Note: Originally this article was found on the web site of “Facti i Kommentarii” a Ukrainian weekly newspaper
The Giant Plane was falling from the Altitude of 11.000 Meters within 14 MinutesBy Vladimir Kolychev
Almost 20 years after the tragic accident with a South Korean civilian plane a lot of crucial questions still remain unanswered by the experts. One question is if the Jumbo Jet strayed off course into the aerospace of the Soviet Union intentionally.
Recently “Facti” published a report on the terrorist bombing of a civilian Boeing 737 in the airport of Bangkok resulted with death of a flight attendant and injury of 7 other people onboard. In the tragic events of 1983 a single Soviet intercepting fighter fired its air-to-air missiles on a South Korean Boeing 747 bringing to death 269 passengers and crew whose bodies were never to be discovered. The “Facti” correspondent interviewed few officials who were members of the team investigating the tragedy.
The Jumbo Looked Quite Alike a Spy Plane
Anyone who wants to understand the reason of downing the Korean jumbo jet should be at least generally aware of the situation existing in the Soviet Air Defense forces at that time, – says Chief of Staff and Deputy Commander of Ukrainian Air Defense Force Lieutenant-General Valeri Kaminski who was Chief of Staff of an Air Defense division on the Far Eastern Theatre Military Operations of the Soviets 18 years ago. – In 1978 a Korean Air Lines Boeing 707 en route from Paris to Seoul via Anchorage strayed into the Soviet airspace over the Kola Peninsula. The plane overflow the secret naval bases of the Soviet Northern Fleet. A Soviet SU-15 TM fighter sent for interception fired its two air-to-air missiles on the Korean plane causing partial destruction of the left wing with subsequent emergency landing on the ice of a local frozen lake. The result of the attack was death of two passengers of the Korean transport and injury of a dozen more.
In Spring 1983 USS Midway came close to the Kuril Islands and at one point its aircraft crossed the Soviet state border deepening into the Soviet airspace. The Soviet Air Defense fighters could not scramble from their airfields because of the thick fog. Consequently a state commission came twice from Moscow to investigate the incident. In spite of absence of any guilt by the military quite a few naval and air defense high rank officers were disciplined. I was incurred a punishment with the record in my personal Communist Party registration card specifying my fault as “inadequately persistent actions at scramble take-off” .
On 1 September 1983 the officer on duty for operations reported that a US RS-135 (sic) reconnaissance aircraft crossed the state border of the USSR over the Kamchatka Peninsula heading on Sakhalin over the Sea of Ochotsk. I thought, “Well that is the end. I can’t get away with it now no matter whatever it might end with.” It was shortly past 4 a.m. When I was preparing to get into the car I heard somebody calling my name. It was the Commander of the Air Defense division who decided to go along with me. Once we were in the car a tall Korean-looking man appeared at the door. I would wonder where did he come from at this early hour. The man explained that he was a driver carrying in his car the newly recruited solders to an exercise ground. He lost his way and asked if we could be of assistance. Later I would often recall this as a strange omen of what had yet to happen.
