James Oberg is a space engineer in Houston and a specialist in sleuthing Soviet aerospace secrets. His most recent book is Uncovering Soviet Disasters (Random House).
On the tenth anniversary of the shootdown, a U.N. sponsored report has cleared up all the lies and disinformation surrounding the flight and the Western press has chosen to ignore it.
For almost ten years, two battered and corroded aviation data recording devices were hidden away deep in Soviet military archives. These were the "black boxes" from Korean Airlines Flight 007, destroyed by a Soviet jet on September 1, 1983, with the loss of 269 lives. In fact, the boxes were colored bright yellow, to make them easier to find in the event of catastrophe. Their proper titles are the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), which recorded the last thirty minutes of crew voice communications, and the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR), which recorded dozens of operating parameters of the airplane's navigation and control systems over the entire flight.
Within a few weeks of the shootdown, Soviet naval forces had secretly recovered the boxes and other debris from the ocean bottom in international waters off the west coast of Sakhalin Island. And while Moscow military officials stridently insisted the airliner's course deviation was a "CIA plot" and the Soviet military attack was justified by the airliner pilots' not responding to signals, in private they read their own experts' reports on the purloined data recorders and shuddered. So damning were these conversations and instrument readings that Soviet officials vowed to keep the evidence secret forever.
And much of the media played into Soviet hands. As one London documentary producer put it, to be "sexy enough" to be noticed, any findings on the KAL 007 tragedy had at least to imply CIA complicity. Falsehoods, invented by KGB disinformation specialists and retailed by useful idiots in the West (see pages 38-39), cloak the origins of this particular flight. One agent kept trying to interest U.S. newsmen in a claim that this exact airliner had been seen at Andrews AFB near Washington getting spy gear installed. Another version alleged that Richard Nixon had been booked on the flight (or even had boarded the flight) but had been "warned off." Two more Soviet export fictions had the Korean pilot boasting to friends about his specially equipped spy plane, or privately sharing anxieties with his wife about "a particularly dangerous" mission.
A succession of Soviet leaders profited from the falsehoods, including Gorbachev, who at the height of glasnost, solemnly assured Western investigators that such records simply did not exist. "We have hidden them away where even our children won't be able to find them," boasted one military memo a few years after the disaster.
That memo fell into the hands of Yeltsin officials in early 1992, and it led them to the discovery of the original boxes and the top secret Soviet Defense Ministry reports about them. Yeltsin released those reports in October 1992, and in January 1993 he turned the black boxes over to the United Nations special group for the safety of commercial flying, the Montreal based International Civil Aviation Organization. The ICAO's final report of its investigation of this long-hidden data was released on June 14.
Then, oddly, after almost a decade of Soviet cover-up, the full truth about the tragedy got "spiked" in the Western press. Not a single major network even mentioned the new ICAO report. A brief and highly distorted piece appeared in the New York Times under the byline of a semi-retired aviation writer with a long penchant for "spy plane theories." Here, then, for the first time in this country, is the real story of KAL 007, as revealed by the final ICAO report, by the investigations of Russian journalists at the now-more-or-less-honest Izvestiya daily newspaper, and from recent U.S. officials' recollections.
The Boeing 747 took off from Anchorage at 13:00 GMT on August 31. On board were a crew of three, plus twenty cabin attendants, six "dead-heading" crew hitching a ride home, and 240 passengers, including sixty-one Americans. Among them was Georgia congressman Larry McDonald, an "ultra-conservative" whose anti-Soviet beliefs made him one of the few U.S. politicians who would have believed the Soviets actually capable of the crime they were about to commit.
None of the "conspiracy theory" assertions about the takeoff was authentic. There was no secret "extra fuel" (there was one digit error on one page of the flight plan), there was no "paying cargo removed to lighten the ship" (this was actually an entry describing the six off-duty crewmen), there was no pilot's annotation about his "Estimated Time of Penetration" into Soviet airspace (this "ETP" notation was the "Equal Time Point" between Anchorage and Tokyo, and was actually written down by an airline employee, not the pilot), and there was no "mysterious delay" of the takeoff (it was adjusted based on expected winds, so as not to arrive in Seoul too early in the morning).
The chain of accidental circumstances that would lead to the catastrophe began at takeoff, when the crew selected a magnetic heading mode for the autopilot to guide their aircraft towards the west coast of Alaska. (They had been cleared directly to this point and were not required to follow any specific flight corridor.) Once out over the northern Pacific, they planned to engage their inertial navigation system (INS), which had been properly programmed, to control the airliner through its autopilot.
Because the radio beacon normally used for navigation between Anchorage and the coast was out of service for maintenance, the crew had to rely on the less familiar heading-mode method. The exact setting they seem to have chosen, 246, was taken right off the standard navigation charts. It should have been "close enough."
