Episode 61: Korean Air Lines Flight 007

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In the early morning hours of September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 crashed into the North Pacific Ocean off Sakhalin Island. The cause of the crash quickly becomes clear to the world: a Soviet fighter jet has astonishingly shot down a civilian passenger jet, mistaking it for an enemy spy plane. Join Shelly for this two-part episode as we explore how it took ten years and the end of the Cold War before investigators found out the whole truth.

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How a Plane Crash Almost Started a World War

In the early morning hours of September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 crashed into the North Pacific Ocean off Sakhalin Island. The cause of the crash quickly becomes clear to the world: a Soviet fighter jet has astonishingly shot down a civilian passenger jet, mistaking it for an enemy spy plane. It is not until ten years later and the end of the Cold War before investigators find out that a catastrophic pilot error put the passenger plane on a collision course with irrevocable disaster. In the two-part episode 61 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we separate fact from fiction and explore how a plane veered from its flight path and was brought down by a Soviet missile, killing all 269 people onboard. 

Korean Air Lines 007 Plane Crash Happens Amid Backdrop of Cold War Tensions

The backdrop of Episode 61 takes place in the year 1983 against the backdrop of the Cold War. According to the History Channel, the Cold War took place from 1979 to 1985 and refers to a period marked by a sharp increase in hostility between the Soviet Union and the West. 

In 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thacher was elected and then the American President Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, and the West, meaning the United States (U.S.) and western Europe, adopted a foreign policy stance against the Soviet Union. The West felt that the Soviet Union should end its influence over the Soviet Bloc countries, which included Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, whose foreign policies depended on those of the Soviet Union. Both the U.S. and Soviet Union possessed nuclear weapons, which made any disagreement between the two countries even more tense.

1983 has since been called the most dangerous year of The Cold War, according to an article by historynewsnetwork.org, for several reasons. First, the U.S. sent missiles into West Germany, followed by Reagan's announcement of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, and then tensions were further exacerbated when Reagan branded the Soviet Union an "evil empire".

Second, in April 1983, the United States (U.S.) Navy conducted the largest fleet exercise held to date in the North Pacific. It consisted of forty ships with 23,000 crewmembers and 300 aircraft. U.S. aircraft and ships attempted to provoke the Soviets into reacting, allowing U.S. Naval Intelligence to study Soviet radar characteristics, aircraft capabilities, and tactical maneuvers. 

Third, on April 4, at least six U.S. Navy aircraft flew over one of the largest of a set of Japanese islets called the Habomai Islands. The Soviets were outraged and ordered a retaliatory overflight of the Aleutian Islands, which are a part of Alaska. The Soviet Union also issued a formal diplomatic note of protest, which accused the United States of repeated penetrations of Soviet airspace. 

And lastly, 1983 is the most dangerous year of the Cold War because of something called Able Archer, which was the name of the November 1983 NATO exercise that simulated a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  This exercise simulated a large-scale tank war against the armies of the Warsaw Pact (the same as the Soviet bloc countries). Since the Soviets and their allies outnumbered NATO forces, planners assumed that NATO would be forced to use tactical nuclear weapons to stop advancing Communist forces. Able Archer simulated the use of tactical nuclear weapons by NATO (after a Warsaw Pact chemical attack), followed by limited Soviet retaliation, followed by general nuclear war. Various heads of state in Western Europe participated in the exercise, though not President Reagan. The Soviets feared that this was the prelude to an actual U.S. first strike and prepared to preempt it. 

These tensions and back and forth provocations created a culture of paranoia especially in the Soviet Union, with the Soviets fervently believing that the US was going to provoke them into nuclear war through invasion. All of this is unfolding on the early morning of September 1, 1983, as Korean Air Lines Flight 007 took to the sky after refueling in Anchorage, Alaska, on its way to its final destination in Seoul, South Korea. 

KAL 007 Departs Anchorage, Alaska for Seoul, Korea with 269 People Onboard

Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (or what is also known as KAL 007) has 269 people onboard, including 246 passengers and 23 crew members. The aircrew had an unusually high ratio of crew to passengers, as six deadheading crew were on board. There are also 22 children under the age of 12 aboard. 130 passengers planned to connect to other destinations such as Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Taipei.

