On September 1st, 1983, a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 was shot out of the skies over the Soviet Union’s Eastern port area of Vladivostok near the Kamchatka Peninsula. The airliner purportedly drifted west of their intended flight path from Anchorage to Seoul, South Korea and violated the airspace of the Soviet Union. This event occurred during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War had many isolated casualties, but this indiscriminate killing of 269 people fueled the tensions even greater.
In the early 1980’s while the world’s militaries spent enormous amount of money on weapons systems and technologies such as Global Positioning Systems or GPS, civilian aviation still relied on relatively archaic methods of air navigation. Inertial Reference Systems and ground based radio beacons served the needs for decades, but not on that evening. The inattentiveness of KAL 007’s crew and the imprecision of their Boeing 747’s on board navigation systems contributed to their demise, but the 2 missiles fired from a Soviet Su 15 fighter jet did them in.
The Soviet Union naturally denied any knowledge or responsibility for the lost airliner but subsequent American and Korean investigations soon revealed otherwise. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that the Russian Federation eventually released evidence to support what the world already knew for nearly a decade.
One of Ronald Reagan’s responses to the tragedy was to avail the highly accurate global positioning system to the public at large. The satellite based navigation system was so accurate it could be used to pinpoint a spot on the earth and then subsequently demolish it with any number of weapons systems. This of course was why until the unforeseen tragedy of KAL 007, GPS was kept in our military repertoire only.
26 years later, civilian aviation navigates so precisely over the airways in the sky that we now have a collision hazard. As aircraft span the globe, they are often on organized route systems or flight paths defined by these highly accurate GPS signals from space. We now see civilian aircraft riding the wake turbulence from the aircraft in front of them due to their precision in flying the centerline of these airways. This was likely a contributing factor to a recent accident of the Amazon Jungle in Brazil. A GOL Airliner and an Embraer Legacy corporate jet collided. All aboard the airliner perished while the Legacy jet hobbled their aircraft in for an emergency landing.
Aviation authorities have actually instituted a degree of non-precision back into our repertoire. Aptly named, SLOP for strategic lateral offset procedure, it authorizes pilots to fly the centerline of their airway or deviate 1 or 2 nautical miles to the right of that centerline. This allows pilots to steer their aircraft away from areas of wake turbulence they may be experiencing as well as provides for a greater separation between other aircraft that may have deviated from their flight path in error. How ironic it is that we have gone back to some of the imprecision which in a different way and for different reasons brought down KAL 007.
I recently had the opportunity to pilot my aircraft on a similar route that the KAL flight had taken. On that night, I found myself peering out my cockpit windows watching for those same Su interceptors. What was even more ironic is that one of our emergency alternate airfields, Petropavlovsk, was the actual site where those Su 15s launched from in 1983. Yes, our world’s come a long way in 26 years.
As a side note, but not without its due reverence, one of the passengers of KAL Flight 007 was a sitting Congressman, Lawrence Patton McDonald from Georgia. He is recorded as the only sitting member of Congress killed during our 45 year Cold War.