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November 1991: The Truth About KAL-007
Air Force Magazine


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The tragic destruction of Korean Air Lines flight 007 by Soviet military forces on September 1, 1983 left many open questions and unsolved mysteries. Many of these "mysteries" were counterfeit, as apologists sought to absolve the Soviet guilt by weaving bizarre webs of conspiracy and espionage. Many other mysteries -- such as the airliner's actual path and final resting place, the actions of US assets in the area, the actions of the Korean crew, and role of Soviet military personnel and weapons -- were keenly relevant to the duties and interests of USAF personnel. But as the years passed, only fading speculations remained.

Then, in a startling turn of events, a Soviet newspaper took 'glasnost' for real and conducted an in-depth independent investigation based in Moscow. Thousands of manhours were spent on hundreds of interviews, visits, and travels. Most astonishingly of all, the damning results -- which irrefutably demolished the entire web of lies wrapped around the tragedy by Soviet military officials -- were then published in Izvestiya, the official daily of the Soviet civil government. In response, the Soviet military's daily newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda, published its own series, still attempting to justify the shootdown but surprisingly confirming all of Izvestiya's most astonishing claims.

The revelations were severely damaging to the image of the Soviet armed forces, and the articles were crudely attacked by Soviet hardliners within the military, and by KGB chief Kryuchkov himself. During their abortive coup in mid-August, one of the hardliners' first (and fortunately, last) targets was this newly-freed Soviet press which had produced such damaging reports. The triumph of the reform forces may signal a redoubled 'glasnost' campaign against such secrets.

Sadly, in the Free World little attention was paid to the details released in two Izvestiya series, in January and in May, and the semi-official military response in mid-July. Both the original Moscow lies from 1983 and the continuing official Soviet government lies in 1991 may have been too disturbing a topic to stare at too long, especially in an age when world peace is at hand if only we can learn to "trust the Russians".

A few of the high points of the Izvestiya disclosures have been briefly reviewed in the Western media. The pilot who fired the missiles admitted that the airliner was flying with proper lights, that he never warned it on radio, and that he never fired tracer bursts, but later was ordered to lie about all these details. Soviet undersea workers described to Izvestiya's journalists how they secretly located the airliner's wreckage and recovered the flight data recorders, even as current Kremlin officials still deny possessing them. The gruesome fate of the remains of the 269 passengers and crew seems to be that the bodies were dismembered upon high-speed impact, then dispersed by the ocean currents; what fragments were noticed by Soviet divers on the bottom at 600 ft were not disturbed. Some floating body parts were also recovered.

Far more details of that tragic night can now be reconstructed. Much of the newspaper material still is fragmentary and contradictory, as befits oral testimony many years after the fact. But an overall picture has emerged, and more disclosures can be expected.

Reconstructing the actual flight path of the airliner has always presented problems. From just past Alaska until the final minutes over Sakhalin, it was out of range of Western civilian and military radars. The pilot's reported positions were wrong; he was probably misled by the malfunctioning navigation system, too naively trusted. Soviet propaganda claims (echoed by Western apologists) of evasive maneuvers were both self-serving (they provided evidence in support of deliberateness) and dubious (they were often based on fragmentary memories of untaped radar screens and on momentary glimpses from maneuvering chase aircraft). Early press accounts attempted to reconstruct the final flight direction assuming a late mission deviation, and thus introduced hypothetical turns first to the right and then to the left. The result is a mishmash of proposed paths which trace over each other like a spilled plate of spaghetti.

In late 1983, two "official" reports were presented from opposite sides of the issue, one by Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to the United Nations Security Council and the other by Marshal Pyotr Kirsanov to the International Civil Aviation Organization. Both accounts are almost identical (not surprising since the US version is based on intercepted Soviet radar data) and show an essentially straight path. The Soviet map shows a small, subdued jog around the Sakhalinsk air base under the plane's flight path, a deviation which may be merely due to "slant range" error associated with the overhead passage of the target (there is no reference in the Russian pilot's tapes to any course change at this point). All of the new Izvestiya material corroborated these original maps and suggested that the airliner flew essentially straight for its entire passage through the region, until hit by the missiles. This was then explicitly confirmed by an official Soviet Defense Ministry map published in Krasnaya Zvezda on July 16, which was identical to Kirkpatrick's original UN presentation, even to the absence of the small penultimate "jog".

