failure of the Inertial Navigation System was combined with what historian Taylor Downing calls “a series of extraordinary coincidences”.
Because KAL Flight 007 was not the only foreign plane violating Soviet airspace on September 1st, 1983.
Back in the early 1960s, U.S. Strategic Air Command had activated a top-secret reconnaissance program in the Pacific, codenamed Cobra Ball.
Cobra Ball’s mandate, it’s raison d’etre - was pretty simple. If a Russian scientist so much as sneezed in Kamchatka, the Air Force wanted to know about it. Because the thing about preparing for a possible nuclear war with another country, is that you need to know where they keep their nukes, where the silos are, where the military installations are situated. So that if ICBM’s start flying, you can reduce the damage to yourself by taking out some of their missiles sites.
Cobra Ball’s job was to continually spy on the eastern border of the Soviet empire and map out their defenses. To ascertain where they were testing their nukes, and more importantly, if they were illegally building new ones in violation of anti-proliferation treaties.
So, every three or four days, American spy planes would take off from Shemya Air Base in the Aleutian Islands – that long, drip-drop archipelago that curves off Alaska - and fly towards Soviet airspace.
The planes the Air Force used for these missions were called RC-135s; and they were packed to the gills with state-of-the-art technology. High-resolution cameras, listening devices, radar – all the toys. But the thing about an RC-135, is that it’s actually just a Boeing 707, modified for military use. 707s are much, much smaller than a commercial 747, but the silhouettes are pretty similar.
Just hours before KAL Flight 007 departed from Anchorage, an American RC-135 took off from the Aleutian Islands as part of a routine Cobra Ball reconnaissance mission. The way the Cobra Ball pilots gathered their intel, was to fly right up to the Soviet border, and sort of tickle the air space. They would fly in a figure-eight pattern, in and out, in and out, in and out; never staying on Soviet radar long enough to be intercepted.
For the Soviet radar techs, it amounted to an infuriating blip on their screens. A little green dot that would show up, and vanish. Show up and vanish. An itch they could not scratch.
But on September 1st, 1983 – the dot did not vanish. It stayed on their screens. And not only did it stay on their screens, it began moving going deeper and deeper into Soviet territory. For the Russian radar techs, this was like the dog catching the car. Something like this had never happened before, it was confusing, alarming and extremely weird. As historian Michael Dobbs writes: “Suicide missions were not the American style.” A Soviet Duty Officer commented as it was happening: “I don’t think the enemy can be so stupid. Can it be one of ours?”
In the moment, it was absolutely baffling. But of course, now we know the awful, tragic truth.
At the exact moment the American reconnaissance plane was leaving Soviet air space, KAL Flight 007 was entering it, having haplessly veered hundreds of miles off-course due to an Inertial Navigation System failure. Or a flight crew that had simply forgotten to activate the INS.
But to the Soviets, it looked like a rogue American RC-135 was penetrating deep into their territory. It wasn’t normal, but then again what was normal about the Americans these days? Just seven months earlier, their President Reagan, that preening pretty boy-turned-politician, had sneered that they were a “evil empire”. Weeks later, he’d announced his intentions to build a shield of space lasers that would undermine 40 years of deterrence strategy.
Maybe this was some fresh provocation? Some inflammatory stunt from a hawkish President.
The atmosphere in the Soviet monitoring stations was choked with panic and paranoia, but in the cabin of KAL Flight 007, all was calm. The in-flight movie was wrapping up, and people were dozing under warm blankets when the soothing voice of Captain Chun came over the intercom:
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, we will be landing at Seoul Gimpo International Airport in about three hours. Local time in Seoul right now is 3 a.m. Before landing, we will be serving beverages and breakfast, thank you.”
Captain Chun had no idea that at that very moment, his aircraft was being pursued by four Soviet MiG-35s, scrambled from the Kamchatka peninsula. The MiGs were scouring the area, trying to hunt down the intruding aircraft before it could escape; but they were too late.
The Boeing 747’s sudden incursion into the USSR had caught the defense forces off-guard, and the MiGs were unable to locate KAL Flight 007 before it re-entered neutral territory over international waters. And all the while, Captain Chun and his co-pilot were completely oblivious. Like a blind man blissfully waltzing through a maze of blades and pendulums, they had no idea just how much danger they were actually in.
