james oberg logo



space shuttle



From "Uncovering Soviet Disasters", by James Oberg
Random House, New York, NY, 1988

Chapter Three: “The Bloody Border” (pages 32-49)

(excerpt starting on page 42)


Almost twenty years later, on April 20, 1978, another tragic shooting incident occurred in the same area when an errant Korean Air Lines 707 strayed over the Kola Peninsula and was attacked, arguably without proper warning, by Soviet jets.

No satisfactory explanation for the course deviation of Flight 902 has ever been produced, the result in no small part of the Soviet refusal to release any of the recovered data, such as flight recorders and the pilots' and navigator's logs (the Soviets even refused to allow the pilots to make photocopies before leaving Moscow for home). Years later the Soviets released a map (almost certainly based on analysis of flight recorder data) which showed that the aircraft had begun a wide right turn soon after reaching Iceland on its Amsterdam to Anchorage over-the-pole route. Such a turn was too gradual to occur manually, and the on-board guidance equipment would have equally been unable to match it deliberately, so a plausible explanation involved a drift in the aircraft's inertial platform or the manual keyboard entry of an incorrect correction factor for Earth's rotation (the apparent path would have been followed if the sign of the correction factor had been reversed).

Soon after entering Soviet airspace, the airliner was met by a Soviet jet. The pilot of Flight 902, Captain Kim Chang Ky, reported that when he caught sight of' the Soviet jet -- off the right side, not the left as specified by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, pronounced eye-kay-oh) standards -- he reduced speed, lowered his landing gear, and flashed his navigation lights on and off, all specified in procedures as signifying willingness to follow the Soviet fighter. His calls on 121.5 were recorded by a Finnish air traffic control tower at Rovaniemi, which also noted the lack of any Soviet calls
on the same frequency.

Despite the existence of the Finnish tapes, a Soviet spokesman

p. 43---------

later still declared: "The Soviet Union did everything possible to land it at an airfield but it would not comply." At that point the Soviet jet fired a missile which blew off part of a wing and showered the fuselage with shrapnel, killing two passengers. Pravda later called it a "warning shot."

American intelligence units in Europe had been able to eavesdrop on the Soviet air-to-ground communications as they occurred via some new high-tech eavesdropping facilities, according to a recent book by Seymour Hersh. At first the Russian pilots were convinced by the size of the radar blip that the incoming aircraft was a Boeing 747 and thus obviously a civilian airliner. But then at one point one of the pilots correctly reported that its silhouette was that of a Boeing 707, the same design as the RC-135 intelligence aircraft. The pilot was then ordered to attack and destroy the target.

Remarkably, the pilot argued with his ground control, on the basis of a closer view which showed the Korean Air Lines logo on the aircraft's tail. For several minutes he protested that the airplane was not a military one. Hersh's sources reconstructed the conversation as follows:

CONTROLLER: Do you see the target?
PILOT: Roger, it is a civilian airliner.
CONTROLLER: Destroy the target.
PILOT: Did YOU understand me!
CONTROLLER: Destroy the target.
PILOT: [Swears], do you understand what I told you?
GENERAL: [Identifies himself], do you know who I am!
GENERAL.: Force down that plane.

The Soviets evidently decided that the markings were false, painted onto a spy plane for-just the purpose of confusing their pilots.

One eavesdropping American, recalling the tone of the pilot's voice, later described the conversation as "one of the most dramatic things I'd heard in years.... I could see the guy shaking his head and saying 'We don't shoot down civilians.' " But he followed orders. His first missile did not detonate but his second blew up against the airliner's left wing.

Following the air-to-air- attack came the most embarrassing part of the incident, as far as the Soviet air defense forces were

p. 44 --------------

concerned. With air streaming out through holes in his fuselage, the Korean pilot pushed his jet over into a steep dive to get to a lower altitude with breathable air density. In doing so, he vanished into a low-lying cloud bank and dropped below Soviet radar coverage. The pursuing jets overshot him and were unable to spot him when they circled back. The Soviet radar screens were masked with ground clutter. The target had eluded them!