What did the Soviets know, and when did they know it, about the overflight? How did Soviet military personnel in the PVO Straniy (Air Defense Forces) react? What procedures were followed and what mistakes were made? Who gave the final orders? At long last these questions can be answered.

A Soviet rear admiral told Izvestiya anonymously that he had been at the Kamchatka combat control center when the airliner began its intrusion. He recalled observing the patroling EC-135; later (reportedly at 1559, about 8 minutes after US sources recorded first Soviet contact) the airliner was also observed, but nothing seemed unusual until the airliner (assumed to be a refuelling plane, and assigned target number 6065) continued south instead of returning north. At this point, he continued, "the target suddenly disappeared from the radar altogether! The operational officer got frantic." A pair of interceptors were launched as a precaution and headed east out to sea.

Checks of the radar circuits allegedly showed all was in order but this took time, and meanwhile the target was not being tracked. The admiral came to the conclusion that the target had descended below radar coverage, a sure sign of intentional penetration. It wasn't until the airliner was halfway across Kamchatka (over the Kronotskiy Nature Preserve) that it was seen again. By then the first two interceptors were too far east, and a second pair was launched too late to catch the target before it passed beyond a mountain range which blocked further tracking.

A second source for Izvestiya was a recent article in Sibirskaya Gazeta by a former PVO trooper named Aleksey Kretinin. His reconstruction attributed the initial confusion to the assumption that the approaching plane was merely provoking Soviet radars and would turn away short of the border. But the border was crossed at 0533, and right after that the plane vanished from radar screens, not reappearing for 13 minutes.

[Recent revelations by the defecting intelligence officer .Aleksey Gordievskiy assert that on the night of the overflight, "eight of the eleven tracking stations on the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island were not functioning properly". These and later "disappearances" of the airliner seem far more likely the result of ground equipment malfunctions than of "active countermeasures" by a spy plane.]

Soviet official sources still maintain that interceptors (a third pair!) caught the airliner as it crossed Kamchatka, observed it was flying without lights, made warning maneuvers which were ignored, then mercifully let it go. A pilot named "Kazmin" appeared on Soviet television in 1983, describing this event. But Izvestiya's investigation found that Kamchatka experts told a different tale: the planes from there failed to get into the air fast enough and never caught the airliner. "Probably the pilot named Kazmin does not exist," the newspaper concluded. "He is a myth."

During its passage across the Sea of Okhotsk, the airliner was beyond the range of Soviet PVO radar. Forces on Sakhalin had been alerted but they expected the intruder to turn south across the Kuriles and escape into international waters.

As the airliner approached Sakhalin, it appeared on radar screens. The surprised observers were determined not to let it escape.
Many military personnel told Izvestiya about how edgy they had become due to earlier incidents. One Lt Col, who had been chief of a PVO command post on Sakhalin the night of the shootdown, described overflights the previous April, in the Kuriles, by US Navy planes from the Midway and the Enterprise. One particular incident (on April 4) involved a Soviet order to intercept and fire on the jets, but the nearest base was fogged in and more distant bases had no interceptors equipped with drop tanks (following Belenko's defection in 1976, Soviet military aircraft on Sakhalin were reportedly never loaded with enough fuel to allow them to reach Japan, which imposed severe combat radius constraints on them). The Navy planes were observed to make several "bombing runs" on one of the islands, then fly off with impunity.
[US Navy historical records available to the public at the Washington Naval Yard confirm that these two carriers were conducting aircraft operations near the Kuriles in this period, along with a large task force of smaller warships.]