But when the airliner crossed the Alaskan coast an hour later, the INS never took command of the autopilot, and the plane continued on the magnetic heading selected just minutes after takeoff for only the first leg of the journey. Either the crew forgot, or they manually engaged the INS when they were too far off the course it was automatically computing. In the latter case, the INS computers would not "capture" the autopilot, which would continue following the original compass heading. The switch would be in its correct position, and the problem would have shown up only on a small indicator easily overlooked, as it has been in dozens of similar navigation errors.
The recovered DFDR showed that the auto-pilot was controlling the flight path in a constant magnetic heading from four minutes after takeoff until the airliner was hit by Soviet missiles. The crew should have double-checking their course (as required by airline policy and by good airmanship), but pilots often have made exactly this kind of mistake. In one incident shortly after the shootdown, a 747 went sixty nautical miles off course in just two hours. A year later, a Southwest Pacific Airlines charter over the North Pole to Europe went almost a thousand miles off track and was headed toward Soviet air space before the crew finally realized they couldn't pick up any expected radio beacon.
Along the way, the INS computers would have shown the airliner passing mathematical milestones called "waypoints," which would have lulled the crew into a false sense of security. But waypoint passage is automatically announced whether the airliner passes over the point or merely abeam of it. Waypoints are like highway exit signs for towns that might be on the highway or many miles away. The actual latitude and longitude, as displayed, would have been incorrect, but the crew would have noticed this only if, as they were supposed to, but as many transoceanic crews don't, they had checked co-ordinates against the flight plan. The time to the next waypoint would have been correct, and the distance would have been close enough not to attract the crew's attention.
Advocates of U.S. culpability allege that whatever the original intentions of the pilots, their course deviation should have become obvious to U.S. air space controllers, and that the subsequent failure to warn the aircraft implied either foreknowledge or incompetence. But the airliner's path across Alaska gave no indication of navigation trouble. By the time the airliner was off its assigned course, it was out of range of Alaska-based radar coverage.
Conspiracy nuts insist that some sort of U.S. military radar should have noticed the deviation. Usually these claims came from self-styled experts who showed no understanding of the limits of radar scanning, or even of the actual locations of radars in the area. ICAO did not pursue this issue, but the U.S. Federal Court in Washington, D.C., ruled in May 1986 that there was no indication that military radars were even capable of seeing that the airliner was off course, much less that they had the ability or responsibility to identify it or warn it.
Soviet radar units on the Kamchatka Peninsula were tracking a routine patrol of a USAF RC-135 when a second blip appeared. At first they presumed it was a KC-135 refueling plane. Then, as the new aircraft flew unswervingly south of the region the RC-135 was patrolling, they presumed it was another RC-135, making a feint at the coast to see what radars were still operational after a recent autumn cyclone had knocked most of them out. Soviet military reports passed to ICAO by the Yeltsin government clearly show that the two aircraft were never closer together than 150 km (exactly as the U.S. has always claimed) and that the radar units never confused one with the other. The two planes never "merged into one blip," as some Soviet propagandists claimed and many Western collaborators echoed.
The following several hours of alarm among Soviet air defense forces are clearly portrayed by the transcripts of military command channels released to ICAO by the Yeltsin government. The original presumption that the intruder was an RC-135 was never seriously challenged, although some officers raised doubts, and pointed out that it was a very stupid intruder to be flying straight and level for so long. The groggy controllers made inquiries to Soviet civilian traffic control agencies, but instead of checking their commercial air radar scopes (on which the airliner's transponder echo would have clearly shown it to be civilian), they merely reported that there were no scheduled civil flights expected.
Sporadic equipment failures and geographic "masking" made precise tracking impossible, and several times the ground controllers directed interceptors onto the wrong course. Over Kamchatka, the jets (three pairs) never even found the intruder, and over Sakhalin the jets (at least five pairs, maybe six) barely caught up before the airliner had traversed the narrow neck of the island.
The Soviets expected a deliberate intruder to be flying with lights out. But when the nearest pursuing interceptor over Sakhalin reported the target was brightly lit, the military commanders shrugged it off. (They later ordered the pilot to lie about the lights when interviewed.) The pursuing pilot was told that an RC-135 would have four contrails, but then so would a 747 and dozens of other jet transports. The target still might have been a lost Soviet long-range bomber with a broken radio (several had been accidentally shot down over the years), so the pilot was instructed to interrogate the target's "Identify Friend or Foe" transponder. Not being a Soviet jet, the airliner did not carry this kind of equipment.
Conspiracy nuts have insistently mistranslated the Soviet pilot's report about the target "not responding to the call" as proof that 007 ignored a voice call. But the Russian-language term unambiguously refers to an electronic query, not a verbal one. Neither the Soviet pilot nor any ground station ever called the airliner on the international distress frequency, as required by international standards.