For more than an hour Captain Kim flew at an altitude of only several thousand feet across the snow-covered peninsula, seeking a safe landing place. The Soviets had no idea where he was. He had aborted several approaches to possible sites when he spotted obstructions at the last moment. Finally, after nightfall, he found a frozen lake bed, just west of Kem, and let down smoothly, skidding in to a safe landing.

Meanwhile, both overhead and at ground control points, the Soviets frantically sought out the escaped target. Hours later, responding to a phone call from a nearby Soviet settlement, Russian militia officials with a ladder knocked at the side of the airliner. The target had been found, no thanks to high-tech air defense equipment.

The incompetent performance of the air defense technology scandalized the Soviet government. Little concern seems to have been wasted on the two dead passengers. Instead, the fear was that American spy planes or even bombers might be able to utilize similar techniques against Soviet weaknesses to penetrate defenses. The air defense forces underwent a severe reorganization, and in the shakeup many leading officials had their careers terminated.

The result of the 1978 shakeup may have been a military organizati6n much more eager to shoot to kill at the earliest opportunity lest their marginal technological capabilities not allow them a second chance at any future "target." With more confidence in their ability to find and track intruders, Soviet military leaders might have been less trigger-happy. But after 1978 all the officers of the air defense forces must have been grimly determined not to let the next intruder slip away so easily.

The Soviet failure to cooperate with international investigators in 1978, and Moscow's refusal to turn over the necessary data, also clearly laid groundwork for later tragedy. Commen-

p. 45-----------

taters at that time warned about precisely such a danger. "If even deadlier incidents are to be avoided," wrote Anthony Paul in Reader's Digest, "the Russians owe it to the world to make the [flight] recorder available, and to publish a full, factual account of what they believe happened." Soviet failure to comply with ICAO standards in investigating the 1978 incident were a direct contributory precursor to the later tragedies.

At the other end of the Soviet Union, along the Pacific coast, American patrol aircraft had also been doing their share toward making Soviet border defense forces jumpy. Regular patrolling for decades, including airspace violations both planned and unplanned, had been punctuated by occasional shooting incidents. As early as October 22, 1949, an RB-29 over the Sea of Japan was attacked (no injuries). On October 7, 1952, an RB-29 was shot down by Soviet fighters six miles north of the Hokkaido coast, killing all eight crewmen. Another RB-29 was destroyed on July 29, 1953, killing another sixteen crewmen. On September 4, 1954, a U.S. Navy (USN) Neptune reconnaissance aircraft was attacked by a Soviet Mig-15, allegedly fifty miles off the coast, and on November 7 of the same year a U.S. Air Force (USAF) B-2S equipped with photoreconnaissance gear with eleven men on board was shot down "near Hokkaido" (ten men survived on parachutes). Subsequent shooting incidents resulted in no additional deaths.

There was one unusual case in which the Soviets did admit they made a mistake. On June 23, 1955, a U.S. Navy aircraft was attacked over international waters near the Bering Strait. Three crewmen were wounded. The Soviets admitted the error and offered to pay half the damage cost. The United States accepted. By today's official Soviet accounts, the last such mistake they made was thirty years ago.

Hersh's 1986 book on the 1983 KAL 007 tragedy provided information on a hitherto secret incident on April 2, 1976, near Sakhalin Island. A fully marked Japanese P-2V Neptune patrol plane inadvertently penetrated a few miles into Soviet airspace and was pounced on by a Soviet Sukhoi 15 jet, whose pilot reported to the ground that he had "visually sighted the target." He was ordered to attack and subsequently fired two air-to-air missiles. Both fortunately missed, and the Japanese aircraft was not damaged.