After refueling at Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska, the aircraft is being piloted on this leg of the journey by Captain Chun Byung-in, First Officer Son Dong-hui, and Flight Engineer Kim Eui-dong. Captain Byung-in had experience as a pilot in the South Korean Air Force and with Korean Air Lines, with over 6,000 flying hours on Boeing 747s. As a measure of how highly regarded he was as a pilot by the Koreans, he was selected in 1983 to fly the South Korean President and other dignitaries to the United States on an official visit. First Officer Son Dong-hui was also an Air Force veteran and had over 3,000 hours on 747s.

It is a little after 2 AM and three hours into an almost 8-hour flight, and KAL 007 is now sailing smoothly on autopilot about 3,000 miles (or 4,800 kilometers) out over the North Pacific Ocean at an altitude of 31,000 feet (or almost 9,500 meters). Since everything at this point in the flight is routine, the Captain and First Officer are chatting lightly about when to eat their breakfast, and the Flight Engineer talked about studying for and wanting to pass a document check. In the cabin, the cabin crew begins to serve breakfast.

At this very moment, the Captain of KAL 015, which is the sister flight to 007 and is following behind 007 by just 15 minutes on the same route, radios in to KAL 007 and asks, “What are you doing?” Captain Byung-in responds playfully, “We are having a little chat because Mr. Kim here is giving us a little fun.” “Mr. Kim” in this reference is to the Flight Engineer. The two different crews from the two flights banter playfully back and forth and then the discussion turns toward wind.

KAL 015 says they are having an unexpected, strong tailwind of 35 knots. The pilots of Flight 007 ask Flight 015 from what direction is it coming, and Flight 015 says it is 40 degrees direction, 35 knots. Flight 007 responds back, “Ah! You got so much! We still got headwind. Headwind two hundred fifteen degrees fifteen knots.” This information seems odd to the Captain of 015, who says back, “Is it so? But according to the flight plan wind direction three six zero fifteen knots approximately.” And then the Captain and First Officer of Flight 007 wonder if Flight 015 has gotten in front of them somehow, to which the Captain responds, “Let him go faster.” Then KAL 015 comes back on radio and suggest that 007 climb to 35,000 feet (or 10,700 meters) to avoid the tailwind. And that’s what they do – they radio into Tokyo ATC to request to climb. They are granted permission and begin to climb toward 35,000 feet (10,700 meters). 

This is when, suddenly, chaos breaks out inside the cockpit of Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

One of the pilots call Tokyo air control and say, "We have rapid decompression. Descending to one-point-zero thousand." But there is so much noise coming through from the side of KAL 007, that controllers cannot understand the message. Tokyo control radios back, "Korean Air 007, I can't read, I can't read you.”

For the next several moments, Tokyo control tried frantically to contact Flight 007. They even radio into a Soviet radar facility to see if the aircraft appears on radar there or if they can contact the plane. KAL 015 also tries to contact 007. But it’s no use. KAL 007 is not responding.

What happens next will take the world almost an entire decade to understand. A chief fisherman on the bow of his fishing boat heard the sound of an aircraft which gradually grew louder. He concluded from the sound that the aircraft was at a low altitude but did not see it. 

Then he heard a loud sound followed by a bright flash of light on the horizon, then another dull sound and a less intense flash of light. The fisherman didn’t know it, but he had just witnessed Korean Air Lines Flight 007, with 269 people on board, plunging into the frigid ocean waters off Sakhalin Island.

The Search for Korean Air Lines Flight 007 -and its Black Boxes – Commences 

Thirty minutes after repeated attempts to re-establish communication with Flight 007 failed, Tokyo control notified several air traffic service (ATS) units, which is an air traffic control unit that performs a variety of services, including flight information and alerting service in addition to air traffic control. They also contacted several military units, via direct-speech links, of their inability to establish radio contact with KAL 007 and requested them to conduct a communication search. When none of those efforts established contact with the missing plane, Tokyo control declared a distress phase for the flight. 

Once a search area was identified based on the flight’s last known whereabouts, Tokyo control requests the Japan Maritime Safety Agency (JMSA) and the United States Forces in Japan to conduct the search and rescue operations. Subsequently, JMSA dispatched twelve vessels and five aircraft to the search area. There is an obvious race to retrieve not only the wreckage, but also the victims of the crash and, of course, the black boxes.

