Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


Apr. 28, 2010

KAL 007

            In the month of September, temperatures in Moscow are beginning to move downward in anticipation of the coming snows, which usually begin by middle October. But on the evening of September 26, 1983 the summer weather, if perhaps a little humid, still lingered around the average of 61° F. That evening, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Force, was reporting for a twelve hour duty cycle at a top secret early warning radar center about thirty miles south of the city. The radar alert bunker, known as Serpukhov-15, was assigned a mission of watching for missile attack from the United States. Colonel Petrov reported at seven pm and was to take command of the facility until the following morning.

          At this moment, tensions between the Soviets and the U.S. were on a hair trigger alert. President Regan was advocating the Star Wars anti-missile defense system. The Soviets, always thinking in the most paranoid fashion, believed this system once deployed, would negate their ICBM arsenal during an attack. They reasoned that Star Wars was being built therefore, as a preparation for an American nuclear first strike against them. The only response to this situation in the Soviet mind was to strike the Americans first.  At this time, both countries shared in excess of 20,000 nuclear warheads between them. The Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, was an ex KGB Commandant. He was aging and very ill with kidney failure, and typified this traditional old-guard suspicion. He knew the Soviets were losing the technology race, and among the aging hard-line leaders fears of an American first strike were mounting.

          Suspicions had been heightened on both sides earlier in the month, when on September 1st, the Soviet Air Defense shot down a commercial airliner, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over prohibited airspace in the Sea of Japan, killing all 269 on board. Among the dead were 63 Americans, including a sitting member of the United States Congress, Lawrence McDonald. This incident seriously heightened international nuclear tensions, causing a crisis which nearly erupted into World War III. Let us begin our tale on the night of the mishap.

          On Sept.1, 1983, KAL 007 was en route from New York City to Seoul via Anchorage. It departed Anchorage at 4 a.m. Alaska time,  and was cleared to Seoul by Air Traffic Control (ATC) to maintain flight level 310 (31,000 ft). Three minutes later KAL set its autopilot to steer the flight over the ocean on heading 220. By 4:50 a.m. KAL 007 was at flight level, but King Salmon military radar (later) showed them at this time to be 12.6 nautical miles off course and north of the intended track.

          The 007 crew seemed unaware of this, even when they flew out of radio range, and unperturbed, asked another KAL flight following behind (KAL 015) to relay messages to ATC. At 6:51 a.m (Alaska time) KAL 007 entered Soviet airspace over the Kamchatka Peninsula. At 8:45 a.m. the flight re-entered international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk (see map). Four minutes later Soviet Air Defense scrambled two fighters to intercept although the flight was now again over neutral airspace. The 007 cockpit voice recorder showed normal chatter at this point in the flight, indicating the crew was unaware of the course error. (note: following the disaster the Soviets held the voice recorder for nine years before releasing it for examination after a change in government.)  

          The ground controllers seemed confused:

We don’t know what is happening now, it’s heading straight for our Island [Sakhalin]…this looks very suspicious to me…”

          The Commander of Air Defense, Far East, General Kamenski asks a rational question:

“…[should we] destroy it even if it is over neutral waters? Are the orders to destroy it over neutral waters?…”  

Base Commander at Sakhalin, General Kornukov, orders the interceptors not to approach from the rear because

“… Don’t forget it [target]  has cannons in the rear…”,

although the interceptors were not yet close enough to identify the flight in the darkness. Again Kornukov urges the fighters to speed up since the target is approaching the neutral zone.

          KAL 007 reports strong headwinds to ATC (possibly the cause for the off course condition). The Soviet fighters are reporting target’s course as 240 (not the intended 220).

          The aircraft was a Boeing 747, somewhat similar in appearance to a US Air Force RC-135. The flight was showing all its navigation lights and a blinking beacon. KAL 007 does not have transponders set to respond to Soviet fighter’s interrogation. The lead Soviet pilot informs ground controllers he sees a blinking beacon but in the darkness cannot identify the “target”.

          At 9:11 a.m. as the fighters are vectored in, the KAL crew is talking about exchanging money at the destination airport, and what is the exchange rate from Dollars to Korean.

          One Soviet General (Kamenski) is reacting with good sense despite the heat of the moment:

“We must find out, maybe it is some civilian craft or God knows who.”

He is contradicted by the Sakhelin Base Commander, General Kornukov:

What civilian? It has flown over Kamchatka! It came from the ocean without identification. I am giving the order to attack if it crosses the State border… the fighter is locked on at 6 km range…the target is not responding to identify…”

          9:14 pm, KAL 007 request an altitude change to level 350 due to winds. Tokyo ATC gives permission for level 330.

          9:15 Colonel Maistrenko, the Ops Duty Officer at Combat Control, attempts a moment of sanity:

“…[target] may be a passenger aircraft. All necessary steps must be taken to identify it…”

His answer is “Identification measures are being taken, but the pilot cannot see. It’s dark. Even now it’s still dark…”

Maistrenko replies “Well, okay. The task is correct. If there are no lights-it cannot be a passenger aircraft.”

This despite the fighter reporting seeing a beacon. Also the pilots were never asked whether navigation lights were showing.

          The lead fighter is at 2 km locked on with armed missiles. Suddenly 007 begins to climb for altitude change and consequently loses airspeed. The fighter jet loses position and falls behind. He has to maneuver for a better shot angle.

          Base Commander Kornukov gets angry. “…cut the horseplay at the command post, what is the noise I hear there? I repeat the order. Fire Missiles, fire on the target…”

He changes controllers to the second fighter, a Mig 23:

“Comply and get Tarasov in there…take control of the Mig 23…destroy the target !”

Controller: “Wilco…task received destroy the target with missile fire…”

Kornukov: “Carry out the task, destroy it… Oh, [expletive] how long does it take him to get into attack position. [target] is already getting out into neutral waters? Go to afterburner…while you are wasting time it will fly right out.”

          KAL 007, unaware of the impending disaster, reports reaching altitude 330 to ATC.

          At 9:26 pm The first fighter fires two missiles.

          At 9:26 pm, the KAL 007 cockpit recorder records the sound of an explosion. The Captain asks “What happened?”

          The crew of KAL 007 struggles with control for almost 5 minutes, but the aircraft loses altitude. At 9:30 pm KAL 007 is last seen by radar at Wakkanai losing altitude. Six minutes later the flight disappears from Soviet radar, last seen in a descending spiral.

          9:41 the air is silent except for Tokyo ATC:

“Tokyo radio to KAL 007. Korean Air zero zero seven this is Tokyo Radio request radio check. Tokyo requests radio check…”

          There is no answer.

          Soviet military dispatches a KGB helicopter to the sight. There is no public report whether anything is found.

           First the Soviet Union disclaimed any knowledge of the incident. Finally they admitted the attack, claiming the aircraft was on a spy mission. They impeded all international search and rescue operations. This incident caused intense anti-Soviet reaction in the U.S. and worldwide, escalating nuclear tensions between the two countries.

          It is in this hostile atmosphere that Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov reported to assume command of the radar alert center Serpukhov-15,  some three weeks later…

(to be continued…)


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