They thought they were soaring safely over Japanese waters. In reality, they were 200 miles north, over the Sea of Okhotsk, heading straight toward another pocket of Soviet territory. And this time, the Russian interceptor pilots in the area were ready.
20 minutes later, Major Gennady Ossipovich had the mysterious intruder in his crosshairs.
So now, we’ve come full-circle. At the top of the episode, we reconstructed the events of the shootdown from Major Ossipovich’s perspective. But what was going on in the cockpit of Flight 007? How did Captain Chun and his co-pilot completely fail to notice a Soviet SU-15 fighter jet on their tail?
Well yet again, the people on Flight 007 were at the mercy of some extraordinary coincidences.
Major Ossipovich says that he tried to get the aircraft’s attention. He flashed his lights, he rocked his wings, nothing. But when he rattled off a 243-round warning shot from his cannons, the live ammunition searing the air should have been clearly visible to Captain Chun in the cockpit. Typically, fighter jets are equipped with tracer rounds. In the pitch darkness, they would have glowed bright yellow or red.
However, Ossipovich’s SU-15 was not equipped with tracer rounds that day. He fired grey projectiles into a black sky, that glowed for maybe “a fraction of a second”, according to one historian.
There was no warning shot to see.
But what happened next truly sealed the fate of all 269 people on board KAL Flight 007.
For the past few hours, Captain Chun had been in contact with Tokyo Air Traffic Control. After the long haul across the Pacific, Tokyo was the welcome wagon for flights on that route. The guide that would help them navigate to Seoul.
And at the exact, exact moment that Major Ossipovich was trying to decide whether this mysterious intruder was friend or foe….Captain Chun got a directive from Tokyo. The Air Traffic Controller advised him to climb to 35,000 feet. The winds would be less strong at that altitude, which would help conserve fuel. Captain Chun complied, and the 747 rose to 35,000 feet. It was a very standard maneuver.
But to Major Ossipovich, it looked like the plane was taking evasive action.
When an aircraft climbs, it loses speed, and anything pursuing it will zip right past it. Think of it like a car chase, where the fleeing car slams on the brakes, the pursuing car can’t react in time, speeds right past it, giving the fleeing car an opening to lose him.
Ossipovich interpreted the routine change in altitude as an effort to shake him off. To escape Soviet airspace into the safety of international waters, along with whatever secrets they had captured while violating Russian sovereignty.
The passengers of Flight 007 were getting ready to have breakfast when the tail of the plane was torn open by a heat-seeking missile. All the lights would’ve gone out immediately, followed by a deafening noise and rush of ice-cold air. Because of the drop in air density, the water vapor in the cabin would’ve instantly turned to fog. Meanwhile, shrapnel and debris would’ve been whipping through the air at every possible angle, essentially turning Economy class into an aerial blender.
Up in the cabin, Captain Chun and his co-pilot would’ve been unable to control the aircraft as the hydraulic fluid gushed out of the lines, the engines burst into flames, and the electrical systems died.
Captain Chun Byung-in’s last transmission to Tokyo Air Traffic Control was recorded 48 seconds after the missiles hit. He managed to keep Flight 007 in the air for the next twelve minutes, before the plane spiraled down toward the ocean and slammed into the waves.
It’s difficult to imagine what those last twelve minutes must’ve been like for the passengers of Flight 007. For Jessie Slaton, who would never make it to her sight-seeing trip. For John Oldham, who would never get to finish school in Beijing. For Rebecca Scruton, would never get to reunited with her parents. And for the little girls, Noelle and Stacie-Marie Grenfell, who would never get to any of that stuff.
Not to mention the hundreds of other innocent people on board; people with lives, plans, hopes and dreams.
When Flight 007 went down, 269 threads were cut; threads intertwined with innumerable other people, family, friends, lovers, colleagues. And many of those people would spend years plagued by the complexity and confusion that was to follow the disaster.
The saga of Flight KAL 007 did not end on September 1st, 1983.
The world was about to find out what had happened; but only partially. Like a redacted document covered in blackmarker, there were more ambiguities than answers. More question marks than closure.