And agencies from Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. are not the only entities searching for the lost aircraft. So are the Soviets. They have a vested interest in finding the boxes before other countries do and allegedly are even dropping fake pingers into the sea to throw off the other search agencies from finding the crash site in the sea. And here’s why. 

Suspicions Arise Early that Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Was Shot Down

Even though a search has commenced for the missing plane, word quickly spreads across the U.S. government that KAL 007 has in fact crashed – and the reason why it crashed. The U.S. has been monitoring the chatter of several Soviet flyers – at the time of listening, they thought they heard transmission about a regular training mission. But once word gets out that there is a missing plane, the U.S. military thinks it has evidence of the true fate of the plane. They believe that KAL 007 was shot down by the Soviet Union. 

When questioned with this evidence, first, the Soviets say that KAL 007 did come onto its radar and into its space, but that the plane was going too fast, and the fighter jets could no catch up to it, and the plane just flew back out of its air space. Then, after being pressed more by the international community, they change their story again. And this time they make a startling admission: a Soviet jet did in fact shoot down the plane. However, the Soviets insist it was justified. They claim that KAL 007 was carrying spy equipment and entered highly restricted air space under the U.S.’s orders. The U.S., of course, denies that KAL 007 was an American spy plane – it was simply a routine passenger flight. 

Tensions between the two superpowers begin to mount, jeopardizing NATO peace talks. In fact, the Soviets walk away from those schedule peace talks. And of course, the threat of a nuclear confrontation becomes bigger and bigger. 

The then President of the U.S. Ronald Reagan addresses the nation in a scathing press conference just four days after the crash, saying, “This crime against humanity must never be forgotten, here or throughout the world…Let me state as plainly as I can: There was absolutely no justification, either legal or moral, for what the Soviets did. One newspaper in India said, ‘If every passenger plane...is fair game for home air forces...it will be the end to civil aviation as we know it.’"

Reagan goes on to walk the American public through, fact by fact, where the plane was on radar, how the fighter jets were in pursuit of the passenger jet, and even plays the tape of the pilot confirming that he shot down the plane. Reagan describes in detail the difference between a spy plane and a Boeing 747 commercial airliner and that the is no way to confuse the two. Reagan tells the world that the U.S. is bringing incontrovertible evidence with them to the UN Security Council the following day. 

ICAO Appointed to Lead Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Crash Investigation

Given these high stakes, the United Nations recognizes a clear need to appoint an independent and impartial group to lead this investigation into what happened to KAL 007. Caj Frostell from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) heads the team charged with leading the investigation. 

Meanwhile, eight days after the crash, human remains and other objects appear on the north shore of Hokkaido, Japan. The ICAO concluded that these bodies, body parts, and objects were carried from Soviet waters to the shores of Hokkaido by the southerly current west of Sakhalin Island. 

Of the non-human remains that the Japanese recovered were various items including dentures, newspapers, seats, books, eight KAL paper cups, shoes, sandals, and sneakers, a camera case, a "please fasten seat belt" sign, an oxygen mask, a handbag, a bottle of dish washing fluid, several blouses, and an identity card. 

But despite these clues, the job of the ICAO is immediately made much more difficult because the wreckage is still missing. And to make the investigation even harder, the search for the wreckage is called off just ten weeks after the plane went missing. The chances of finding the black boxes now seems almost impossible to investigators. 

Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Strayed Off Course and Drifted into Soviet Air Space

Without the wreckage, other important facts the ICAO must investigate is whether KAL 007 strayed off course into restricted Soviet airspace, and if so, how and why that happened. Investigators recognize that Captain Byung-in was very well-versed and aware of the dangers of flying near Soviet air space and like all good pilots, he would have taken the standard precautions to protect the flight. 

Investigators interview Tokyo control to explore if anything seemed abnormal to them based on their transmissions from KAL 007. Air traffic control reports that everything was normal – normal takeoff, climb, and flight. What air traffic control does say is that KAL 007 reported to them that they were following the R-20 route. Unfortunately, because this flight route is over the ocean and out of radar range, control cannot confirm if the flight stayed on course or not. 

Let’s talk about the R-20 route for a moment as this is relevant to the story. 