All these incidents were only preludes to the worst air-

p. 46------------------

tragedy of the Soviet borders, the destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983, with the loss of 269 lives. Although the Soviets claimed complete justification, while many Western groups saw it as a deliberate Communist atrocity, careful reconstruction of the incident makes it appear instead to be the worst foul-up of Soviet air defense technology in USSR history. The ultimate guilt is unavoidable: The Soviets shot to kill, all right, but irresponsibly they weren't careful to determine at whom they were shooting. All their expensive equipment and operators never provided data sufficiently convincing to dissuade them from their original instinctive (and wrong) judgment that the blip was an "American aggressor."

The bare facts of the September 1, 1983, KAL 007 disaster have been established, despite attempts by the Soviets and some assorted Western conspiracy enthusiasts to deflect responsibility. As with many airliners before and since, Flight 007 went off course through some unlikely but plausible combination of human errors and equipment problems. Tragically the accidental course deviation put it over Soviet territory.

The Soviets had numerous opportunities to identify the "bogey" as a lost civilian airliner but were unable to fulfill their responsibilities. As the airliner crossed the Kamchatka Peninsula, Soviet interceptors failed to reach it and make visual contact. Later, over Sakhalin Island, the Soviet pilots also nearly missed their intercept. When they finally caught up, there were only minutes remaining before the plane exited Soviet airspace.

In the rush the Soviet pilot let off a burst of cannon fire from a position behind and below the "target," where it was physically impossible for the Koreans to see it. No radio calls were heard by anyone in the area on the specified distress frequency of 121.5 megahertz. At one point the Russian pilot was abreast of (and a bit below) the airliner, but despite earlier experience with American RC-135s, he failed to notice -- or report -- the obvious visual differences (mostly in the running lights). This was especially true since the airliner's lights were flashing brightly, hardly the behavior of a stealthy intruder (to refute this obvious deduction, the Soviets later merely lied about the plane's flying "without lights").

With the border approaching and without ever having performed a proper communications procedure, the Soviets fell into the same routine as they had with the lost Argentine

p. 47 -----------

airliner two years earlier. The pilot, call sign "805," followed in the tradition of Kulyapin, Vegin, Yeliseyev, and nameless others. When in doubt, attack to kill. Don't let the "enemy" escape.

And that, horribly, is just what happened. Amazingly there were many people in the West who were surprised. Predictable, too, were the impassioned pronouncements that the Soviets must have known they were killing innocents when another appalling interpretation was that they didn't know--or care--at whom they were shooting, even though they should have been able to determine the aircraft's innocence. Presumption of guilt is easier and safer, at least from the Soviet point of view.

With KAL 007 and the other incidents, a pattern of Soviet claims is apparent. How is a dispassionate observer able to gauge the reliability of Soviet accounts when its side usually has the only surviving witnesses?

Survivors of Flight 902 over the Kola Peninsula in 1978 did provide firsthand accounts that were markedly at variance with the official Soviet descriptions. And another recent border incident gave a similar opportunity to compare and contrast Moscow's accounts with the recollections of non-Soviet witnesses.

In July 1983 the Greenpeace antiwhaling group sent its ship Rainbow Warrior to a Soviet whaling station on the Chukchi Peninsula at the far eastern edge of Siberia. Several of the group landed by small motorboat and were distributing literature to Soviet whalers when military units arrived. One American headed back to the ship in the motorboat, carrying the camera with exposed film showing the group's activities.

The official Soviet TASS dispatch on July 21 claimed that the main ship fled at once and "made dangerous maneuvers, deliberately creating a shipwreck situation. ... The small boat ... capsized as a result of such irresponsible actions. The possible tragic consequences were averted by Soviet frontier guards which raised a helicopter into the air and saved the drowning man."

