KAL 007: The Real Story
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 clearedup all the lies and disinformation surrounding the flightÑand the Western press has chosen to ignore it.
For almost ten years, two battered and corroded aviation datarecording devices were hidden away deep in Soviet military archives. These were the Òblack boxesÓ 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 airplaneÕs 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 airlinerÕs course deviation was a ÒCIA plotÓ and the Soviet military attack was justified by the airliner pilotsÕ not responding to signals, in private they read their own expertsÕ reports on the purloined data recordersÑand 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 Òsexy enoughÓ 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 Òwarned off.Ó 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 Òa particularly dangerousÓ 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. ÒWe have hidden them away where even our children wonÕt be able to find them,Ó 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 ICAOÕs 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 ÒspikedÓ 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 Òspy plane theories.Ó 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. officialsÕ 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 Òdead-headingÓ crew hitching a ride home, and 240 passengers, including sixty-one Americans. Among them was Georgia congressman Larry McDonald, an Òultra-conservativeÓ 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 Òconspiracy theoryÓ assertions about the takeoff was authentic. There was no secret Òextra fuelÓ (there was one digit error on one page of the flight plan), there was no Òpaying cargo removed to lighten the shipÓ (this was actually an entry describing the six off-duty crewmen), there was no pilotÕs annotation about his ÒEstimated Time of PenetrationÓ into Soviet airspace (this ÒETPÓ notation was the ÒEqual Time PointÓ between Anchorage and Tokyo, and was actually written down by an airline employee, not the pilot), and there was no Òmysterious delayÓ 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 chosenÑ246¡Ñwas taken right off the standard navigation charts. It should have been Òclose enough.Ó
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 ÒcaptureÓ 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 indicatorÑeasily 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 couldnÕt pick up any expected radio beacon.
Along the way, the INS computers would have shown the airliner passing mathematical milestones called Òwaypoints,Ó which would have lulledthe 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 ifÑas they were supposed to, but as many transoceanic crews donÕtÑthey 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 crewÕs 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 airlinerÕs 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 aKC-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 Òmerged into one blip,Ó 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 airlinerÕs 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 ÒmaskingÓ 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 targetÕs ÒIdentify Friend or FoeÓ transponder. Not being a Soviet jet, the airliner did not carry this kind of equipment.
Conspiracy nuts have insistently mistranslated the Soviet pilotÕs report about the target Ònot responding to the callÓ 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, 007Õs voice tape Òindicated 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.Ó 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 Òis policyÓ to load tracers among the explosive shells, but ÒpolicyÓ 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 airlinerÕs 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 Ò1300,Ó 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 aircraftÕs 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 couldnÕt 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 wasnÕt 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 airlinerÕs continuing penetration of Soviet air space, but its imminent departure. It was within seconds of ÒescapingÓ across the border into international airspace. In the ICAOÕs words: ÒThe time factor became paramount in the USSR command centers.Ó
ICAOÕs report had to reconstruct the airlinerÕs 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: ÒIt was not possible to determine the position of KAL 007 at the time of the missile attack in relation to USSR sovereign airspace.Ó
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¡ 46Õ 27Ó N and 141¡ 32Õ 48Ó E. When plotted on ICAOÕs 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 airlinerÕs 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 Òcrew callsÓ about ÒGonna be a blood bath, you betÓ and ÒHold your bogies north, sir,Ó 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¡ 33Õ 32Ó N, 141¡ 19Õ 41Ó 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 remainsÑa severed arm, a womanÕs 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 ÒdivingÓ 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 ÒfeetÓ on the vertical scale and ÒminutesÓ on the horizontal scale, allowing him to compress the horizontal scale by a factor of several hundred, which made the ÒdescentÓ unrealistically steep. Had he used the same scales his ÒdescentÓ would have been at less than a single degree. Had he understood the inherent limitations of height-finding radar at extreme range, he wouldnÕt have had an Òevasive diveÓ at all. And as the recovered Òblack boxÓ 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 Òpaying cargo left behind at Anchorage,Ó an allegation that supposedly showed Òprior intentÓ by the pilot to engage in air spying, by misreading an entry on the weight manifest. The pilot had written in Ò1200 D/H,Ó 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 Òdead-headingÓ home in extra seats on the airliner. It never was Òpaying cargoÓ and it never was Òleft behind.Ó
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 hadnÕt). Clubb wrote that all aircraft in the world, military and civilian, use a compatible, standardized transponder identification system (they donÕt). 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 airlinerÕs beacon prior to its first entry into Soviet air space.