The officer on duty for operations of our division made a situational report and we were put at the high alert with decision taking time not less than 1 hour. At that time RS-135 (sic) was detected on the distance of 450 km. SU-15 TM and MIG-23 fighters scrambled to intercept. They were guided on the American plane. SU-15 fighter was the leader. Everyone on the ground was sure that the intruder was a US reconnaissance aircraft. In fact RS-135 (sic) and Boeing 747 look absolutely identical. The only difference is the “hump” on the fuselage of 747. This difference cannot be observed on the radar screen and hard to be detected visually. As a participant of those events I want to stress that the commanders of the local air defense units made every effort to clarify the situation. The pilot of SU-15 Major Osipovitch reported to the ground control: “I see the silhouette of a huge plane in flashlight of exhaust from its engines”. The ground control queried: “Do you see passenger cabin windows?” His answer was: “No”. As it was nighttime the passengers must have been asleep so the window shades were shut. Later it was reported that the Boeing did not have its navigation lights on. The title of one newspaper article was “The Boeing Flew Without Navigation Lights”. This was not true. The Boeing had its lights on but that made little difference. An RS-135 (sic) might have its lights on to adopt a civilian plane disguise. The pilot of the interceptor was ordered to make warning shots with his gun. Once Osipovich opened gunfire the plane made a steep ascend. “The target commenced evasive actions”, - reported the pilot of the interceptor. At this point his fighter flying at a high speed had overflown the intruder so the air-to-air missiles were not anymore locked on the target. At the very same time the ground control gave order to destroy the target. Had Osipovich been not a high skilled pilot the RS-135 (sic) would have escaped. But he could have managed to maneuver his fighter and fire its missiles. One of the missiles zeroed in the left (sic) engine of the intruder and smashed the wing while the other exploded near the tail. At 6.47 hours the Boeing got into spiral descend. The giant aircraft was falling from the altitude of 11000 meters within 14 minutes. A cold explosion took place when the plane hit the water surface so the aircraft was blown to pieces.
When I heard all those things, - Kaminski further remembers, - I thought that meeting a Korean-looking driver on the morning of accident was actually a bad sign. At that time the US State Secretary George Schultz made statement with reference to the US intelligence services to the effect that the Boeing was shot down by the Soviet Air Defense. Then the US President Ronald Reigan said that people throughout the world were shocked by the incident. Red flags were being burned by street protestants in Japan. The Soviet official newspaper Pravda reported on the incident to the effect that the Soviet Air Defense fighters intercepted and for some time followed an unidentified plane that later went in the direction of the Sea of Japan. According to the TASS (the Soviet official press agency) statement the intercepting fighters made only few warning cannon-shots with tracers. A tape of radio transmissions by the Soviet fighter’s pilot to the ground control obtained by the Japanese Self-defense Ministry was played during a UN session. In this light it looked like the Korean plane was cold-bloodily shot down. Moscow confirmed the fact of shooting only as late as September 6 at that time stating that the flight was a “skillful provocation” aimed on “unprecedented arms race”. Moscow accused the US and South Korea in using a civilian plane on a spy mission.
At that point it was plain that the final judgement could only be made after the “black box” from the plane has been found. The Soviet US and Japanese naval ships start concentrating close to the probable crash area. In the vicinity of the Sokol military airfield from which SU-15 fighter scrambled on the night of the accident a few Korean-looking men were seen inquiring on Osipovich. Hastily he was transferred. For his transportation to mainland an Ilyshin Il-76 aircraft was used. The Osipovich’s wingman pilot of MIG-23 on the night of the accident was also transferred soon afterwards. Few passports binded together and a female hand was found at crash site right after the incident. It was assumed that a stewardess from the Korean plane might be dead-catching her seat handle during its fall. Not a single body was found afloat. About 30 separate pieces of male female and children footwear were found.
In September 1983 the Soviet fish-searching vessel “Gidronavt” equipped with TINRO-2 submersible was in the port of Vladivostok in wait for the delayed fuelling, - remembers Director of GNPP ‘Morskie Technologii” Gennadi Klimov. - The aquanauts were experimenting with a [ ] catcher. On September 8 a few black “Volga” cars appeared on the berth near the vessel. People from the black cars wearing military uniform had a talk with the Master and on the next day the vessel left the port heading on the Tatar Strait.
We were aware right from the day one that our task was to locate the wreckage of the Boeing, - remembers Aquanaut-Researcher Vladimir Bondarev. – They told us that the “black boxes” are actually containers painted orange. We were reporting by radio in regards to whatever we saw on the bottom. The works were being carried out on the depth from 150 through 400 meters. In order to fool the US and Japanese searchers in the area the Soviet military experts developed a special radio code. All parts of the plane and other relevant objects were given code names of fish species. … “Gobius” was used for “human remains”. In fact stupid situations occurred more than once because of the codewording. At one point I saw a human hand on the bottom. My report was “I see a Gobius” for which the surface control queried: “Is it one piece?” So I had to respond: “No, just part of it.” We found no bigger fragments of the plane. At one point we saw hudred-dollar notes scattered on the bottom. We also saw pieces of luggage, toys and few life vests. There were a lot of fur skins on the bottom. We made 17 submersions but could not find the “black boxes”. They were located later by the divers from Murmansk. I guess the army experts were not right when they commissioned the fishermen vessels to search the crash site before we came to the scene. The fishermen trawls scattered the wreckage on the bottom over a huge area.