The destruction of KAL Flight 007 would ignite a firestorm of political outrage, spawn a web of conspiracy theories, and bring the superpowers to a level of rhetorical hostility the likes of which the Cold War had not seen in years.
----- MUSIC BREAK ----
It’s September 9th, 1983.
Eight days after the destruction of KAL Flight 007.
We’re on the north shore of Hokkaido, the northernmost island in the Japanese archipelago.
Compared to the rest of Japan, Hokkaido is much less developed. In place of neon lights and towering skyscrapers, the north island is home to rich animal life, world-famous hiking trails, and a kind of picturesque austerity.
In a world where wild spaces are increasingly hard to find, Hokkaido is a refreshing pocket of relatively unspoiled natural beauty. But on September 9th, 1983, some very unnatural things began washing up on its pebbly shores.
It started with small, innocuous items. A paper cup. A bottle of dishwashing fluid. A woman’s purse. Then a sneaker, a camera case, and a pair of dentures. As the hours rolled by and the waves lapped at the beach, the catalogue of debris grew more sinister. A “fasten seat belt” sign. An oxygen mask. And business cards belonging to three Canadian business travelers.
Japanese authorities understood what they were looking at when human remains began washing up to join the debris. A partial torso. A broken skull with auburn hair. A child’s body embedded with glass.
It had been more than a week since Flight KAL 007 had vanished into the waves 30 miles north of Hokkaido. A week characterized by crippling uncertainty and desperate hope. But the remains that washed up on the beaches cemented the awful truth. The passengers of KAL Flight 007 were really, truly gone.
The past 8 days had been tumultuous, to say the least.
It was just after 6AM on September 1st, 1983 when the air traffic controllers at Gimpo International Airport realized they had a missing plane on their hands.
A 747 jumbo jet, packed with 269 people, had vanished. It wasn’t running late, it wasn’t rerouting due to bad weather, it was just gone. Even more perplexing was the fact that the missing plane’s sister flight, KAL 015 hadtouched down safely in Seoul. Flight 015 had taken off from Anchorage fifteen minutes after Flight 007. The pilots of the two flights had even been in close communication as they crossed the Pacific.
But air controllers in Tokyo hadn’t heard from Flight 007 since 3:23 AM, when it reported its position just north of Japan. The Japanese Air Force said they had never picked up any plane at that location on their radar.
Clearly, something had gone terribly wrong.
Already, questions were mounting. At Gimpo International in South Korea, families were showing up to the airport with smiles and signs and balloons, waiting to pick up their friends and family. Only to realize, they weren’t there. And as the minutes turned to hours, irritation became confusion became dread. This was not a weather delay or a lost suitcase or a trafficky tarmac.
Something was wrong.
Officials at Korean Airlines were beginning to panic too. They had no answers for the families waiting anxiously for their loved ones at the airport. Six hours after Flight 007 had gone missing, Korean Airlines was made a statement of pure conjecture - anything to calm and placate the families.
They said it was possible that Flight 007 had strayed into Soviet territory by accident and had been forced to land. Their friends and loved ones were probably sitting safely on a military tarmac on Sakhalin Island north of Hokkaido. It was an international incident, to be sure, but not a fatal one. Everyone was probably fine. As Taylor Downing writes:
“It was a ghastly twist, giving the relatives of those on board the stricken jumbo false hope.”
But those hopes were dashed when the Soviets released *their* statement:
“A South Korean Boeing 747 passenger plane on a regular flight from New York to Seoul has disappeared without a trace. On board were 269 passengers and crew. The last time the plane was in contact was 80 km east of Hokkaido. Searches mounted by Japanese authorities produced no result.”
The Soviets were denying that KAL 007 had entered their airspace at all. They were essentially shrugging their shoulders and saying, “A missing 747, you say? Hmmm that’s weird. We didn’t see anything. But uh…good luck with all that.”
As Taylor Downing writes: “Their knee-jerk response was to say nothing and deny everything.”
But as the day progressed, the Soviet Union’s story started changing. Like a guilty child layering lies on top of lies to cover their tracks, they twisted the facts of the matter to fit the needs of the moment. As the Soviet state media apparatus, the TASS, reported:
“An unidentified plane entered the airspace of the Soviet Union over the Kamchatka peninsula […] and violated the airspace of the USSR. Fighters of the Air Defense Command which were sent aloft towards the intruder plane tried to give it assistance in directing it to the nearest airfield. But the intruder plane did not react to the signals and warnings from the Soviet fighters and continued its flight in the direction of the Sea of Japan.”