After taking off from Anchorage, the flight was instructed by air traffic control (ATC) to turn to a heading of 220 degrees. Approximately 90 seconds later, ATC directed the flight to "proceed direct Bethel when able". 

Bethel is the first in a series of waypoints that KAL 007 was supposed to pass over along this route. Upon arriving over Bethel, Alaska, KAL 007 entered the northernmost of five 50-mile (80 km) wide airways, known as the NOPAC (North Pacific) routes, that bridge the Alaskan and Japanese coasts. KAL 007's particular airway, R-20 (or Romeo Two Zero), passes just 17.5 miles (28.2 km) from what was then Soviet airspace off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula. That’s how close this route is to Soviet air space. Right now, without the flight data recorder, investigators cannot know for certain if KAL 007 did veer off into this restricted air space.

But a clue emerges that leads investigators to deduce that is exactly what happened. When investigators interview the Captain of the sister flight KAL 015, he tells investigators about a strange conversation that he had with the crew of 007. 

The Captain tells them that Flight 015 reported being in a strong tailwind, but Flight 007 said they still had a strong headwind. These two flights were supposed to be flying the same route, R-20, so this fact makes it nearly impossible for one flight to have a headwind and the other flight on the same route to have a tailwind. 

And finally, definitive proof comes that shows the flight did in fact drift off course. In a rare move of transparency, the U.S. military shares surveillance data from the night of the crash with investigators. Unknown to the world, the U.S. had a top-secret technology that could track every civilian and military plane all around the globe. The U.S.’s radar data confirms that KAL 007 was in fact not just slightly off course, but way off course. For almost the entire journey over the Pacific Ocean, the flight had been drifting north toward Soviet air space. By the time the plane was shot down, based on its last radar position, KAL 007 was 350 miles (560 km) north of its intended course. The Soviets were telling the truth about the air space incursion. 

Pilot Error Causes to Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Drifting into Soviet Air Space

Now that investigators know that KAL 007 did enter Soviet air space, they are left to uncover how this happened. For that answer, they consider the role that the inertial navigation system (or INS) might have played in the disaster. We will now begin the technical portion of our program.

The INS is a flight mode that automatically maintains a plane’s flight path between selected waypoints programmed into the INS computer. When the INS navigation system is properly programmed with the correct waypoints, the pilot activates the system by turning a switch to the INS position. This would ensure the plane would automatically track to those programmed waypoints if the plane was headed in the proper direction and within 7.5 miles (12.1 km) of that waypoint. If, however, the plane was more than 7.5 miles (12.1 km) from the waypoint, the plane would continue to track the heading selected in heading mode. 

The heading mode maintained a constant magnetic course selected by the pilot, almost like a compass, and would send the plane in the general correct direction, such as north, but it would not follow a specific flight path. But the pilots would have had to have switched to INS mode. This is a system that must be activated to function properly. 

Investigators deduce that the pilots either mis-keyed a waypoint, which put them on the incorrect course, they forgot to turn the INS to on, or the INS was activated by the pilots but was not functioning properly. Without data from the aircraft, investigators can only offer these reasons as to how the plane veered off course.

Another part of this mystery is why the Soviets thought Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was a sly plane when the 747 is clearly identifiable as a passenger plane. Investigators with the ICAO, in a bold move, request to interview the Soviet fighter jet pilot who shot the plane down to see if he indeed knew the plane was a passenger plane, and if so, why he shot it down anyway – but their request is denied. 

Without the flight recorders or wreckage or any firsthand accounts from the Soviet pilot, in December 1983, just four months after the crash, the ICAO issues their findings: KAL 007 strayed most likely by accident and due to pilot error into Soviet air space and was subsequently shot down after being identified incorrectly as an enemy spy plane. In the report, the explanation for the aircraft's deviation was that the autopilot had remained in heading mode instead of INS mode after departing Anchorage. They postulated that this inflight navigational error was caused by either the crew's failure to select INS mode, or the inertial navigation's not activating when selected, because the aircraft was already too far off track. It was determined that the crew did not notice this error or subsequently perform navigational checks that would have told them the aircraft was diverging further and further from its assigned route. This was later deemed by investigators to be caused by a "lack of situational awareness and flight deck coordination" on the part of the flight crew.