Many Western observers were incredulous that the Soviets could have tracked the intruder for so many hours and not have realized it was a civilian airliner. It was flying faster and straighter than any RC-135 had ever been observed to do, and in fact no RC-135 had ever overflown Soviet airspace so nonchalantly (past penetrations had been made by supersonic jet fighters). The civilian transponder could easily have been interrogated. And among all the jets, surely one of them had been close enough for a visual inspection. But, tragically, all these opportunities were overlooked.
According to ICAO, 007's voice tape "indicated a normal, relaxed atmosphere on the flight deck. The crew was interacting jovially with each other. . . . There was some indication by the first officer that he was finding the flight tedious, which would be improbable if the crew was deliberately transgressing a prohibited area." ICAO concluded that there was no evidence the crew knew they were in Soviet air space or were being accompanied by a Soviet jet.
On ground instructions, the Soviet pilot fired off a few bursts of cannon fire to attract attention, but he recalled feeling frustrated that there was no way this could work: he was too far behind, and the shells were all armor-piercing rounds, with no tracers interspersed. Later, the Soviets lied about there being tracers, and the pilot was ordered to lie too, but he is unambiguous in his testimony. Russian officials told ICAO it "is policy" to load tracers among the explosive shells, but "policy" is made at headquarters many thousands of miles from the front-line base where supplies and staff limitations force compromises. The pilot was there, and he says there were no visible tracers in the rounds he fired.
As was normal late in a flight, the airliner pilot called Tokyo control (while still out of direct radar range) and requested clearance to a slightly higher, more efficient cruising altitude. The airliner's natural slowing as it made this small change caused the pursuing interceptor to overshoot the plane, which convinced the Soviet pilot that the intruder had suddenly seen him and was taking evasive action. But according to the unarguable records of the DFDR, all other alleged course changes, including the massive dives and rolls and zigs and zags that fill maps and charts in conspiracy books (and in national newspapers), never happened.
During the last moments of the flight, the airliner and its pursuing jets over Sakhalin appeared on Japanese military radar. It looked just like many earlier pre-dawn intercept exercises (which is what the Soviet pilots had at first thought they were doing when launched). Japanese civil aviation radar also detected an airborne target with a transponder code of "1300," which was a neutral code for any aircraft over the northern Pacific (ICAO concluded it was a proper code for use prior to entry into Japanese air space, although conspiracy nuts have insisted it was some sort of signal). Meanwhile, KAL 007 was not quite overdue to appear along the expected route, so Japanese air traffic controllers had no reason yet to worry.
As the lost airliner headed southwest over the west coast of Sakhalin, Soviet air defense officials had run out of time. Although the presumption of the aircraft's reconnaissance nature had not been confirmed (all data collected had actually contradicted that theory), and no serious attempts had been made to contact it, the Soviets decided they couldn't take the chance. The order went up to destroy the intruder.
During those final moments, the pilot of the leading Soviet jet interceptor finally had time to study the aircraft a few miles in front of him. As an experienced border patroller, he recalled later realizing that the aircraft was clearly no RC-135. It was much larger, he realized, though he would later argue that he wasn't trained in identifying civil aviation aircraft. And he did not radio to the ground that his visual inspection disproved the RC-135 presumption. Instead, he launched his rockets.
The immediate cause of ordering the missile attack was not the airliner's continuing penetration of Soviet air space, but its imminent departure. It was within seconds of "escaping" across the border into international airspace. In the ICAO's words: "The time factor became paramount in the USSR command centers."
ICAO's report had to reconstruct the airliner's actual flight path based on a computer simulation using measured aircraft performance parameters. The actual INS location calculations were not recorded. So there was some uncertainty as to exactly where the airliner was when the missiles were launched, and that is what ICAO officially reported: "It was not possible to determine the position of KAL 007 at the time of the missile attack in relation to USSR sovereign airspace."
However, a supplemental report from the Russian Federation was also released through ICAO on June 14, and its information, based on ground radar measurements, is much more precise. It locates the spot of the missile attack at 46¡ 46' 27" N and 141¡ 32' 48" E. When plotted on ICAO's own maps of the shootdown area, this spot falls unambiguously outside Soviet territorial airspace. The doomed airliner had been flying over international waters for at least half a minute before being struck down. (This piece of sensational news, however, never made it into print in the West.)
The airliner's two recorders continued to function for another minute after the attack. Toward the end, they grew increasingly noisy as air buffeting mounted. Finally they stopped, simultaneously, while the aircraft was still high in the air. Presumably the aft bulkhead on which they were mounted collapsed from earlier structural damage.
The CVR contains taped advisories to the passengers to fasten their seat belts and put on oxygen masks. The pilot called out to Tokyo that he was experiencing a rapid decompression and was descending to ten thousand feet, where the air would be thick enough to breathe. On the tapes, there were no "crew calls" about "Gonna be a blood bath, you bet" and "Hold your bogies north, sir," and other nonsensical fantasies which the spy-flight nuts imagined they could hear in the static. The recovered tapes show that such words were never spoken.