Carl Jensen of Sonoma State College in California sponsors an annual ÒProject CensoredÓ review in which a panel of academics (including Noam Chomsky and Jessica Mitford) pick the best stories ÒcensoredÓ 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 VolkmanÕs 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, heÕs happy to admit that he was merely repeating a rumor he had heard.
Conn Hallinan of the University of California at Santa CruzÕs journalism department has long insisted that U.S. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and her U.N. staff Òdoctored and distorted key sectionsÓ 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 intruderÕs deliberate refusal to comply. The Òblack boxÓ voice tape and MoscowÕs transcripts of Soviet military communications fully confirm KirkpatrickÕs 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: Òat least one P-3 Orion Navy reconnaissance plane, several RC-135s, the frigate USS Badger, the reconnaissance ship USS Observation Island with its radar ÔCobra Judy,Õ and, of course, the land-based facilities on Shemya Island (ÔCobra DaneÕ and ÔCobra TalonÕ), Hokkaido (the phased-array radar at Wakkanai) . . .Ó 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 ÒCobra JudyÓ and ÒCobra DaneÓ are missile tracking radars not designed for (and not capable of) aircraft tracking; there is no ÒCobra TalonÓ on Shemya and never has been; there is no Òphased array radarÓ 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 ÒwhitewashÓ 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 DallinÕs.
David Miller is a mathematician-statistician at Columbia University. His arguments based on ÒprobabilityÓ and ÒlogicÓ lead him to advocate the spy-mission theory. ÒHad I been the Soviets, I would have shot down the plane,Ó he wrote in the Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, giving as his justification the ÒfactsÓ 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 MinnesotaÕs anthropology department, sprinkled his turgid Marxist prose with all the impressive-looking citations he could line up. One of the leading references was to ÒLarry FlintÕs [sic] article in the Washington Post,Ó which purportedly accused Congressman McDonald of conspiring with the pilot and the CIA to Òmartyr himself to the cause of anti-communism.Ó Sadly for the credibility of this footnote, the Hustler publisher FlyntÕs wild ideas were part not of an ÒarticleÓ but of a paid advertisementÑwhich 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 ÒjammingÓ by nearby RC-135s. But Òjamming,Ó as any expert could have told Rankin, involves smearing a radar screen with artificial Òsnow,Ó 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 Òmasking.ÓRankin clearly does not understand the first thing about radar jamming.
¥ ¥ ¥
IÕve 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 aretired airlinecaptain. Ifound thearticle 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
recorder. That theory came fromInspector Joe McNeil of
the FAA'sNewYork FlightStandardsOffice,and was
submitted toICAO asareview bytheAir Navigation
Commission on November17, 1984.Insp. McNeil,whom I
subsequently worked with,submitted thistheory as the
only possible way the plane could have gotten to where it
supposedly was.Nobody,includingMcNeil,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 degreesmagnetic headingtheory. TheINS is
checked atregular intervals.Itmust bechecked 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 inthe crew did not check
the crosstrack numbers,whichgives thedistance in
miles from the planned track.It should always be zero,
or a very lownumber. Anything over fivemiles left or
right of track is cause for immediate action.
A memo "falling into thehands of Yeltsin officials" is
just too cozy to be believable considering the source, be
it the U.N.or theSoviets. Neither thecockpit voice
recorder, nor theflight 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 thata B-747 neverditched atsea is totally
irrelevant. Thedescription of"aviationgas spraying
wildly" is afigment ofthe author'simagination. The
fuel is basically kerosene, with a few additives. . . .
_Edward J. Toner, Jr.
TWA Goodwill Ambassador
Howell, New Jersey
confused on aparticular point.In thesidebar titled
reference to a notation written by the pilot of KAL 007.
The notation reads "1200 D/H." Johnson makes much of the
fact that the "sinister" notation was entered, scratched
deadheading passengers but to a minimum-descent-altitude
approach charts for the specific destination airport. In
this case, 1,200 feet above sea level. At that altitude,
aircraft wouldthen goaround foranother tryat the
meteorologic conditionswerebetter.Deadheading crew
(non-revenue producing). Also, ifthere 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 themanifest would make sense, as
this is a critical piece of data necessary when executing
an instrument approach at the endof a flight. I cannot
account forthis notationbeingon aweight manifest
unless the captain was attempting to estimate the weight
of the aircraft during theapproach phase of the flight
for the purpose of computing the proper approach speeds.
