25 years later, mystery is still unsolved

Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the third major conflict in the Cold War between the superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States.

Although most people remember the first two, many people do not remember or have forgotten about the third event. The first was the 1948 Berlin Blockade, the second was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and last was the shootdown of Korean Air Lines (KAL) Flight 007, which occurred at the end of August 1983.

It is now 25 years later and this mystery still remains unsolved. Why did this experienced flight crew file a flight plan that would take it over Kamchatka and finally Sakhalin Island where it was shot down by a Russian interceptor and destroyed?

After this incident occurred, I remember watching an HBO movie titled “Tailspin — the Korean Airliner Tragedy.” Incredibly, no major TV or Hollywood movie studio made a motion picture of this story other than HBO. Like now, the movie had more questions than answers on what really happened.

Since the incident, five or six authors have written books on the incident. I read the book “The Target is Destroyed” by Seymour Harsh. I made the choice to read this book because this investigative author is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize as well as many other literary awards. The title is appropriate because those were the last words of the Soviet pilot after he shot the Korean 747 down, killing all 269 passengers and crew. It was a tragedy that shocked and mystified the world.

The incident took place at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term as President of the United States at the height of the Cold War. It was also a story that involved incredibly sophisticated technology and terrifyingly stupid misunderstandings by both superpowers that made a bad situation only worse.

The $64,000 question that still remains unanswered is: How did this flight — with a highly experienced crew — get so far off course and why? Since the “black boxes” (flight data and cockpit voice recorders) were never found, and the Soviets hampered the recovery attempts by our government, the answer to that question may never be known.

The next day, Secretary of State George Schultz called this “an appalling act” on the part of the Russians. He was outraged and announced that the Soviet interceptor “moved itself into a position where it had visual contact with the aircraft, so that with the eye you could see what it was you were looking at.”

Put another way, the pilot knew he was shooting down a civilian passenger aircraft. What may have happened — and we will never know for sure — is the Russians may have believed the plane was a RC-135 (code name Cobra Ball, which actually was a U.S. spy plane).

In his book, Mr. Hersh details “why the Russians argued among themselves moments before making the decision to shootdown the aircraft; why the Reagan Administration to this day maintains a position of shock and revulsion; why the Russians never backed down on their insistence that 007 was a spy plane; and most important, what American intelligence knew and when.”

Before writing his book, Mr. Hersh spent two years investigating the incident in the United States, Japan and Russia and presents “evidence of incompetence, prejudice and deliberate deception.”

In his book, Mr. Harsh speculates that, despite his experience of flying 10 years for the Korean Air Force and 11 years for KAL, Captain Chun Byung-in misprogrammed the computer’s flight plan. Captain Byung-in had an excellent safety record and had flown the North Pacific route between Anchorage and Seoul 83 times, including 27 times on the R-20 flight he was following on this flight. Mr. Hersh also pointed out that, under Korean culture, the pilot is “king of the flight deck” and his junior officers do NOT question his authority — so, even if the co-pilot or navigator knew about the programming error, they may not have said anything.

After reading the book, contrary to what Mr. Hersh concluded, my opinion that KAL 017 was a spy plane did not change. Another important question that is still not clear is: Were there communications with KAL 017? Mr. Hersh says “yes”, the movie says “no.” If there were communications — from air traffic controllers or the crew of another 747 flying a parallel course — then why didn’t they advise Capt. Byung-in that he was off-course so he could make the necessary course correction?

Of course, as the movie implies, if he was on a spy mission, the crew would not be responding to any attempted communication the Flight 017 crew.

To find out more information on this incident so you can draw your own conclusion, contact the Federal Way 320th Library and read one of the books they have.

Gary Robertson is a Federal Way resident. Send comments to editor@fedwaymirror.com.

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