The plane continued to descend under control, but it was doomed. All four engines were still running, but critical control surfaces and lines had been damaged. No Boeing 747, damaged or not, had ever successfully ditched at sea.
Japanese fishermen observed the passage of the airliner, its lights out and aviation gas spraying wildly, until it smashed into the sea and exploded. The main wreckage was concentrated in international waters 17 nautical miles north of Moneron Island, at 46¡ 33' 32" N, 141¡ 19' 41" E, at a depth of about 200 meters. The structural materials were torn apart, and even recovered cabin silverware showed the force of the impact. The bodies of the people on board were also torn to shreds, soon to float away or to be devoured by local cuttlefish which swarm over the bottom. Soviet divers searching for the data recorders later spotted scattered remains, a severed arm, a woman's scalp, a glove with a hand still inside.
Useful Idiots: An Honor Roll
Bearing in mind what is now known authoritatively about the KAL 007 tragedy, it is worth remembering those in the U.S. and U.K. who wrote books and articles, lectured, and gave interviews on behalf of the most implausible, improbable, and patently impossible misinterpretations of the disaster, and otherwise fed off the baseless theory that KAL 007 was a spy flight:
David Pearson of Yale led the charge with a series of articles in the Nation and a major book, in which he both misunderstood and misused the technical data. One example is the chart he prepared purporting to show that the airliner made violent evasive maneuvers to dodge the pursuing Soviet jet. On the basis of rough estimates from Japanese radar sites, Pearson plotted the altitudes as if they were exact, ignoring the inherent 10-20 percent inaccuracy of such data. One altitude was lower than a previous one, so he drew an airliner "diving" at an angle of 45¡ along a drawn-in flight path, giving a striking image of a frantic attempt at escape. But Pearson was careful to use "feet" on the vertical scale and "minutes" on the horizontal scale, allowing him to compress the horizontal scale by a factor of several hundred, which made the "descent" unrealistically steep. Had he used the same scales his "descent" would have been at less than a single degree. Had he understood the inherent limitations of height-finding radar at extreme range, he wouldn't have had an "evasive dive" at all. And as the recovered "black box" data show, there was no such dive.
R.W. Johnson, a politics don at Magdalen College, Oxford, began writing anti-American analyses within weeks of the shootdown. His 1985 book on KAL 007 contains between 500 and 1,000 significant factual errors, not including barmy misinterpretations. His confident claims to the contrary, he failed to master the aviation jargon necessary to understand the problems of the flight. Johnson invented the phantom "paying cargo left behind at Anchorage," an allegation that supposedly showed "prior intent" by the pilot to engage in air spying, by misreading an entry on the weight manifest. The pilot had written in "1200 D/H," then scratched it out and entered it several lines further down. As any commercial pilot could have told Johnson, this was a reference to the six KAL employees who were "dead-heading" home in extra seats on the airliner. It never was "paying cargo" and it never was "left behind."
Oliver Clubb of Syracuse University published his own book in 1985. For him, the incident was further proof that Reagan was preparing a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. But Clubb kept being tripped up by simple technical errors and sloppy reasoning. Relying on an unchecked newspaper clipping, Clubb wrote that the airliner appeared to have turned off its civilian transponder system while crossing Sakhalin Island (it hadn't). Clubb wrote that all aircraft in the world, military and civilian, use a compatible, standardized transponder identification system (they don't). He even confused the two Soviet areas the airliner crossed, the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island, in arguing that the pilot had deliberately turned off the airliner's beacon prior to its first entry into Soviet air space.
Carl Jensen of Sonoma State College in California sponsors an annual "Project Censored" review in which a panel of academics (including Noam Chomsky and Jessica Mitford) pick the best stories "censored" by right-wing media pressure. In 1984 one of his prize-winning stories concerned Ernest Volkman, described as the editor of Defense Science magazine, who revealed that Korean Airlines planes regularly fly over Soviet territory on missions for the CIA. But Volkman's quotation itself first appeared in an unverified newspaper clip, and a quick check would have shown that Volkman was not ever the editor of Defense Science but simply a staffer at Penthouse. When asked directly, he's happy to admit that he was merely repeating a rumor he had heard.
Conn Hallinan of the University of California at Santa Cruz's journalism department has long insisted that U.S. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and her U.N. staff "doctored and distorted key sections" of the tape of the Soviet pilot that she dramatically presented before the world body a week after the shootdown. Hallinan and others have promoted interpretations that have the pilot patiently exhausting every reasonable method of contacting the intruder and, only at the end, reluctantly firing in the face of the intruder's deliberate refusal to comply. The "black box" voice tape and Moscow's transcripts of Soviet military communications fully confirm Kirkpatrick's presentations.