Now they were saying: ‘Oh THAT plane. Uh yeah – we saw it. It violated our airspace. We tried to help, but then it just…left.”. The USSR was trying to sweep the death of 269 people under the rug. Like nothing had ever happened.
But unfortunately for the Kremlin, someone else had been listening.
After an agonizing day in South Korea, families were crying themselves to sleep, sick with worry and anxiety about the fates of their loved ones. But across the Pacific, nine time zones away, Washington D.C. was waking up.
At 6:30 AM, Secretary of State George Schulz stepped into a limousine. As the car took him to his morning appointments, he began thumbing through the daily intelligence reports. One of them grabbed his attention immediately.
The facts were scarce, but alarming. A South Korean passenger jet carrying 63 Americans – one of them a prominent US Congressman – had vanished without a trace. The Japanese couldn’t find it. The South Koreans couldn’t find it. And the Russians weren’t saying much at all.
But American ears had been listening to what had happened over Sakhalin Island. Surveillance posts in Northern Japan, constantly eavesdropping on chatter along the Soviet border, had captured audio of Gennady Ossipovich and his conversations with ground control. And they heard everything. “Target is destroyed”, “Missiles launched”, all of it.
In a matter of hours, the intelligence had been compiled into a succinct report, waiting in a stack of papers for Secretary Schulz. The facts were scarce, and incomplete, but the basics were undeniable. As Schulz remembered:
“The implication was clear. The Soviets had shot down a plane and we had them cold.”
As journalist Sy Hersh writes in his book on the crisis:
“The secretary was an angry man by the time he arrived at his office; Why hadn’t he been awakened earlier? His initial pique was soon replaced by a far more profound anger as the enormity of what the Soviet Union had done began to sink in.”
Four hours later, at 10:45 AM, George Schulz was standing in front of a room full of reporters and TV cameras, telling the world what America knew about KAL Flight 007. Secretary Schulz was not usually an emotional man, but he was visibly seething as he spoke to the cameras, waving around a piece of paper for theatrical effect.
“The United States reacts with revulsion to this attack. Loss of life appears to be heavy. We can see no excuse whatsoever for this appalling act.”
When asked why the Soviets would do such a thing, he replied:
“We have no explanation whatever for shooting down an unarmed commercial airliner, no matter whether it’s in your airspace or not”
Schulz went on to imply, heavily, that the Soviets had known it was a civilian airliner and had deliberately shot it down. At best, it was an impulsive spasm of territorial aggression; at worst, a premeditated act of terrorism. An Evil Empire, indeed. But the evidence the intelligence community had painstakingly compiled during the night did not support Schulz’s innuendos. There was nothing to suggest that the Soviet deliberately killed 269 civilians.
That kind of reckless speculation actually angered one intelligence officer: ‘How can the son-of-a-bitch do this? He’s making political and corrupt use of intelligence.’
But Schulz was like a dog with a bone. Intentional or not, by shooting down KAL 007, the Soviets had delivered a priceless PR opportunity directly into the hands of their sworn ideological enemies. And it only reinforced what the Reagan administration had been saying about them for years. As Downing writes:
A wave of revulsion swept over America and much of the rest of the world. To many people, the facts of the case as reported seemed to speak for themselves, confirming their worst fears about the Soviet Union and proving that what President Reagan had been saying for years was true. The Soviets ran an evil empire and seemed to have little regard for human life, having callously shot down a civilian airliner with terrible loss of innocent lives. Senior Congressmen joined the chorus of Soviet bashers. Senator Patrick Leahy of the Senate Intelligence Committee declared for the cameras, ‘If that’s not cold-blooded outrageous murder, I don’t know what is.’
President Ronald Reagan delivering his own withering critique of the Soviets in a series of statements to the press:
“The Soviet Union owes the world the fullest possible explanation and apology for their inexcusable act of brutality. So far they have flunked the test. Even now, they continue to distort and deny the truth. People everywhere could draw only one conclusion from their violent behavior. There is a glaring gap between Soviet words and deeds. They speak endlessly about their love of brotherhood, disarmament and peace. But they reserve the right to disregard aviation safety and sacrifice human lives.”