This official Soviet scenario is a self-serving series of lies from beginning to end. As recounted by Greenpeace participants later, the helicopter itself was chasing the man in the motorboat as he tried to reach the ship. After making several menacing swoops, it lowered a line into his boat, "inviting" him aboard.

p. 48-----------

Quickly he removed the film from his camera and left it in the boat, then put the boat's tiller hard over as he let himself be hauled up into the helicopter. Others aboard the Rainbow Warrior saw the motorboat running in circles and steered toward it; one man was injured when he successfully managed to jump on board, bring the boat under control, and retrieve the film. The Rainbow Warrior headed out to sea without interference, leaving several of its crew in Soviet custody.

The photographs retrieved from the boat were widely published around the world. The photographs showed the illegal whaling station the Russians had insisted did not exist. They showed the outdoor boilers for rendering the whale fat. They showed Greenpeacers handing out antiwhaling leaflets to puzzled and resentful Russian workers. The existence of the photographs was documentary proof of the falsity of the Soviet account (none of the Greenpeacers taken into Soviet custody was allowed to keep any exposed film). The captives were treated well and were turned over to Western authorities a few days later.

The number of times the Soviets have resorted to deadly force after botching intercept and communications attempts is appalling. In fact, the last "successful" (that is, nonfatal) intercept of an intruding aircraft seems to have been in 1968, when a chartered Seaboard World Airways DC-8 was diverted to a Soviet field in the Kuril Islands (the pilot still maintains he wasn't in Soviet airspace but prudently went along with the fighters off his wing).

Regarding disasters on their borders, the Soviets showed unusually extreme levels of falsification and fabrication of events, more so than in other kinds of disasters. Presumably the shrill tone of these is to justify the actions of their military forces. Secrecy has always been much more rigid when related to military than to civilian disasters. As for how effective glasnost will be in any future military border disasters, only time will tell. So far Western analysts believe that the Soviet military has not responded enthusiastically to glasnost or any other Gorbachev reform.

However, since these tragedies there has been one encouraging event. One airliner did cross the Soviet border in an unscheduled manner recently and was not shot down. In late 1986 a Kuwaiti airliner, en route from Damascus to

p. 48------------

Teheran, safely made an emergency landing in Yerevan when a sudden storm shut down all airfields in Iran. The Boeing 727 had turned around and was headed back west but was too short of fuel to reach any airfields in Turkey. The crew desperately radioed to the Soviet air traffic control facility in Armenia. Once permission had been granted, the airliner crossed the Soviet border near Dzhulfa (less than 100 miles from where the Argentine airliner had been destroyed six years earlier) and made a safe landing at Yerevan. The plane was serviced and fueled and took off the following morning.

Full details never became clear, and several reports described how the airliner had crossed the border while being pursued by unidentified jet fighters. There must have been dfficulty in the civil air traffic control officials contacting military air defense officers on such short notice. But the bottom line was that an airliner abruptly entered Soviet airspace, bet its life on Soviet radio technology, and this time survived.

Whether this was a fluke or a softening of the traditional bloody border policy, the future will reveal. When Mathias Rust flew his borrowed Cessna 172 from Finland to Moscow's Red Square in May 1987, he apparently owed his life to indecision and reluctance to fire on the part of at least two Soviet interceptor pilots who had shadowed him. The most tragic aftermath of Rust's stupid stunt would be a rebirth of Soviet border paranoia and trigger-happiness, ensuring that the next airborne intruders, either innocently lost or gleefully copycatting Rust's exploit, will pay with their lives. In terms of secrecy, the issue may boil down to whether the West notices the shootdown (particularly if there are Western citizens aboard) at all; if not, the Soviets can be counted on to try to keep such bloody border atrocities secret, or failing that, to creatively rearrange reality to fit Soviet preconceptions and propaganda needs.

On the border, that's the lesson of the past and the trend of the future.


oberg corner piece

home | profile | articles | books | lectures | jim speaks | humor
links | email

Copyright 2010 James Oberg. All Rights Reserved
Site Designed and Maintained by YoeYo.com

oberg corner piece