Thirty years ago this week, the word was rocked by news that Soviet fighter jets had shot down a Korean Air 747 over the Sea of Japan.
The flight, designated KAL007, was on the final leg of a journey from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska when it was struck by an air to air missile fired by a Russian Su-15 interceptor. Two hundred and sixty-nine passengers were aboard, including 22 children and even one member of the U.S. Congress. There were no survivors.
The incident, which the Soviet Union officially denied had even occurred for a full week, enraged western powers and signalled a new low in the already deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington.
The deadly encounter began in the early hours of Sept. 1, 1983 as the ill-fated Jumbo Jet inadvertently strayed from its planned flight path due to a navigational equipment failure. Unbeknownst to the crew, KAL007 had drifted 300 km off course and was skirting along the east coast of the U.S.S.R on a flight path that took it repeatedly in and out of Soviet airspace.
Soviet air controllers monitored the 747 believing the aircraft to be an American RC-135 long-range reconnaissance jet on a spy mission. After all, U.S. planes had recently been testing Russian air defences in the area and patience on the ground had worn thin. Believing this to be yet another challenge, Soviet commanders diverted three Su-15s and a MiG-23 to intercept, engage and destroy the intruding aircraft. It took nearly an hour for the jets to reach the target. When they did, the 747 was over Sakhalin Island.
Cockpit voice recordings recovered later supposedly captured the two Korean pilots chatting idly as the Russian jets jockeyed into firing positions behind the Boeing.
As KAL007 was about to leave Soviet airspace, one of the Russian pilots, Major Genadi Osipovich, locked onto the target and released a missile. The warhead sped towards the airliner and exploded just aft of the tail section sending a hail of shrapnel tearing through the plane’s thin fuselage, wounding passengers and severing control lines. The pilots fought to keep the stricken jet in the air for another ten minutes before the plane finally slammed into the Pacific.
While the incident captured the world’s attention, it wasn’t the only instance in which civilian passenger planes had fallen victim to military aircraft. Consider these cases:
The Kaleva Encounter
The Soviets were also responsible for one of history’s earliest attacks on a passenger plane. Three months after the Russo-Finnish Winter War ended, two Soviet Illyushin bombers downed a civilian Junkers Ju-52 passenger plane flying between Tallinn, Estonia and Helsinki. The incident occurred mere minutes after takeoff. The June 14 attack is believed to have been ordered as a prelude to the Red Army’s invasion of Estonia, which was launched only days later. The plane’s passenger list included a number of businessmen and diplomats, including envoys from Sweden, France and the U.S. Finland, eager to avoid further conflict with Russia, lodged no official protest.
A British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) DC-3 Dakota airliner flying between Lisbon and Bristol fell victim to the Luftwaffe in the case of Flight 777. Shortly after noon on June 1, 1943 the twin engine transport plane was intercepted and destroyed by a formation of German Ju-88s over Bay of Biscay. Among those killed in the crash was the well-known British actor Leslie Howard, best known for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Theories persisted over the motivation for the attack. Some claimed that the Nazis believed the airliner was carrying none other than Winston Churchill, while others asserted that Howard was in fact the target. After all, his loss was a blow to civilian morale. Later research revealed that the German aircraft actually stumbled across the Dakota entirely by chance and had no idea who was aboard when they attacked it.
The DC-4 Shootdown
A Cathay Pacific C-54 Skymaster was destroyed over the South China Sea by La-7 fighters of the Chinese air force on the night of July 23, 1954. The flight, which was carrying 19 passengers between Bangkok and Hong Kong, was destroyed only minutes before landing. The airliner’s pilot, a British national, attempted to evade the attacking fighters in the darkness but was unable to keep the plane airborne after its engines were crippled by gunfire. Ten died in the crash – the survivors were plucked from the water by an American patrol plane. Beijing claimed that its pilots believed the aircraft to be Nationalist Chinese and considered it a legitimate target, however, the two aviators responsible were reportedly executed following the attack. In the days following the incident, two American fighters from the carriers Philippine Sea and Hornet splashed a pair of Chinese air force fighters close to the scene of the attack, possibly in retaliation.
El Al Flight 402
It was a pair of Bulgarian MiG-15s that destroyed an Israeli Lockheed Constellation travelling between Vienna and Istanbul on July 27, 1955. Sofia claimed that the fighters warned the airliner, which had accidentally strayed over Bulgaria, to clear the area by firing bursts of warning shots. Subsequent investigations suggested that the MiGs had no intention of letting the plane get away and actually raced to catch and destroy the Constellation before it could cross into Greece. Seven crew members and 51 passengers perished in the crash.
The Flight 870 Mystery
No one knows for sure who downed the Italian Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870 on June 27, 1980. The DC-9 was carrying 77 passengers between Bologna and Sicily when air traffic controllers detected an unknown aircraft approaching the jetliner. Minutes later the passenger plane vanished into the Mediterranean. Italy’s prime minister has since blamed the French navy for the disaster, claiming that its jets downed the aircraft by mistake during a NATO training exercise. Another theory suggests that Flight 870 was struck in error during a joint U.S., Italian and French operation aimed at assassinating Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan dictator was supposedly returning from a state visit to Warsaw and was expected to pass through Italian airspace in his own DC-9 around the time of the incident. For years, the Italian media has suggested a massive cover-up of the disaster, which is now known as the Ustica Massacre after a small island near where the plane was lost. An Italian court ruled earlier this year that the government must compensate victims’ families in excess of $100 million Euros for failing to safeguard the passengers of the doomed plane.