The report included a statement by the Soviet Government claiming that "no remains of the victims, the instruments or their components or the flight recorders have so far been discovered". The Soviets handed over to the U.S. and the Japanese, among other things, single and paired footwear. With footwear that the Japanese also retrieved, the total came to 213 men's, women's and children's dress shoes, sandals, and sports shoes. The Soviets indicated these items were all that they had retrieved floating or on the shores of Sakhalin and Moneron islands. But this, like so many other statements from the Soviet Union about the crash, was simply untrue. And the world had to wait ten years to find out that the Soviets not only knew where the wreckage of KAL 007 was, but they also had retrieved both black boxes.

Soviets Hand Over KAL 007 Recorders Almost 10 Years Later

By late 1991, Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s new president, was eager to turn the page on the Soviet past. One way he did this was by officially acknowledging the existence of the KAL 007 recorders and promised to give the South Korean government a transcript of the flight recorder contents as found in KGB files. And in fact, it was discovered that just one month after KAL 007 went missing, the Soviets had not only found the plane but also retrieved both recorders. 

In December 1992, the ICAO voted to reopen the investigation considering the newly released evidence. The flight recorders were handed over to the ICAO in Paris on January 8, 1993, where they quickly worked to authenticate that the black boxes indeed came from KAL 007. The Soviets also handed over recordings of the ground to air communications of the Soviet military. After listening to the CVR and reviewing the FDR, investigators can finally determine what happened onboard KAL 007.

Flight Recorders Finally Reveal Fate of KAL 007

As we mentioned before, the flight path KAL 007 was supposed to be traveling on included a series of waypoints that needed to be programmed into the INS, and then the INS needed to be activated. One of the first navigational waypoints that 007 should have passed over was at Bethel, Alaska, on its way to the open ocean. But when it reached Bethel, Flight 007 had already strayed 12 miles (19.3 km) north of its intended path. As it flew on, the distance between its actual and intended flight paths only grew. By the time it neared an oceanic waypoint named “Nabie,” some 200 miles off the Alaskan coast, the airplane was already 100 miles (160 km) away from where it should have been.

Instead of traveling to Seoul, South Korea, KAL 007 was traveling at a heading of 245 degrees, toward the eastern portions of the Soviet Union. According to the ICAO investigative report, the KAL crew activated autopilot shortly after taking off from Anchorage and then turned to 245 degrees to comply with an air traffic control clearance. The aircraft maintained a heading of 245 degrees until it was shot down some five hours later.

The reason for veering off course as confirmed by the FDR is that the system was never activated, either because the pilots simply forgot to turn the switch to ON to activate INS mode OR that they set the switch, but the INS navigation mode did not activate. 

So, the flight continued on, heading for Siberia instead of Seoul. After several hours it neared a buffer zone of international airspace monitored by the Soviet military for possible threats. This is when an unfortunate complication came into play. An actual spy plane was already flying in wide circles in this same area. It was a U.S. Air Force Boeing RC-135, which was loaded with eavesdropping electronics, with a mission to spy on the Soviet defenses in the Kamchatka Peninsula. Typically, such missions involved flying right up to, but not over, the line into Soviet-controlled space.

At some point, the paths of these two aircraft, one being Korean Air Lines Flight 007 and the other being the RC-135 spy plane, intersected in such a way that Soviet air traffic controllers thought KAL 007 was the spy plane. This was a deadly assumption that the already paranoid Soviets made, that an RC-135 was proceeding towards their territory.

Nearly four hours after its takeoff from Anchorage KAL 007 entered the restricted airspace of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Four Soviet MiG-23 fighter jets scrambled to intercept the aircraft and first flew east, and then west to try and run down their unidentified target from behind. But the Soviet fighters ran low on fuel before they could catch up and had to return to base. KAL 007 continued on unaware that they had just escaped danger the first time. But the second time they would not be as lucky. 

As it proceeded along its straight heading, it soon crossed over into another section of Soviet air space, this time over Sakhalin Island. Convinced now more than ever that this aircraft was a spy plane, more Soviet fighters took to the sky to locate what they believed was their intended target. They are now in a shoot-now, question-later mood.

One Soviet commander said that their orders were to shoot down the airplane even if it made it out to neutral territory, according to transcripts of their conversations. Another said that if it had four contrails, it must be an RC-135.