Sugwon Kang of Hartwick College in upstate New York wrote a long spy-flight article for the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars that helped convince New York Times columnist Tom Wicker in September 1985 to attack the Reagan administration for not warning the Korean airliner ahead of time. Kang, as quoted by Wicker, had catalogued all the U.S. military surveillance assets in the area that could have tracked the lost airliner: "at least one P-3 Orion Navy reconnaissance plane, several RC-135s, the frigate USS Badger, the reconnaissance ship USS Observation Island with its radar 'Cobra Judy,' and, of course, the land-based facilities on Shemya Island ('Cobra Dane' and 'Cobra Talon'), Hokkaido (the phased-array radar at Wakkanai) . . ." Not a single one of these items is relevant or even real. One RC-135 was hundreds of miles away, listening silently for a Soviet missile test and most assuredly not painting the whole sky with radar sweeps; the P-3 and other RC-135s were purely Soviet propaganda accusations supposedly based on the same kinds of radar that had been unable to identify the intruding airliner; both "Cobra Judy" and "Cobra Dane" are missile tracking radars not designed for (and not capable of) aircraft tracking; there is no "Cobra Talon" on Shemya and never has been; there is no "phased array radar" at Wakkanai and never has been.
Alexander Dallin is a respected professor of political science at Stanford, and his book on KAL 007, published in 1985, contains many excellent insights into Soviet political reality. However, on technical matters, Dallin is as helpless as any other spy-flight advocate (although his advocacy seems reluctant). An amazing map shows the airliner zig-zagging and zooming up and down across Sakhalin Island in a bizarre pirouette that never happened but which makes an innocent stray theory look untenable. He dismisses the late 1983 ICAO report as a "whitewash" without listing a single error. The recent new data fully confirmed every judgment of the ICAO report just as thoroughly as it destroyed every technical judgment of Dallin's.
David Miller is a mathematician-statistician at Columbia University. His arguments based on "probability" and "logic" lead him to advocate the spy-mission theory. "Had I been the Soviets, I would have shot down the plane," he wrote in the Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, giving as his justification the "facts" that the plane flew without lights, turned off its transponder, refused to acknowledge radio calls, and took evasive action. We now know that 007 did none of these things.
Gordon Welty of Wright State University, writing in a Marxist Educational Press book produced in 1987 by the University of Minnesota's anthropology department, sprinkled his turgid Marxist prose with all the impressive-looking citations he could line up. One of the leading references was to "Larry Flint's [sic] article in the Washington Post," which purportedly accused Congressman McDonald of conspiring with the pilot and the CIA to "martyr himself to the cause of anti-communism." Sadly for the credibility of this footnote, the Hustler publisher Flynt's wild ideas were part not of an "article" but of a paid advertisement, which the Soviet press, too, quoted as a straight piece of journalism!
Joanna Rankin was with the physics department of the University of Vermont when she published her assessments of the flight. She went so far as to suggest that Soviet difficulties in tracking the airliner were due to "jamming" by nearby RC-135s. But "jamming," as any expert could have told Rankin, involves smearing a radar screen with artificial "snow," not erasing a single blip of a target plane. Indeed, if the Soviets had observed active jamming, they would have had proof of military involvement and would have trumpeted it worldwide. Instead, the failure of Soviet radars to adequately track the airliner can be explained, in light of recent revelations, by equipment problems and topographic "masking. "Rankin clearly does not understand the first thing about radar jamming.
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I've made reasonable efforts to contact these academics to see if they still hold to their original judgments in the light of new evidence. Sugwon Kang has been modifying his views, but none of the other people listed above bothered to answer my written inquiries.
As a retired airline captain. I found the article by James Oberg on the KAL tragedy not quite "the real story" ("KAL 007: The Real Story," TAS, October 1993).
The U.N. did not get the theory of the constant magnetic heading of 246 degrees from the USSR's recovered flight recorder. That theory came from Inspector Joe McNeil of the FAA's New York Flight Standards Office, and was submitted to ICAO as a review by the Air Navigation Commission on November 17, 1984. Insp. McNeil, whom I subsequently worked with, submitted this theory as the only possible way the plane could have gotten to where it supposedly was. Nobody, including McNeil, was really happy with this theory, however.
It assumes that the crew was totally incompetent. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn if one is to accept the constant 260 degrees magnetic heading theory. The INS is checked at regular intervals. It must be checked for ground speed every time a waypoint is crossed in order to give an accurate ETA for the following waypoint. It would be inconceivable that someone in the crew did not check the crosstrack numbers, which gives the distance in miles from the planned track. It should always be zero, or a very low number. Anything over five miles left or right of track is cause for immediate action.
A memo "falling into the hands of Yeltsin officials" is just too cozy to be believable considering the source, be it the U.N. or the Soviets. Neither the cockpit voice recorder, nor the flight data recorder, was mounted on "the rear bulkhead." The CVR was obviously mounted in the cockpit, and the FDR was mounted in the rudder.