The failure to get any Soviet aircraft into the air resulted in reprimands, demotions, and punitive transfers. "That is why, having behind us a successful penetration of an American into our airspace, we were in such a determined mood," an officer explained. "The Boeing had to be destroyed." One tactic that had been approved for any future intrusion: Soviet jets would chase intruders without regard to the return leg, and after any combat the pilots would eject over the ocean. The pilots, knowing the water temperature and the quality of their survival gear, accepted this as a decree of a suicide mission.

And one of the duty officers in the April incident who had been severely reprimanded and ordered to take "resolute actions" for any repetitions was himself on duty the night 007 arrived. Soviet military journalists pointed out recently that "Had the situation in September 1983 been less tense, the information command post specialists possessed would have been perceived quite differently; the conclusions would have been different, and so would have been the result." This was close to an official admission that there were plenty of hints available at the time that the intruder was a lost civilian jet, but nobody dared take the chance of believing their implications.

One of the targeting navigators was Senior Lieutenant Vladimir Borisov; he used the call sign "Deputat". As the intercept began, he was ordered by the unit's deputy chief of staff for combat operations (a Major Aleksandr Dovnarovich) to command the destruction of the intruder as soon as it crossed the border. Borisenko was subsequently overruled, then again cleared to order the attack. Witnesses reported to Izvestiya that he was so keyed up that the following day he vectored a patrolling interceptor toward another radar target and again ordered that it be destroyed. But the Soviet pilot recognized the new "intruder" as an IL-14 and held his fire.

As the Korean airliner neared the island, a pair of jets took off from Smirnykh but were unable to intercept the target. A second pair (a Su-15 and a MiG-23) took off from Sokol. One was flown by Lt. Col Gennadiy Osipovich, the deputy regimental commander, just back from leave.

On the evening of August 31, Osipovich had been the senior officer in the ready room. He had ordered "Readiness 3" status, which allowed pilots to be out of their flying gear but be ready to get into their aircraft at ten minutes notice ("Readiness 2" requires the pilots to be dressed for flight, and "Readiness 1" is sitting in the aircraft).

A phone call at 04:30 local time ordered him to get into his aircraft (KAL-007 was still over Kamchatka at this time). His puzzlement grew after he saw a second aircraft being uncovered for flight. He remembers wondering what was going on ("The Americans usually started to make a commotion after 11:00, it was much too early for them now."). Then, about 06:00 (1800 Z), he was ordered to take off and head out to sea. "For some reason I was sure they had sent up a test target to check out the assets on call", he recalled thinking. He was vectored onto a pursuit course and soon caught sight of the target's flashing light.

What was he thinking then, an Izvestiya journalist asked. "Nothing -- I was excited!" he replied. Elaborating: "What is a fighter pilot? He is a kind of sheep dog that they are constantly sending off after strange things. I saw that what was ahead was something foreign. And I am not a state automobile inspector who can stop a violator and demand his documents! I moved in behind to intercept the flight. The first thing that I had to do was force it to land. And if he would not comply, then render him harmless at any cost. I simply did not have any other thoughts."

A Soviet military journalist who was with him soon after the shootdown told Izvestiya there had been other thoughts in his head: "He was most of all afraid of the slightest distraction from the instrumentation, of sliding into a hallucination and losing sense of the spatial position of his plane." No thrill of the chase for Osipovich, but anxiety -- even fear -- for not performing properly.

The intruder's speed was "about 1000 kph" (540 knots), and Osipovich took up position about 13 km behind. Suddenly the controller began asking course and altitude questions: it turned out that both aircraft had disappeared from radar. "We were both moving in a zone of invisibility whose existence we could not have guessed." Ground radar equipment was again malfunctioning.

It was here that the pilot's recorded air-to-ground conversation referred to turns by the target. Osipovich was flying behind the target, on a heading of 240. However, the ground had clearly vectored the chase plane to the right, based on bad radar tracking data. Osipovich could see the target and objected, "To the left surely, not to the right", but he was ordered to turn and took up a course of 260. Naturally, the line of sight to a target maintaining 240 would shift to the left, and this is exactly what Osipovich radioed a few moments later: "Affirmative it has turned. The target is 80 to my left." It was he, not the target, who had turned, as the ground soon realized, and they ordered a corrective course: 220. Within three minutes more, the Soviet interceptor was again directly behind, and the pilot reported his course was again 240, the same as it had been when the confusion had begun. In any case, in the Izvestiya interviews Osipovich never referred to these alleged turns. They probably never happened.