Later on the accident with the Korean jumbo jet were given a few different interpretations. According to the theory of Michael Brun, a former pilot and aviation expert from France, the Soviets shot down an US RC-135 reconnaissance plane while the Korean transport was misidentified as an enemy aircraft by the US Air Force and subsequently downed. His theory was regarded as “unreal” by the Soviets. According to the theory of John Koppel, a former US State Department Official, two US combat planes (RC-135 and EF-111A Raven) were shot by the Soviet Air Defense on that night.
It is still a mystery what happened to the bodies of the crew and passengers on the plane. According to one theory right after the rockets detonation the nose and tail sections of the jumbo fell off and the mid fuselage became a sort of wind tunnel so the people were swept through it and scattered over the surface of the ocean. Yet in this case some bodies were to be found during the search operations in the area. The question of what actually happened to the people on the plane after the attack has not been given any distinct answer.
In 1992 then the Russian President Boris Yeltsin were preparing for a visit to the South Korea. A special commission was formed under the order of the President to re-investigate the accident with Korean Boeing 747. I was a member of the investigating team, - remembers Valeri Kaminski. - After thorough investigation of all available evidence including the data from the plane’s “black box” recorders I arrived to the conclusion that the Korean transport had not a single chance. The chain of tragic events started with a US RC-135 orbiting close to the Kamchatka Peninsula on the day of the accident. It was followed and then lost by a Soviet radar station. The fact that the aircraft was actually on a reconnaissance mission was confirmed by its radio communications with the ground control. Once the RC-135 disappeared from the radar screen there appeared the mark of the Korean transport. Was it by fatal coincidence or by somebody’s intention is not known.
Besides it was revealed that soon after take-off the Korean plane lost radio contact with the ground control stations and further in the flight its positional reports were transferred by the crew of another plane of the airline. Just seconds before Osipovich’s attack the Korean crew got in radio contact with the ground control in Japan asking at that time for permission to change its flight level. Since permission was given the subsequent ascend of the jumbo jet was understood by the fighter pilot as evasive action. A cabin announcement of arrival time in Seoul is heard on the flight recorder tape seconds prior to the missiles impact followed by a cry “Compression” in regards to the loss of cabin pressure noticed by pilots after the missiles hit the plane. A noise is heard on the tape short before its end.
It has been also reported that the Boeing strayed because its autopilot was connected with a compass that is principally possible. An experimental flight of Ilyshin Il-76 was performed along the route of the Korean transport. This experimental flight revealed that the Korean pilot should have been blind not to notice that his plane was flying over the land instead of the sea that was easily detectable by the radar. Also the turn of the Korean plane from the international route in the direction of the Soviet state border was understood by our investigators as intentionally made in order to fly over the sensitive Soviet military installations.
A few words should be said on the investigation of the accident by ICAO with participation of the experts from Russia, US, Korea and France in 1993. The conclusion of ICAO was to the effect that the “Korean crew did not follow the appropriate navigation procedures” (sic) and was not aware of “deviation of the aircraft from its pre-planned route within 5 plus hours in the flight” (sic) which in its turn demonstrates “low level of awareness and coordination of activities on the flight deck” (sic).
As Ukraine is independent state now what are the chances that any passenger airliner straying off course into its sovereign airspace would not be downed? – was my last question to the Head of Staff of Ukrainian Air Defense.
We keep in the 24-hours contact with the neighboring states to clear out in real time any situation that may occur. None of our neighbors is involved in reconnaissance missions or air rides preparation against Ukraine. Our task is to protect our state borders not from our neighbors but in good co-operation with them.
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