The fact that a B-747 never ditched at sea is totally irrelevant. The description of "aviation gas spraying wildly" is a figment of the author's imagination. The fuel is basically kerosene, with a few additives. . . .
Edward J. Toner, Jr., TWA Goodwill Ambassador
Howell, New Jersey
My own guess is that the notation refers not to deadheading passengers but to a minimum-descent-altitude "decision height" which would be published on the approach charts for the specific destination airport. In this case, 1,200 feet above sea level. At that altitude, if the approach could not be safely executed, the aircraft would then go around for another try at the approach or fly to an alternate airport where meteorologic conditions were better. Deadheading crew members are usually referred to as "non-revs," (non-revenue producing). Also, if there were six people deadheading, 1200 would make them a rather corpulent lot.
The fact that the entry "1200 D/H" was scratched out and moved further down on the manifest would make sense, as this is a critical piece of data necessary when executing an instrument approach at the end of a flight. I cannot account for this notation being on a weight manifest unless the captain was attempting to estimate the weight of the aircraft during the approach phase of the flight for the purpose of computing the proper approach speeds. In any event, this would make R.W. Johnson's turgid speculations seem even more ridiculous.
Charles Roberts, Merrimack, New Hampshire
A friend informed me that I was cited in an article in your October issue. Investigating, I found that I was, indeed, cited, as one of ten persons listed as "Useful Idiots: An Honor Roll" in an article by James Oberg. I do not recall having previously seen such a boorishly ill-mannered piece - in addition to this list there are at least four references to "conspiracy nuts" or "spy-flight nuts." . . .
It would be easy to respond in kind to Oberg. Apart from his bad manners he displays a less than complete regard for the truth since, despite his claim, he made no effort whatsoever to contact either me or F. Reese Brown, the editor of the journal in which my review appeared. Nor is he sufficiently attentive to important details such as giving correctly the title of the journal in which my review appeared, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence (Spring 1986), so that an interested reader might be able to read the review if she or he so desired.
But I do not want to respond in kind. Instead, I will call attention to the most remarkable aspect of Oberg's article and the one that is overwhelmingly the most important. This is that he doesn't have the slightest trace of an understanding of what the issue is regarding the flight of KAL 007 on September 1, 1983, and he has even less understanding of what constitutes an argument or how a rational person is expected to weigh evidence. First, what is the issue? It has nothing whatsoever to do with the tragic fate of the plane, shot down. Suppose the plane had escaped or suppose the plane had simply been forced to land on Sakhalin Island. .No one of these possible outcomes, nor any imaginable other outcome, has any bearing on the point at issue. This is, simply: Why was the plane invading Soviet airspace over Sakhalin Island? Oberg devotes about one-quarter of his article to this question. The rest of his article has nothing to do with the issue.
Second, what is Oberg's conception of an answer to this key question? It is to confidently assert that it was a "chain of accidental circumstances. "He apparently imagines that if it is possible that it happened by chance then it has been proved that it did happen by chance and that this is the explanation. . . .
Return to KAL 007. The article of mine that Oberg cites was a review of two books, by Dallin and Clubb, both of whom are included on Oberg's list of "Idiots." Each of these books suggested ways in which the flight could have happened by chance, involving equipment malfunction and/or crew incompetence. Bothofthem attempted to estimate relevant probabilities. Each of the books reasoned essentially qualitatively to conclude that the flight could not have happened accidentally. In my review, I made the probabilistic argument explicit and used the probabilities developed from actual data by the authors to reach the same conclusion.
I can use the same approach based on Oberg's article. What is the chain of accidental circumstances cited by Oberg? First, "the INS never took command of the autopilot" because either the crew forgot or they manually engaged the INS when it was too far off course; second, "the crew should have double-checked their course (as required by airline policy and by good airmanship)" but they didn't; third, "the actuall atitude and longitude, as displayed, would have been incorrect" and the crew did not, as they are supposed to,check coordinates against the flight plan. This remarkable chain of crew mistakes is supposed to have occurred on a flight path that all crews knew took them perilously close to Soviet airspace that was over some of the most top-secret Soviet installations. This is simply incredible. From some data cited in my review, NASA found that over a period of five years and about two million flights, U.S. pilots found themselves off course only about twenty-one times, a probability of nearly .00001. Even this probability by itself is enough to make anyone doubt the "accident" version. From additional considerations I estimate that the probability of this chain of mistakes is less than one in a million. That is why rational persons accept an alternative explanation: the plane was over Sakhalin Island because it was intended to be. . . .
