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From: Murray Sayle
Subject: Re: Sayle's 1993 'New Yorker' piece
Date: Monday, September 08, 2003 12:59 AM

Dear Jim,

Once again I'm in your debt. By all means put the piece on your site.

I own the copyright so no need to worry about the New Yorker.

However on re-reading it I realize that the technical explanation of the
navigational error is rather skimped and the New Yorker piece (with your
help) concentrates much more on the Soviet end. So I'm sending you my
New York Review of Books piece which first showed that a constant 246
magnetic heading was consistent with all the known facts and that no
other explanation was. I suggest you also put this on your site.

This is the most difficult story I have ever tackled. While I was never
attracted to any conspiracy theory there was a combination of both
odd circumstances and hard-to-account for facts to be explained. For
instance the recorded track between ANC and BET does look very much
like a great circle which implied that the INS nav mode had been
selected. But the head of the Royal Institutë of Navigation in London
(a former RAF bomber pilot) worked though it with me and showed that
that the combination of changing mag variation and wind pattern was
equally consistent with the track flown.

Similarly the military radar trace ending just before the turn that was
never made at Bethel and the reported re-use of the tapes were both highly
suspicious. So also was the crew's contant revisions of their ETA at the
next waypoints just short of the ten minutes that would have required
them to file a new flight plan. But something fishy going on can have
many explanations other than the conspiracy the theorist is trying to
establish. In these cases the military covering their bureaucratic
asses and the laziness of the Korean pilots are alternative

Incidentally the NYReview had a much better map which I could
post you if you want to put it on your site.

However my own experience was critical, I think. Not may people have
navigated long distances over water by magnetic compass in conditions of
fatigue-induced drowsiness and I happen to be one of them, from my
single-handed ocean yacht racing days. I nearly went up on the coast
of Brittany one dark night by misreading radio beacons on either side
of the approach to the English Channel. If I could have done it, so
could they, I reasoned, and this turned out to be the case.

Hersh's technical explanation, for instance, while technically possible
(he got it from a pilot) required the crew to have made exactly the same
mistake six times in a row, so unlikely that any other explanation
had first to be disproved, and only 246 magnetic resisted disproof
to the end. Such journalism has to be its own reward I'm afraid as I
have not seen another. Few people would buy or even read a book about
cross-track error and Schuler pendulums only to find an unsexy
accident at the end of it, a conspiracy of circumstance as the NYRoB
put it.

Still there's a bleak satisfaction in knowing we were right. I
remember the Brit poet Addington Symonds (I think)

Great is the truth, and it will prevail
When none care whether it prevail or not...

True of most historical mysteries, I fear.

Keep up the good work.

Murray S.


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