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.

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