There is much additional ancillary information. For example, what would Oberg h ve to say about the KAL flight (the same airline) of April 20, 1978 that "accidentally" flew over the other top-secret Soviet area, the Kola Peninsula? This flight had been heading northwest for five hours when it suddenly turned southeast into the Soviet Union. This has been called the worst navigational error of modern times. The flight flew directly over the top-secret area, ignored all warnings, was hit by a shell, but nonetheless continued to fly over the area for another 300 miles before landing. Is this another "accident"?
The idea that some of us are determined to think the worst of U.S. policies and hence conjure up a "conspiracy theory" is ridiculous. I would be absolutely delighted if someone can demonstrate that the KAL 007 flight was an accident. However, a rational argument based on the weight of the evidence is needed. Ranting and raving is not enough.
_David W. Miller Columbia University New York, New York
As an admirer of Jim Oberg's work, I was prepared to be enlightened by his "KAL007: The Real Story." Sad to relate, however,I encountered a piece marred by a distinctly ugly tone and, if judged solely by his erroneous references to me, perhaps a not wholly accurate one, either. . . .
Oberg says that a "Project Censored" review by a California academic in 1984 cited me, "described as the editor of Defense Science magazine, who revealed that Korean Airlines planes regularly fly over Soviet territory on missions for the CIA." I never "revealed" any such thing. Shortly after the shootdown, I was interviewed by a radio station and was asked,as the author of two books and many articles on intelligence matters, my reaction to Soviet charges that KAL 007 was engaged on an espionage mission. I replied that at best, a circumstantial case could be made, but it was a pretty thin one, and that we probably never would know for certain. I was then asked if I would comment on reports that KAL routinely used its planes for espionage purposes. I replied that I had heard such reports, but had no idea if they were true. Subsequently, I discovered, a newspaper _without bothering to interview me_, published a garbled version which had me flatly asserting that KAL planes routinely overflew the Soviet Union on espionage missions. Apparently, it was this erroneous newspaper clip that led the California professor to proclaim the presumed revelation as among the "most censored" stories of 1984. . . .
Oberg adds another link to this chain of error by going on to say, "But Volkman's quotation itself first appeared in an unverified newspaper clip, and a quick check would have shown that Volkman was not ever the editor of Defense Science but simply a staffer at Penthouse. When asked directly, he's happy to admit that he was merely repeating a rumor he had heard."
These two sentences are only distantly related to fact. First of all, at the time of the KAL incident, I was a contributing editor of Military Science and Technology magazine (later renamed Defense Science), as well as several other magazines, and listed on their mastheads as such. I was not a staffer at Penthouse; I was a contributing editor, as a glance at that magazine's masthead will attest. . . .
Aside from the errors relating to me personally, I was also bothered by some astonishing assertions in the article. We are told, for example, that Soviet officials privately "shuddered" when they read their experts' reports. How does Oberg know that? Was he there? Then we're told that falsehoods "invented by KGB disinformation specialists" fooled the Western media. Oberg provides no evidence for this ugly assertion. (Nor does he address the inevitable follow-up question: If the KGB was so cunning, capable of such feats as manipulating the Western media, then how come the Soviet Union collapsed?)
In any event, Oberg moves on to the ICAO report, which he touts as the final answer to the KAL007 mystery. From the summary Oberg provides, that conclusion may or may not be true (apparently, a degree in aeronautical science would be helpful). But assuming Oberg'sjudgment to be true, why, then, didn't the media trumpet the ICAO report? Well, Oberg explains, it got "spiked"in the Western press, apparently hinting at still another KGB master stroke. This is an ugly assertion unsupported by any evidence, although Oberg concedes that the New York Times carried an article on the ICAO report. But Oberg dismisses it, pronouncing the news story a "highly distorted" account written by a correspondent captivated by "spy plane theories." . . .
_Ernest Volkman Danbury, Connecticut
James Oberg replies:
To Captain Toner: I never meant to say that ICAO got the 246 degree theory from the flight recorder, and in fact that theory was fully described in the December 1983 preliminary ICAO report on the disaster. This even predates the contribution of Mr. McNeil. The DFDR, however, did confirm the theory.
That the crew showed very poor judgment seems unavoidable, and at other times othercrews have shown equally bad judgment, sad to say. Stout defenders of the honor of all captains everywhere have a hard time explaining the very rare but still occasional incompetence of a few pilots in a very few instances. Don't forget, these guys were in almost constant touch with KE 015, which they believed to be only a few minutes behind them. Those radio conversations may have been enough to convince Captain Chun that all had to be well with his navigation. He sure did not sound at all worried on the CVR.
The location of the data recorders was told to me by a Boeing spokesman. The comment on spraying aviation gas is from an interview with a Japanese fishing boat captain who witnessed the crash. It is not a figment of my imagination that theJapanese seaman recalled gasoline mist descending over his boat after he had heard the plane pass overhead, or that his American interviewer (a Navy captain in San Diego, with whom I have talked at length) recalls that the ship's logbook still smelled of jet fuel even several weeks later.