Gennadi Osipovich, the attacking pilot, said that he saw the aircraft’s blinking light. He said, "I saw two rows of windows and knew that this was a Boeing. I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use."

Osipovich flashed his lights and fired a burst of 200 bullets to the side of the aircraft. This was intended as a warning sign, with the goal of forcing the aircraft to land at Sakhalin. The round of bullets did not include tracer bullets; and in the vast and empty darkness the bullets were not seen or heard by the crew of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. The Soviets tried to warn the crew of Flight 007 on a radio frequency reserved for emergencies, but inside KAL 007’s cockpit, no one was listening to that frequency.

Then Tokyo air traffic control ordered the airliner to climb to 35,000 feet (almost 10,700 meters) per their request. The air-defense commander asked the fighter pilot if the enemy target was descending in response to the burst of bullets; the pilot responded that the target was still flying level. 

By a rare and fateful coincidence, just as the aircraft was about to cross into the sea, KAL 007 received instructions from Tokyo air traffic control to "Climb and maintain 35,000 feet." As the airliner began to climb, its airspeed dropped somewhat, and this caused the pursuing fighter to slightly overpass. Shortly afterward, the large aircraft was climbing on its way to the newly assigned altitude. The fighter pilot reported that he was falling behind the ascending target and losing his attack position. This otherwise routine maneuver sealed the fate of KAL 007. It convinced the Soviets that the intruding aircraft was engaging in evasive maneuvers. 

Receiving the order to fire on the target, Osipovich fired two missiles at the plane, which propelled toward the aircraft at a rate of 1,200 miles (or 1930 kmph) per hour. The first missile exploded when it struck the plane’s tail. The second one struck the fuselage, tearing a hole in the cabin and causing a rapid decompression. Osipovich radioed back to this command, “Target is destroyed.”

Now that investigators have the cockpit voice recorder, they listen to what happens next from the perspective of the pilots.

In the cockpit of Flight 007, sounds of panic erupt. One of the pilots yell out, “Smoke!” and then another pilot cries out, “From the other side!” There were other shouts of, “Get up!” over and over, which likely was a command to pull the nose of the plane up. 

The flight crew called in to Tokyo air control, telling them the aircraft had experienced rapid decompression and requested to descend to 10,000 feet (3,084 meters). But because the plane is struck in the tail, critical flight control systems are damaged, and the plane starts climbing toward 38,000 feet (11,600 meters). 

The pilots fight to stop the climb, but then all on its own, the plane begins to fall back to earth, now sailing through 5,000 feet (1524 meters) per minute. The aircraft is uncontrollable. The missiles have caused irrevocable, catastrophic damage. 

In the passenger cabin, anyone not fastened into their seats would have been thrown to the ceiling, suffering horrendous injuries to their heads, necks, and faces. Items such as breakfast trays and cutlery would have been turned into projectiles. The oxygen masks were deployed and hung in the air as panicked passengers, still conscious for the moment, would have desperately fumbled to put them on. Parents of the 22 children onboard no doubt would have thought of protecting their children. A voice came over the passenger cabin intercom system, repeating over and over, in Korean, Japanese, and English, “Urgent descent, fasten seat belts, put on masks...”

And that is not even the worst of it. Investigators believe due to the damage suffered by the missile, that the aircraft broke up in midair, shortly before plunging into the sea in pieces.  The final voices on the CVR are that of Tokyo control who says, “Korean Air 007, I can’t read you, I can’t read you.” 

The confusion, the chaos reigned. The chairman of the American Association for Families of KAL 007 Victims, Hans Ephraimson-Abt, whose daughter died in the crash, said, “Now we face the agonizing recognition that their death was neither painless nor instant.” 

Conspiracies Continue to Plague Legacy of Korean Air Lines Flight 007

During the years between the initial crash in 1983 and the second investigation ten years later, many conspiracy theories persisted about what happened to KAL 007, its passengers, and the wreckage. Many conspiracy theories were proven incorrect when the Soviets finally released all the evidence they had been withholding related to the crash. However, a few conspiracies persist even to this day. 