As the airliner crossed the Sakhalin coast, Osipovich was ordered to destroy it. No warning, no forced landing -- just attack. Osipovich went to afterburner and quickly reported he had missile lock-on. But then new orders: "Abort destruction! Match altitude with the target and force it to land." Much later, Soviet officers admitted to Izvestiya that they doubted there was a runway anywhere on Sakhalin capable of handling a 747.

The pilot recalled he approached the target "from below" and "flashed him" (presumably, with his landing lights) but got no response. He was then ordered to fire some warning bursts.

"What was the sense of that?" he recalls. "I had armor-piercing rounds, not tracers. And it was hardly likely that anyone would see them." He fired off several bursts, without effect. Evidently, nobody did see him.

But Osipovich also believes that the Korean pilots had seen his flashing, and "reacted unambiguously -- they quickly reduced speed" .
What had really happened was a dreadful coincidence. As the end of the flight neared, 007 radioed Tokyo ATC for permission to climb from 33,000 to 35,000 feet (a standard fuel-economy technique once the airliner grew lighter). Tokyo radioed another aircraft on the same route, which had been assigned that flight level, to verify that it had climbed to 37,000 ft as it had requested earlier. Once this was established, Tokyo cleared 007 and the airliner replied that it was immediately beginning the climb. Its airspeed naturally dropped slightly during this maneuver.

At 18:20:20, 007 radioed Tokyo, "Leaving three three zero this time". At 18:22:02, Osipovich radioed excitedly, "The target is reducing speed...." Fifteen seconds later, "I am going around. I am already moving in front of the target." A few seconds later, "It is decreasing speed."

For Osipovich and the ground controllers, this had all the appearances of a deliberate maneuver to cause him to overshoot and have to circle back around. The Soviet conclusion: the plane refused to obey proper signals and was trying to escape.

"We had already flown past the island", Osipovich recalls, heading for international waters 15 nm off the coast. Only then was the command given to destroy the target. At that point, Osipovich recalls he was above and approaching the target, and had to drop back and maneuver to get missile lock-on. During those moments, it is clear to Western observers that the airliner may have passed out of Soviet airspace.

The order to destroy the target came from the unit's commanding officer, a Colonel Kornukhov (later a Lt.Gen), at the Sokol command post. At Khabarovsk on the mainland was the commander of the Far Eastern Military District, Tretyak, but he reportedly only monitored the execution of preset orders. According to the defector Gordievskiy, Khabarovsk passed reports back to Moscow but gave the Sakhalin units no more specific instructions than to follow the standing orders. Among the officers actually in the command post, the additional phrase "....or else!" went without saying.

Amidst the confusion and garbled communications of these final minutes, another misunderstanding further worried Osipovich. A second pursuing Soviet plane was asked about the intruder and Osipovich's aircraft. That pilot responded excitedly, "I'm observing both!" But the static or the narrow mindset made Osipovich misperceive the Russian "uh-bo-EE-h" ("both") for the terrifying word "bo-EE" ("battle"). Now he had to worry about the call from his backup aircraft that aerial combat was in progress. Was the intruder shooting at him?

Osipovich felt professionally insulted by the Western theory that he never knew what he was shooting at, confusing it with an RC-135. "Now I could see ahead of me a large aircraft with its lights and flashers switched on," Osipovich told Izvestiya, making it quite clear he recognized that the target was not a 135. "During ten years of service in the Far East I made more than 1,000 flights to intercept them. We knew the aircraft markings of the intruders. And they knew ours."

