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Memo for the Record Sep 22, 1993
To: KAL-007 Community From: Jim Oberg
Re: Whence Captain Chun’s misplaced confidence in his being safely on course???

A nagging, unsettled question about the now-understood navigation and control errors which led to KAL-007’s course deviation (2460 magnetic without INS capture), is how a veteran captain such as Chun could have overlooked it. It’s easy to say that other pilots have made the same mistake in the past, and that may be all we will ever know. But it remains unsatisfying all the same. Why didn’t he avail himself of the other navigational cross-checks which were possible? What made him so sure that he was on course and safely headed for Seoul? Was he really so grossly negligent?

An idea has occurred to me that might contribute to this mystery. Perhaps the answer to Chun’s false and fatal sense of confidence, his inadequate “situational awareness”, has been in front of us all the time. And it wasn’t such a superficially stupid error.

Chun must have felt he was on course because he was in continuous radio contact with his colleagues on KAL-015, following close behind him. These radio conversations, which occurred intermittently over the course of the entire flight, could have been accepted as obvious reassurance that his OWN plane was exactly where he thought it to be, ten to fifteen minutes ahead of (and two thousand feet below) the other airliner. The instinctive intuition of this concept is that since both planes would never make the same navigation error, and if both planes were close, then both planes must be on course. The fact that radio contact was being maintained as the distance between them increased was not evident since there was no anomalous degradation or interruption of the signals. KAL-015 was the navigational base on which Chun decided he was OK.

This feeling would be reinforced by the periodic reading, from the INS indicator panel, of the time and distance to next waypoint. Only when the waypoint passage light went OUT would either KAL-007 pilot really have a reminder to look at the display. Had they taken the extra trouble to compare actual latitude/longitude to the flight plan’s predictions, they would have seen a discrepancy, but the parameters they did read and report by radio were not off by enough to worry them.

Except. . . except the winds. Here, there is clear indication both from the CVR and from the 015 captain’s recollections that something was nagging at Chun’s mind. The wind directions and speeds were quite different between 007 and 015. The difference was discussed. Chun, attributing it with an effort to the altitude difference, grudgingly explained it, “Maybe it can be so”. And he missed a chance to use this minor anomaly to overthrow his false situational awareness and to save the lives of all on board.

During the entire flight, no other mental inputs were sufficiently dissonant with this wrong interpretation of reality. Radio troubles with Anchorage were easily understood as typical. Absence of ground beacons were never noticed. Weather radar was probably never used. Chun must have thought he had good reasons to be confident he was where he was supposed to be. He never was worried enough to cross check.

In summary, all the earlier assessments of what Chun -- or any other competent pilot -- must have done to insure proper course are based on the “single airplane” model, where a plane is flying alone through the dark and therefore must totally rely on its own resources to verify its course. But Chun was not flying alone that night, and the presence of 015 on the radio lulled him into the false impression that he was flying exactly where he should have been, ahead of 015 long R20 bound for Seoul.


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