One main theory is that KAL 007 was indeed on a spy mission and that the U.S. helped to cover up those facts. In 1994, Robert W. Allardyce and James Gollin wrote Desired Track: The Tragic Flight of KAL Flight 007, supporting the spy mission theory. In 2007, they reiterated their position in a series of articles in Airways Magazine, arguing that the investigation by the ICAO was a cover-up of a "carefully planned ferret mission". Furthermore, they suggested that the NSA had implemented Electronic Counter Measures to cover for the mission and that the flight recorder tapes had been planted for the Soviet recovery effort to find.

Another conspiracy suggests that the Russians electronically lured the plane off course and shot it down so they could kill one of the passengers, Congressman Larry P. McDonald, Democrat of Georgia, chairman of the John Birch Society. 

Another proposition is that the pilot of flight 007, a former Korean Air Force officer, violated Russian airspace as a favor to American intelligence agencies that wanted to monitor the reactions of the Soviet air defense system. 

Another conspiracy theory centers around why there were no surface finds at the location identified as KAL 007's impact with the water. Soviet divers who later gave interviews about their part in diving into wreckage just days after the crash, reported with surprise there were only a few pieces of luggage at the bottom. All the non-human items that had previously washed up on the beaches were those generally coming from a passenger cabin of an aircraft and none from the cargo hold, contrary to what would be expected if there had been a total destruction from a passenger aircraft crashing into the sea. There were even rumors and concerns that the plane had landed on the surface intact and the passengers and crew had been sent to a Soviet camp. Obviously, this last part is not true. And as we know from other crashes, any plane that hits the water at a high rate of speed will not leave people’s bodies intact. 

None of these conspiracy theories have ever been proven to be true, and many in fact have been disproven. 

Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Passengers

The circle of grief encompassing the crash of KAL 007 is a wide one, with many voids left in the world because of the events of that day. 

At least 52 Americans, including two infants, were among the 269 persons who died aboard KAL 007. South Korea lost the most citizens, with 105 onboard, followed by 28 Japanese nationals, and 16 citizens from the Philippines. 

Alice Ephraimson-Abt, 23, was about to board Flight 007 for Seoul, South Korea, and was excited about heading to Beijing to teach English and study. For one last time, she held her father, Hans Ephraimson-Abt, before saying goodbye. He told CNN, “There were hugs and I-love-yous.” Hans later became the chairman of the American Association for Families of KAL 007 Victims. 

United States Congressman Larry McDonald from Georgia, who at the time was a staunch anti-Communist and the second president of the conservative John Birch Society, was on the flight.

John Oldham, a recent graduate of Columbia Law School from Bethesda, MD, was headed to Peking for a year of studying Chinese language and law at Beijing University. He had originally planned to take the Monday night flight on Korean Air Lines but delayed his departure one day to help visiting Chinese scholars at Columbia find housing on Manhattan's crowded upper West side.

Gyung Geun Ryu, 27, came to Georgetown University in Washington, DC, from his native Seoul to study organic chemistry. He was headed back home to take care of family business.

Philadelphia stockbroker Allan Kohn, 63, and his wife, Lillian, 54, a free-lance writer, had decided on a vacation in Japan and made the reservations only two weeks ago. Their son said, "It was a last-minute thing. There were two seats left on the flight."

David E. Powrie said his son, Ian, 24, a British civil engineer who had been living in East Orange, N.J., was on his way to Seoul on business. Powrie said his son was "An outstanding, capable, intelligent, considerate young man. Our only son. Our only child."

Six women from the Detroit area had left for a vacation tour of Korea and Japan arranged by Margaret Zarif, 59, the author of two children's book on Martin Luther King Jr. and local black leaders. Zarif, a retired teacher who had taught kindergarten in several cities, ran a small travel agency out of her home and arranged for the other women to meet one Sunday before the trip, said Bobbie Brooks, a close friend. Brooks said Zarif, a member of the Detroit Fire Commission and a trustee of the city's Afro-American Museum, "was fantastic, a real entrepreneur. The hardest thing I had to do was break it to her son," Michael, 29. The others in Zarif's group were hairdresser Marie Culp, 75, dry cleaner Hazel James, hospital worker Frances Swift, 40, former judge Jessie Slaton, 75, and General Motors machinist Joyce Chambers, 34. 

Susan Lee Campbell, 28, a veterinarian from Worcester, Mass., was returning to Taiwan for a final year of study at Tung Hai University before taking a job in Massachusetts. Her mother said, “Everyone here is devastated by this. It's a great waste of human potential."