Reagan went on to call the shootdown a “crime against humanity” and a “act of barbarism”.
But the coup de gras came on September 6th, when America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, walked into a meeting of the UN Security Council.
If the Soviet Union would continue to deflect and deny and obfuscate, then they were leaving the US little choice. With representatives from the Soviet Union sitting just feet away, Jeane Kirkpatrick played the audio tapes that the intelligence community had captured. Major Gennady Ossipovich’s voice filled the chamber for everyone to hear. It was garbled and muddy, but the tapes proved unequivocally that the Soviets had shot down Flight KAL 007.
‘ol Jeane brought the receipts and caught the Reds red-handed. It seemed the Soviets had little choice but to acknowledge what they had done. Back in Moscow, there were no illusions about what had happened. As the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov admitted candidly to another official:
“Our military made a gross blunder by shooting down the airliner and it probably will take us a long time to get out of this mess.’
But as a matter of policy, the Soviet military did not make “blunders” – ever. They were all-knowing, all-seeing, all-competent. Atonement was not an option. It would give President Reagan a gift-wrapped public relations victory. As journalist Alexander Dallin writes:
“One problem Soviet tacticians had to face […] was the need to appeal simultaneously to two distinct constituencies: a foreign audience overwhelmingly hostile to the shooting down of a civilian aircraft, and a domestic audience which needed to be impressed with the continued infallibility of the ruling party, the integrity of Soviet borders, the vigilance of its protectors, and the malice of their enemies abroad”.
As hammer and sickle flags burned in protests around the world, the Soviets realized that what needed, was a story of their very own. The Americans had smeared them. It was time to smear them back, and basic facts were not an impediment.
On September 9th, two Soviet officials went on TV and insisted that despite the loss of lives, not only was the USSR justified in shooting down the plane, but this was actually all the Americans fault. The destruction of Flight 007 was:
“not an accident or an error. The Air Defense Forces were completely sure that what we were dealing with here was a reconnaissance plane. [..] It has been irrefutably proven that the intrusion of the South Korean plane into Soviet airspace was a deliberate, thoroughly planned intelligence operation directed from the United States.”
On the 28th of September, the Soviet Leader Yuri Andropov echoed the accusation:
“The sophisticated provocation, masterminded by U.S. special services with the use of a South Korean plane, is an example of extreme adventurism in politics.
And now, Andropov contended, that the Unites States, in the face of severe blowback, was trying to capitalize on their botched spying mission by whipping up animus against the Soviet Union. Reagan’s ultimate goal being to further a global capitalist agenda and secure increased military spending from Congress.
The tragedy quickly devolved a messy war of words. As Sy Hersh put it: “Both sides believed the worst of each other.”
As the facts were distorted and the narrative destabilized, conspiracy theories grew like weeds. Each one was wilder than the last. Some said that Captain Chun was actually an American secret agent on a spy mission, and his 240 passengers were an elaborate cover. Others insisted that the body parts washing up on Hokkaido were just Soviet counterintelligence, and that all the passengers were actually alive, languishing in the gulags of Siberia. Some people floated the idea that the shootdown had been a Soviet plot to assassinate the Georgia Congressman on board, Larry McDonald.
In the absence of a clean, reasonable explanation, the mind desperately grasps at conspiracy theories. The idea that someone – ANYONE – is in control of a situation. Because to confront the possibility that something as mundane and innocuous as human error could lead to the death of 269 people, that was too terrifying to fully accept or contemplate.
But the real explanation for the crisis was brutally unremarkable. As one writer put it:
“It was human error, a complacent crew in the middle of the night had their flight computer on the wrong setting, and then didn’t notice they were straying off course.”
But in the tempestuous climate of the 1980s, the only thing capable of resolving the mystery of KAL Flight 007, of reconciling the contradictory interpretations of events, was the flight recorder. The black box. A near-indestructible device that preserves a record of everything said and done in the cockpit of an airplane. The problem, of course, was finding it.