In anyevent,this wouldmakeR.W.Johnson's turgid
Merrimack, New Hampshire
A friend informed me thatI was cited inan article in
your October issue.Investigating, I foundthat I was,
indeed, cited, as oneof ten personslisted as "Useful
Idiots: An Honor Roll" in an article by James Oberg. I do
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 displaysa less than complete regard
for the truth since, despite his claim, he made no effort
whatsoever to contact eitherme or F.Reese Brown, the
editor of the journal in which my review appeared. Nor is
he sufficiently attentiveto importantdetails such as
giving correctly thetitle ofthe journal inwhich my
review appeared,International Journalof Intelligence
interested reader might be able to read the review if she
or he so desired.
But I donot want torespond in kind.Instead, I will
call attention to the mostremarkable aspect of Oberg's
article andtheone thatisoverwhelminglythe most
important. This isthat hedoesn't havethe slightest
trace of an understanding of what the issue is regarding
the flight of KAL 007on September 1, 1983,and he has
even less understanding ofwhat 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 orsuppose the planehad simply been
forced tolandonSakhalin Island.Nooneof these
possible outcomes, nor any imaginable other outcome, has
any bearing on the point atissue. This is, simply: Why
was theplaneinvading Sovietairspaceover 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 conceptionof an answer to this
key question? It is to confidentlyassert that it was a
imagines thatif itispossible thatithappened by
chance then ithas beenproved thatit didhappen by
chance and that this is the explanation. . . .
Return to KAL 007. The articleof mine that Oberg cites
was a review of two books, byDallin and Clubb, both of
whom are included onOberg's list of"Idiots." Each of
these books suggested ways in which the flight could have
and/or crewincompetence.Bothofthem attemptedto
reasoned essentially qualitatively toconclude that the
review, I madethe probabilisticargument explicit and
used the probabilities developed from actual data by the
authors to reach the same conclusion.
I can usethe sameapproach based onOberg's article.
What is thechain of accidentalcircumstances cited by
manually engaged the INS when it was too far off course;
second, "the crew should have double-checked their course
(as required by airline policyand by good airmanship)"
longitude, as displayed, wouldhave been incorrect" and
coordinates againsttheflightplan.This remarkable
chain of crew mistakes is supposed to have occurred on a
flight paththat allcrewsknew tookthem perilously
close to Soviet airspace that wasover some of the most
incredible. From some data cited in my review, NASA found
that over a periodof five years andabout two million
flights, U.S.pilots foundthemselves offcourse only
about twenty-one times, aprobability of nearly .00001.
Even this probability by itself is enough to make anyone
considerations I estimatethat theprobability of this
chain of mistakes is less than one in a million. That is
why rational persons acceptan alternative explanation:
intended to be. . . .
example, whatwould Oberghaveto sayaboutthe KAL
"accidentally" flewovertheothertop-secret Soviet
area, the KolaPeninsula? This flighthad been heading
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 another300 miles beforelanding. Is this
The idea thatsome ofus aredetermined tothink the
worst of U.S. policies and hence conjure up a "conspiracy
theory" is ridiculous. I would be absolutely delighted if
someone can demonstrate thatthe KAL 007flight was an
accident. However,arationalargumentbased onthe
weight of the evidence isneeded. Ranting and raving is
_David W. Miller
New York, New York
As an admirer of Jim Oberg's work,I was prepared to be
enlightened byhis "KAL007: TheReal Story."Sad to
relate, however,Iencounteredapiecemarred bya
erroneous references to me, perhaps a not wholly accurate
one, either. . . .
California academic in 1984 citedme, "described as the
editor ofDefense Sciencemagazine, whorevealed that
territory on missionsfor the CIA."I never "revealed"
any suchthing.Shortlyaftertheshootdown, Iwas
interviewed bya radiostation andwas asked,as the
author of twobooks andmany articleson intelligence
matters, my reaction to Sovietcharges 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 thatweprobably neverwouldknow for
certain. I was then asked ifI would comment on reports
purposes. I replied thatI had heardsuch reports, but
discovered, anewspaper_without botheringto interview
asserting that KAL planesroutinely overflew the Soviet
Union onespionagemissions. Apparently,itwas this
professor to proclaimthe presumedrevelation as among
the "most censored" stories of 1984. . . .