As for the target in front of him, "It was larger than an IL-76 and its outline was something like a TU-16. The trouble for all Soviet pilots is that we do not study civilian aircraft belonging to foreign companies. I knew all the military aircraft, all the reconnaissance aircraft, but this was not like any of them." Osipovich's claim to ignorance is self-serving and implausible, since the 1983 edition of the Soviet "Military Encyclopedia-Dictionary" had on page 652 two line drawings of aircraft: a Su-27 of the type Osipovich flew, and a Boeing 747! Yet Osipovich made no comment to the ground about the visual discrepancy between what may have been expected and what was actually there.
Whatever it was, he was committed to destroying it. "The first missile hit near the tail. There was a burst of yellow flame. The second took off half the left wing. The lights went out immediately." He called out, "The target is destroyed."

Osipovich broke right and headed for home. His gauges told him he had ten minutes of flying left, and he was 150 km (80 nm) from his airfield. As he approached the field, it was closed due to the morning sea fog, but he landed anyway.

His reception was joyous, but "once back on the ground I started to have a strange feeling." He telephoned the unit commander, Colonel Kornukhov, and asked if the target had been "one of ours". No, it had been a foreigner, he was assured.

[His suspicion that the intruder might have been a lost Soviet aircraft explains his attempt to activate its IFF -- in Russian, "svoy-chuzoy" -- just prior to its crossing the east coast of Sakhalin. Naturally there was no compatible gear aboard, as he had reported at the time: "The target is not responding to the inquiry."]

The Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper Bureau Chief for Siberia found himself on an airplane with Osipovich a few days later, when the shock of realization had just settled in. He later described for Izvestiya Osipovich's "distracted look", his "cold and totally lifeless hand", and other features, which told him the pilot had been "totally knocked out of psychological balance." During the flight from Sakhalin to Moscow, while the journalist was trying to organize a coherent story for a press conference, Osipovich was heard to mutter to himself, "But maybe there was nobody there?", and to ask to nobody in general, "Who can tell me precisely how many seats are on this Boeing?" He expressed the wish he had shot down a Soviet strategic bomber by mistake instead. Even years later he insisted to Izvestiya, "You know, even now I cannot really believe that there were passengers on board."

The stricken jet fell into the sea, but the extent of its death struggles and the time it took to hit the water are still unclear. One Soviet naval officer told Izvestiya he had been so struck with the Air Force commission's report that he memorized one relevant passage: "The 747 was falling at a pitching angle of 70 to 80 degrees (that is, almost vertically) from an altitude of about 9,000 meters [about 30,000 ft]. It exploded when it hit the water." Soviet divers found the wreckage strewn over a wide area, and the pieces were small and twisted, testifying to the enormous force of the impact.

The depth was 174 meters (571 ft), level and dense bottom, covered with sand and shells. According to Defense Ministry data released on August 2, the exact location of the wreckage is 46:35 N, 141:21 E.

Testimony collected by Izvestiya leaves no doubt that the aircraft's data recorders were recovered and sent to Moscow. But their contents were evidently not even shared with the members of the military's special investigative commission. The commission's charter was to produce evidence that the deviation had been a planned espionage act, so observers speculate that the flight path and crew conversation data failed to corroborate those theories.

Izvestiya repeatedly tried and failed to extract the data recorder results from the Soviet Defense Ministry, which last spring even refused instructions from Gorbachev to turn it over. Military officials may prove to be somewhat more cooperative after the mid-August putsch, so additional insights into the tragedy may still be provided.

The Soviet military response to these revelations was to insist it had acted properly. Wrote Krasnaya Zvezda on July 18, the shootdown had been performed "conscientiously, professionally, in compliance with international norms." But even the newspaper's own account showed that insufficient attempts had been made to carry out internationally prescribed night contact procedures for an unidentified aircraft: visual signals had been inadequate and the cannon fire had been completely contrary to accepted procedures.

As some facts and interpretations remain in dispute, one observation is justified: the growth of Soviet glasnost (and its expected further expansion post-putsch) is providing new and unexpected insights into this unforgettable tragedy. Analysts at the very least owe it to the victims and their families; military observers need to search the incident for clues to what was done wrong, what could be avoided in the future.

So far, the victims of KAL007 are the last foreigners to die at the hands of the Soviet armed forces. It would be a fitting tribute to them if they are allowed to keep that fearful distinction indefinitely.


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