Flight 007’s black box was sitting somewhere at the bottom of the ocean surrounding Sakhalin Island. Japanese navy vessels searched and searched and searched, but they could never find it. After months, the search was called off – and that appeared to be that. As Alexander Dallin writes:
“In the absence of the real black box from KAL 007, each side filled its own mental imaginary black box with opposite and incompatible assumptions about the adversary.”
But as the superpowers clenched their fists, gnashed their teeth, and traded blows in a public relations smackdown, one forgotten group of people was actually suffering: the victims’ families. The moms and dads, wives and husbands, kids and grandparents who would never see their loved ones again. Who were desperately seeking answers about why and how the people they loved had been carried 200 miles off their intended course to die scared and cold off the coast of Siberia.
One of those people was a 61-year-old man named Hans Ephraimson.
The day before the destruction of KAL Flight 007, Hans said goodbye to his 23-year-old daughter, Alice Ephraimson. As Hans remembered: “There were hugs, and I-love-yous”.
Alice was traveling to Beijing to teach English and study Mandarin. It was a big trip, but her dad wasn’t particularly worried; the family was well-traveled; Alice was a smart, competent young woman. Everything would be fine. A few hours later, Hans got a call from Alice, letting him know that her plane had landed safely in Anchorage for a refueling stop. In an hour or so they would be heading out for the big stretch across the pacific.
That was the last time Hans heard his daughter’s voice.
A day or so passed, and Hans realized he has still not heard from Alice. He contacted a hotel manager in Hong Kong who he had made arrangements with to help Alice get settled when she arrived via Seoul. And that’s when he learned that his daughter’s plane was missing. Not only missing, it was presumed to have been destroyed by the Soviet Union.
Hans immediately contacted Korean Airlines. After a terse, unhelpful exchange, the airline’s representative hung up on him. As the drama between the superpowers unfolded over the next several weeks, Hans felt powerless. Powerless to do anything but watch and wait for more details about what had really happened to his daughter.
President Reagan shook his fist. The Soviets rattled their sabers. But the families of the victims were entirely forgotten in the Cold War kabuki. The 269 passengers had become rhetorical props – reduced to lines of text in outraged think-piece after outraged think-piece. And when the search for the Black Box was officially called off, any prospect of closure seemed to dissolve along with it.
Hans Ephraimson decided that he was tired of sitting on the sidelines. He began contacting the families of the other victims, reaching out, providing assistance and support. They “stumbled towards each other” as one eloquently writer put it. Long after the Americans and Soviets had moved on from the tragedy, after the media had gotten bored, after Korean Airlines had stopped taking their calls, Hans was a little beacon around which these families could gather. A little light, in an ocean of grief.
Eventually, Hans and the other families formed an organization, called the American Association for Families of KAL 007 Victims. Hans was the heart and soul of that small group, as Jan Hoffman of the New York Times wrote in 1997:
Accustomed to fussing over others, he became the Flight 007 families' one-man research librarian, therapist, cheerleader and unofficial grandfather. Every month, he would send typewritten newsletters as long as 50 pages to those who could not travel to the meetings in one family's East Side Manhattan apartment.
Over the course of the next decade, Hans met with 149 US government officials and flew to Washington 250 times, lobbying, cajoling, begging on behalf of the other Flight 007 victims –
trying to keep the pressure on to get support, compensation, and information from Korean Airline, who’d been stonewalling the families from day one. But Hans didn’t stop there - He also advocated for the families of victims in other air disasters. As Deborah Hersman of the National Transportation and Safety Board reflected:
“Hans fought for people who didn’t have a voice and didn’t know that they needed a voice. He turned his own tragedy into advocating for all air travelers, to make sure that their families were taken care of and treated with respect after an accident.
Hans passion and charisma were uniquely suited to his quest. As the New York Times writes:
Scarcely 5 foot 3, with a shiny pate, bright blue eyes and a German accent, he charmed his way into offices by memorizing the birthdays of dozens of receptionists,
But in regards to Hans’ own tragedy, the opacity of the USSR seemed impenetrable. The party line never budged. Flight KAL 007 was an engaged in a criminal act of violating Soviet sovereignty, they said, outfitted and engineered by the CIA. It seemed as if Hans and his crusade for answers about his daughter would forever be a fruitless endeavor. A sad old man’s obsession.