Diane Ariyadej, 30, was returning with her 8-month-old son, Sammy, to join her husband, a Thai businessman. 

Edgardo Cruz, 59, and his wife, Frisca, 60, of Irvington, N.J., were returning to the Philippines for the funeral of Cruz' father.

James Burgess, 55, a textiles salesman from Greenville, S.C., was going to Korea with his friend and business partner, Bill Hong, 41, said Maryann Montgomery, a family friend. Hong, a Korean-American, had won the airline ticket in a Korean-sponsored golf tournament, she said.

Ming-Tsan Weng, 41, an American citizen and Taiwanese native who was an engineer with General Electric in Cincinnati, was invited by the Taiwanese government to take a teaching position.

In August 1989, a federal court ordered Korean Air Lines to pay $50 million dollars to137 of the families of the victims. The award was since the court felt that the crew of KAL 007 had put the passengers in danger by veering off course, which placed them in Soviet air space and at risk. 

As one family member said, “No amount of money will bring my child back from the dead.”

Legacy of Korean Air Lines Flight 007

The legacy of KAL 007 is both cultural and technical.

Between the first investigation and the final investigation, significant enhancements in the fields of communications, navigation and surveillance were made specifically for civilian aircraft flying the NOPAC route system. The U.S. integrated several civil and military surveillance radars into the Anchorage ATC. Mandatory navigation cross-checking procedures were also implemented. Following the signing in 1985 of a trilateral Memorandum of Understanding between Japan, the USSR and the United States, a dedicated voice circuit was commissioned in 1986 between Anchorage, Khabarovsk and Tokyo, with corresponding operating procedures. Further improvements are being pursued between the Russian Federation and the United States to accommodate a growing demand for safe, regular, efficient and economical civil flight operations in the area.

As a result of the incident, the United States altered tracking procedures for aircraft departing Alaska, while the interface of the autopilot used on airliners was redesigned to make it more failsafe. President Ronald Reagan ordered the U.S. military to make the Global Positioning System (GPS) available for civilian use so that navigational errors like that of KAL 007 could be averted in the future. Additionally, the ICAO recommended that all passenger planes have a heading that clearly showed when a plane was flying using the magnetic heading versus the INS. Boeing responded by redesigning its autopilot system on all 747s. 

Korean Air Lines suffered a streak of major disasters after KAL Flight 007, becoming a pariah of the airline industry. But in 2000, with the help of a retired Delta Air Lines vice president, it turned around, improved safety, and rebranded itself as Korean Air. It has since regained its good standing with the U.S. government. Today, Korean Air is one of the world's top 20 airlines and conducts almost 400 passenger flights per day to 84 cities in 29 countries.

The airplane that was Korean Air Lines Flight 007 still lies silently at the bottom of the North Pacific Ocean, having been brutally shattered into pieces by the force of impact years earlier. Most of the bodies remain missing and likely will never be found. Even almost 40 years later, families of the victims still gather for memorials and stay connected through private social media groups. The crash remains one of the darkest moments of the Cold War and a reflection of the supreme fear and paranoia rising from tensions between nations that were willing to go to destructive lengths to defend opposing ideologies. The 269 people onboard that morning were innocently caught in the middle. 

And THAT is the unbelievable, heart wrenching true story of a plane crash that almost started a world war, Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

Show Notes:

In this episode, Shelly shared her strange phobias of small, clustered holes and black-and-white films. Reach out to us on social media and let us know if you also have a phobia! Shelly and Stephanie also shared the joys of rediscovering favorite places to visit and things to do coming out of the pandemic. What are some things you are beginning to do again, in this "new normal"? Reach out to us on Facebook and let us know!


Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered at: Snow Monster Studios
Sound editor: Stephanie Hubka
Producer: Adam Hubka
Music by: Mike Dunn
Korean Air Lines Flight 007

The aircraft that was shot down, pictured here landing in Zurich in 1980. Source: Wikipedia

Korean Air Lines Flight 007

Photo of Soviet pilot Gennadiy Osipovich, who shot down KAL 007. Source: This Day in Aviation

Korean Air Lines Flight 007

The intended versus actual flight path of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. Source: The Jesse Helms Center

Korean Air Lines Flight 007

Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Memorial. Source: Wikipedia