I thank Charles Roberts for his contribution to piercing the KAL-007 controversy. The"deadhead" interpretation was given me independently by two different 747 captains, who remarked that 200 lbs. was the standard allowance for a person plus luggage. Since the entry was involved with computing takeoff weight, I find it implausible that it could have been information to be used upon arrival at Seoul. And if it wasn't the deadheads, where on the manifest do they appear? Inany event, Mr. Roberts is right: R.W. Johnson is as far off base either way.
Regarding David Miller, I regret that my inquiry letter of last August 1 did not reach him, but if this thousand-word letter had been his reply, I wouldn't have changed a thing.
First, I find in it no references to, no retractions of, and no excuses for the Soviet lies that he promulgated in his original article about the airliner's behavior. He overlooked them completely.
Second, a true scholar is constantly reassessing his conclusions based on new evidence, but the most significant new evidence regarding the KAL007 controversy is the June 1993 ICAO report on the black boxes, and Miller's letter makes it clear he has not even seen it,much less studied it carefully. Yet he vigorously defends and repeats his old conclusions, even though they are long overtaken by new findings.
The navigation theories reported in my article reflect the conclusions of ICAO's experts,although they certainly are in accord with judgments I made years ago based on my own assessment of the evidence surrounding this tragedy. It is thus misleading to attack me personally for the expert views I am only transmitting. Miller claims he would be "absolutely delighted" if someone could demonstrate that the flight was an accident, but when ICAO does exactly that, he refuses to acknowledge even the existence of that report. He should acknowledge as well the limits of his own probabilistic methodology. By his reasoning, no one ever wins the lottery.
The term "useful idiot" was chosen by the editors, not by me, but the phrase is a historically valid appellation for a classo f Western intellectuals who accepted and promulgated Soviet propaganda in the bad old days of the Cold War. Miller, alas,seems to cling vigorously to a mythology of Soviet-sponsored deceptionsabout KAL-007 (in 1983) and KAL-902 (in 1978) long after the Soviet empire has it self collapsed. It's almost touching.
Finally, I'm delighted that Ernest Volkman confirms the accuracy of my description of "Project Censored." I'm sorry he objects to my argumentative tone - I only wish that he'd objected as vehemently to the way he was used by the spy-flight nuts.
July 8, 1993 James Oberg, Rt 2 Box 350, Dickinson, TX 77539 voice/fax 713-337-2838 ICAO-released documents confirm KAL-007 shot down over international waters in the Tatar Straits
The June 12, 1993 release in Montreal of reports and support documents by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has provided a wealth of information for serious investigators of this ten-year-old tragedy. One of the most startling is the conformation, from data within the supplmental report from the Russian Federation, that the plane was attacked shortly AFTER it exited Soviet airspace.
This conclusion stands in contrast to the official ICAO report's explicit statement (page 61, paragraph 3.39) that "it was not possible to determine the position of KE 007 at the time of the missile attack in relation to USSR sovereign airspace." There are good reasons why ICAO could not do so, but there are other ways of doing so.
The official ICAO report's uncertainty over the position of the airliner at the exact moment of the attack is based on several factors. First, the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) was not recording Inertial Navigation System (INS) parameters such as the airliner's exact latitude and longitude, but was only recording aircraft engineering data (switch positions, control surface status, etc.) and measurements (such as sensed barometric altitude). The actual flight path had to be reconstructed later based on aircraft simulator runs which strove to match simulated data results with observed radar track and other data. And secondly, the exact moment of the missile hit was not measured directly although it was inferred from DFDR readings.
However, the Russian Federation revised supplemental report (also released by ICAO on June 14) provided the missing piece of information, which the ICAO may not have seen during the writing of its report: the exact latitude/longitude of the airliner at the moment of attack. The given figures (page 10 of the Russian report) are 141 deg 32'48" E:
On page 18 of the ICAO report there is a detailed map ("Chart 4") of the region of the Tatar Straits, Moneron Island, and the west coast of Sakhalin, on which is plotted the location of the wreckage, the search areas, and the internationally-recognized 12-mile limit of territorial waters. To plot the Russian-provided attack position on this map it is necessary to interpolate a latitude scale, which is easy to do since the latitude and longitude scales are related by a factor equal to the cosine of the latitude. Once this is done, the precise attack point can be plotted.
The point is 13.4 NM off the coast of Sakhalin, measurably (albeit only slightly) outside of Soviet airspace. The attack thus took place in international airspace over the waters of the Tatar Strait. The aircraft flew approximately 2.3 NM through international airspace before being hit, on a course of 246¡ magnetic (254¡ true). At a speed of 310 knots ( NM/hr) this would have taken about 30 seconds.
In conclusion, the lost airliner had been in international airspace for about half a minute before it was attacked by the Soviet jet fighter.