But then, in 1991, the world suddenly changed again. The Soviet Union, after almost seventy years, finally collapsed. As historian Michael Dobbs writes:
A superpower disappeared, and twenty new nation-states joined the United Nations. The familiar and seemingly petrified Cold War world—the world of Checkpoint Charlie and Dr. Strangelove—vanished forever.
Cold War hostilities ebbed, tensions thawed, and a new administration took power in Moscow. And that new administration delivered a shocking revelation. They were in possession of KAL Flight 007’s missing black box.
Back in 1983, Soviet divers had recovered the plane’s wreckage one month after the crash, and with it, the black box. But its contents were inconvenient for the USSR. The recording and its transcript proved, that Flight 007 was not an American spy plane. It was not a plot masterminded by Reagan or the CIA. It was just a regular, run-of-the-mill commercial airliner. The most interesting conversation Captain Chun and his co-pilot had in that cockpit concerned a new currency exchange at the Gimpo airport.
But that did not fit the story the Soviets were trying to tell. So KAL Flight 007’s black box disappeared into a safe, somewhere deep in their archives. Until, almost ten years later, when the USSR crumbled. The new administration in Moscow, hoping to differentiate themselves from their cagey Communist predecessors, revealed the contents of the black box to the world.
In 1992, Hans Ephraimson and a small delegation of victims’ families stepped off a plane in Moscow. Shortly after, they were ferried to a meeting with the new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, who then presented them with the transcript. A translator preceded to read them the full transcript in English.
But like many revelations, the contents of the black box were far from comforting. It was in that room, in Moscow, that Hans learned how his daughter had really died. When Major Gennady Ossipovich’s missiles hit the plane and tore a hole in its fuselage, the plane did not explode immediately. Death was not instant. Far from it, in fact. Alice and many of the other passengers spent the last twelve minutes of their lives scared, cold and in pain as Captain Chun tried to keep the 747 aloft.
Then, as Hans Ephraimson reflected, “it crashed into the sea, with most passengers smashed to pieces or drowning. That was, emotionally, a rather hard thing to take. We have been struggling for years to know what happened to our loved ones. Now we face the agonizing recognition that their death was neither painless nor instant.”
But even after receiving some small measure of bitter closure, Hans didn’t stop advocating for the families of aviation disaster victims. As he explained:
“No one looked after our families. We decided it would be a good idea if we looked after families in other crashes.”
Hans’ tenacious activism led to real reform in the airline industry, as journalist Margalit Fox writes:
In 1996, Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, which empowered the National Transportation Safety Board to notify the families and the Red Cross to help care for them.
The next year, a new international aviation agreement raised the amount for which an air carrier was liable when an international flight crashed. The previous limit, set in 1966, capped carriers’ liability at $75,000 per passenger, except in rare cases where families could prove the airline guilty of willful misconduct.
The 1997 agreement, which Mr. Ephraimson-Abt helped broker, raised the cap to $139,000. For families seeking greater damages, the new agreement also relieved them of the burden of proving willful misconduct.
Even after that victory, Hans continued his advocacy until the end of his life. He passed away on October 26th, 2013 at the age of 91.
In the end, the story of KAL Flight 007 is a cautionary tale. A chilling example of how human error, combined with mistrust and paranoia, can spin wildly out of control. It was a lesson all too clear to Ronald Reagan, who in the aftermath of the tragedy, dialed down his hawkishness toward the Soviets, but never abandoned his nuclear abolitionism:
“If anything, the KAL incident demonstrated how close the world had come to the precipice and how much we need nuclear arms control. If, as some people speculated, the Soviet pilots simply mistook the airliner for a military plane, what kind of imagination did it take to think of a Soviet military man with his finger close to a nuclear push button making an even more tragic mistake? If mistakes could be made by a fighter pilot, what about a similar miscalculation by the commander of a missile launch crew?’
It was an idea echoed in this poignant passage from Australian journalist Murray Sayle:
The deepest lesson of all is one we should all draw-how easily an all-too-human mistake, abetted by a conspiracy of circumstances, can defeat all of the supposedly infallible safeguards which keep the superpowers balanced on their nuclear knife-edge, and how easily our whole world, and not just one wretchedly unlucky airliner could be shot down.”
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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