Oberg adds another link to thischain 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 shownthatVolkmanwas notevertheeditor of
Defense Science but simply astaffer at Penthouse. When
asked directly, he's happyto admit thathe was merely
These two sentences are onlydistantly related to fact.
First of all, at thetime of the KALincident, I was a
contributing editor ofMilitary Scienceand Technology
magazine (laterrenamedDefense Science),aswell as
several other magazines, and listed on their mastheads as
contributing editor,asaglanceat thatmagazine's
masthead will attest. . . .
Aside from the errorsrelating to mepersonally, I was
also botheredbysomeastonishingassertions inthe
article. We are told, for example, that Soviet officials
reports. How doesOberg knowthat? Was hethere? Then
disinformation specialists"fooledtheWestern 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
In any event, Oberg moves on to the ICAO report, which he
touts as the finalanswer to the KAL007 mystery. From
the summary Obergprovides, that conclusionmay or may
not be true (apparently, a degree in aeronautical science
would be helpful).But assuming Oberg'sjudgment to be
true, why,then,didn'tthemediatrumpet theICAO
report? Well,Oberg explains,itgot "spiked"in the
Western press, apparentlyhinting atstill another KGB
master stroke. This is anugly assertion unsupported by
any evidence, although Oberg concedesthat the New York
Times carried an articleon the ICAOreport. But Oberg
distorted" account written by a correspondent captivated
by "spy plane theories." . . .
James Oberg replies:
To Captain Toner: I never meant to say that ICAO got the
246 degree theory from theflight recorder, andin fact that
unavoidable, and atother times othercrews have shown
equally bad judgment, sad to say. Stout defenders of the
incompetence of afew pilotsin a veryfew instances.
Don't forget, theseguys were inalmost constant touch
with KE 015, which they believed to be only a few minutes
behind them.Thoseradio conversationsmayhave been
enough to convince Captain Chun thatall had to be well
with his navigation. He sure did not sound at all worried
on the CVR.
The location of the datarecorders was told tome by a
Boeing spokesman. The comment on spraying aviation gas is
from an interviewwith a Japanesefishing boat captain
who witnessedthecrash. Itisnot afigmentof my
imagination that theJapanese seamanrecalled gasoline
mist descendingover hisboat afterhe hadheard the
plane pass overhead, or that his American interviewer (a
Navy captain inSan Diego, withwhom Ihave 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-007controversy. 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 findit implausible that it
could have been informationto be usedupon arrival at
Seoul. Andif itwasn'tthe deadheads,whereon the
manifest do theyappear? Inany event, Mr.Roberts is
right: R.W. Johnson is as far off base either way.
Regarding David Miller, I regretthat my inquiry letter
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 articleabout theairliner's behavior. He
overlooked them completely.
Second, atruescholar isconstantlyreassessing his
controversy is theJune 1993ICAO report onthe black
boxes, and Miller's letter makes it clear he has not even
vigorously defends and repeats his old conclusions, even
though they are long overtaken by new findings.
The navigation theoriesreported inmy article reflect
certainly are in accord withjudgments I made years ago
based on myown assessment ofthe evidence surrounding
personally for the expert viewsI am only transmitting.
Miller claimshewouldbe"absolutely delighted"if
accident, but when ICAO does exactly that, he refuses to
acknowledge even the existence of that report. He should
acknowledge as well the limitsof his own probabilistic
methodology. Byhisreasoning, nooneeverwins the
The term "useful idiot" was chosen by the editors, not by
me, but thephrase is ahistorically valid appellation
for a classof Westernintellectuals whoaccepted and
promulgated Soviet propaganda in the bad old days of the
Cold War. Miller, alas,seems to clingvigorously to a
mythology ofSoviet-sponsored deceptionsabout KAL-007
(in 1983) andKAL-902 (in1978) long afterthe Soviet
empire has itself collapsed. It's almost touching.
Finally, I'm delighted thatErnest Volkman confirms the
accuracy ofmy descriptionof "ProjectCensored." I'm
sorry he objectsto myargumentative tone_Ionly wish
that he'd objected as vehemently tothe way he was used
by the spy-flight nuts.
NOTE OF INTERESTJuly 8, 1993
James Oberg, Rt 2 Box 350, Dickinson, TX 77539
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
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.