The Buzz

A Russian Fighter Plane’s Tragic Error Brought Us Google Maps

The April 1978 shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 902 by a Soviet Su-15 fighter plane—which killed two passengers but spared 107 others—distressed the Soviet air force, not because it had shot down a civilian airliner, but rather that it had gotten so far into Soviet airspace before being intercepted.

Five years later, a second encounter between Su-15s and a Korean airliner would result in far heavier loss of life.

On Aug. 30, 1983, KAL Flight 007 departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, bound for Seoul with 269 crew and passengers aboard. The 747 airliner made a refueling stop at Anchorage, Alaska, where the crew was informed that one of radio navigation beacons the flight computer usually relied on was non-functional.

The crew was supposed to switch the computer to follow the a gyroscope-based Inertial Navigation System, but for some reason it was not properly reset. Thus, when the plane missed the beacon, its autopilot remained fixed on a straight-line heading mode which led it hundreds of miles off course towards the Kamchatka peninsula, which served as a base for Russian nuclear forces.

Cold War tensions were at peak that year, and an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane had snooped just outside the Kamchatka airspace earlier that day. When Soviet radars detected the approaching jumbo jet, the Soviet Air Defenses Forces (PVO) scrambled four MiG-23 interceptors to deal with the interloper.

However, heavy winds had disabled several of ground-based defense radars in the region, and without full coverage the Soviet fighter planes could not locate the airliner. The MiG-23s returned to base, short on fuel. This was in part due to a policy of limiting the fuel load on standby aircraft after defector Victor Belenko flew his MiG-25 all the way to Japan in 1975.

Thus, a jumbo jet flying at high altitude in a straight line, making no evasive maneuvers, managed to confound the Soviet air defense system and soar across the Kamchatka peninsula and back into international airspace. PVO commanders were hopping mad at the failure.

Declassified transcripts of the conversation between Gen. Valery Kamensky, commander of the Eastern District of the PVO, and his subordinate Anatoly Kornukov reveal that the former was ready to shoot down the escaping airplane over international airspace—after confirming it was not a civilian plane. Kornukov, however, felt that the intruder was clearly a military spy plane, and advocated a shoot-first approach.

Unfortunately, Flight 007’s straight line path took it back over Soviet airspace as it overflew the Sakhalin islands. The PVO had a new wave of three Su-15s and one MiG-23 ready to catch the intruder. Radio communication transcripts reveal that around 6:12 UTC, the Soviet fighters entered visual contact with Flight 007 and began acquiring missile locks.

Years later, Soviet pilot Genadi Osipovich recalled seeing the 747’s running lights and the row of lit windows along the passenger compartment. “I knew it was a civilian plane,” Genadi admitted in an interview with Izvestia, but “but it is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use.”

The 707 airliner is indeed the basis for a number of American reconnaissance planes. However, there are no espionage variants of the 747, which has an iconic humped profile.

In any case, Genadi did not tell his commanders that he had intercepted an airliner, and they did not ask him to I.D. the plane. They did instruct him to fire several warning bursts with his underwing cannon pods. Genadi fired more than 200 23-millimeter shells across the airliner’s nose, but the shots likely went undetected by the airliner crew, as his weapons lacked tracer ammunition.

Around this time, the Korean pilot even radioed flight control in Tokyo that he was climbing for reasons of fuel economy, without ever mentioning the Russian fighters. The Soviets perceived this as an evasive maneuver, which was seen as an admission of guilt.

Flight 007 would soon be exiting Soviet air space, so the PVO instructed Osipovich to “Destroy the target.” Like Kamensky before him, Osipovich was actually too close to use his missiles against the slow-moving airliner, and he had expended his cannon rounds on the warning shots. He instead dove a mile below the airliner, flipped his plane back up using his afterburners and successfully acquired a missile lock from below.

Two R-98 missies—an evolved variant of the R-8—streaked upwards toward the Boeing. One of the missiles detonated its large 88-pound proximity-fused warhead around 50 meters behind the 747’s tail. The blast severed the airliner’s elevator cables, disabled one of the four turbojet engines, and knocked out multiple hydraulic systems.

Shrapnel also tore a nearly two-foot wide hole in the fuselage, depressurizing the airplane. The second missile likely missed.

The damaged elevator cables actually caused Flight 007 to climb to higher altitude. The flight crew reported the damage to Tokyo and managed to keep their mortally wounded plane airborne for a dozen more minutes before the Boeing spiraled into the Sea of Japan near Moneron Island.