September 15, 2013

The Dangers of Cold War Air Travel


The Dangers of Cold War Air Travel

On this day 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan ordered the FAA to revoke Aeroflot’s license to operate flights to the United States, in response to a Soviet fighter pilot shooting down a passenger plane, Korean Airlines (KAL) Flight 007.


It’s 1983, and the world is tense. Imagine yourself making a trans-Pacific flight. Purely hypothetically, let’s say you depart from Anchorage and are headed for Seoul. About six hours after takeoff, you hear an explosion, and the PA system starts repeating:

Attention emergency descent.

Put out your cigarette, this is an emergency descent.

Put the mask over your nose and mouth and adjust the headband.

Put the mask over your nose and mouth and adjust the headband.

Put the mask over your nose and mouth and adjust—

What actually happened on KAL 007 after this point is unknown – the tape cuts off a little less than two minutes after the explosion. The aircraft kept going for over 10 minutes before spiraling into the sea. There were no survivors.

But let’s backtrack. In your nightmarish hypothetical, you know that you did nothing wrong. The plane didn’t malfunction. There was no inclement weather. What did you ever do to deserve this untimely end? Let’s be clear: you didn’t do anything. In fact, your identity, the identity of your pilot, the origin and destination of your flight – all that didn’t matter. You were a blip on the radar screen of the Soviet armed forces, an unidentified object in their airspace, and that made you – and everyone on your flight – fair game.

Flight deviation of KAL 007

What actually happened to KAL 007? Most likely, a minor detail was out of place in the autopilot, so that the plane flew straight rather than curving around Soviet airspace. After it had crossed the Kamchatka peninsula and re-entered international territory, Soviet commanders were alerted to its presence, made the assumption that it was a military aircraft, and sent a fighter pilot after it. As the pilot came closer, it became apparent to him that the unidentified jet was not your usual reconnaisance plane. "I saw two rows of windows and knew that it was a Boeing,” the pilot later recalled. “I knew it was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use..."

When in doubt, ask – but no one on the Soviet side tried communicating with this civilian-looking plane, making sure it was what it looked like. The U.S. had been pestering the Soviet Union with planes all up in their airspace all year, so the pressure was on to bring the plane down, no questions asked. So down it went.

There you are – one more bullet point on the long list of reasons you should be glad it’s not the Cold War anymore.


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Full transcript of associated transmissions can be found on Wikisource

For more on the context of the shootdown, see “1983: The Scariest Year” in the March/April 2013 issue of Russian Life.

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
Steppe / Степь

Steppe / Степь

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
Russia Rules

Russia Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
The Little Humpbacked Horse

The Little Humpbacked Horse

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567

802-223-4955