One of the most amazing things about history is the connections you discover between events that you didn’t know existed before. Almost nothing that happens is totally new, and previous incarnations of historical events are often instructive. Most people have heard of, and I did a blog article about, the tragic shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL 007) in September 1983, which triggered one of the tensest episodes of the Cold War. But until yesterday I had no idea that something very similar to that incident had happened once before, and it happened 37 years ago today, on April 20, 1978. Although the loss of life was far less, the strange odyssey of KAL Flight 902, and its shoot-down by Soviet air forces, resembles in many ways the tragedy that occurred above the North Pacific in 1983, and certainly raises questions about whether the latter incident could or should have been avoided.
KAL 902’s story began on April 20, 1978 in Paris. The plane was a Boeing 707 and it was headed for a very long-haul flight from Orly Airport ultimately to Seoul, South Korea, with a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska. A total of 109 people were on board and Captain Kim Chang Ky was at the controls. Flight 902’s trajectory was to fly almost due north from continental Europe, crossing the Arctic Ocean and the Canadian Arctic islands on its way to Alaska, and then from there to Seoul. Its flight path would have made sure it avoided the airspace of the Soviet Union, which was notoriously hostile to civilian flights from the West. In those days, in the grip of the Cold War, the Arctic north was full of surveillance planes flown by the United States and NATO, as well as a fair number of B-52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons. Surveillance planes did sometimes stray into Soviet airspace, causing the touchy Russians to scramble fighter jets to intercept them–exactly what would happen to KAL 007 in 1983.
This lake in northern Russia, just 87 miles from the Finnish border, is where KAL Flight 902 finally crash-landed after its harrowing journey in April 1978.
At first all went well with the flight. Then, quite suddenly, as the plane was over the remote town of Alert in Nunavut in the Canadian north, Captain Kim abruptly changed course, making a sudden hairpin turn to the southeast. The plane continued flying in a straight line, but was now headed back toward Europe, and specifically its icy northern rim where the USSR touched Finland on the Karelian Peninsula. The captain was unaware that’s where he was going. The course change happened almost right on top of the magnetic North Pole, and magnetic interference seems to have affected the plane’s instruments. From the air the terrain all around the Arctic looks much the same no matter where you are, so there were no visual cues that the plane was off-course.
About 250 miles from official Russian territory, the Soviet air command began tracking the blip on their radar. At first they assumed it was an American (or other NATO) communications plane, as those did stray quite close to Soviet borders. Following standard procedure, the air defense base for the Murmansk region scrambled planes to intercept. A few Sukhoi SU-15 fighters began approaching the aircraft. As they approached, the captain of the Soviet fighter team made a mistake. He radioed to the base that the plane looked like an RC-135, an American plane used for reconnaissance. The markings on the plane’s tail to him looked like a Canadian maple leaf–Canada being a NATO member. Quickly, however, the captain corrected his mistake when he got a closer look and saw that the tail was painted with an airline logo. He radioed this to his base.
By this time Captain Kim knew something was seriously wrong. The appearance of Soviet fighter jets was alarming and must have told him instantly that he was far off course. He switched on landing lights–a signal that he was ready to follow the planes where they wanted to take him–and tried to contact the lead fighter by radio, but there was no response. The Soviet captain was then in conversation with the ground station, whose commander, amazingly, ordered him to fire on the 707 and bring it down. Certainly the fighter captain knew it was a civilian plane, and he’d tried to convince the ground station of that too; but they ordered a strike anyway. One missile missed the plane entirely. The other blew off a small part of the wing and some debris punctured the fuselage, causing a terrifying decompression in the passenger compartment.
Crippled by a Soviet air-to-air missile, Flight 902 searches the frozen landscape of Karelia for a place to land. After the incident the Russians took the plane apart and reportedly tried to reverse-engineer it.
What happened next is disputed. Flight 902 was losing altitude and soon fell off the Soviets’ radar, but the piece of the wing that had been blown off was still visible, and the ground station believed for a time that it was a cruise missile. According to the Russians, they had no idea what happened to the flight after that, but one of the fighter pilots, Kerefov, continued to accompany the crippled plane as it searched for a place to make an emergency landing. Supposedly he was trying to get the plane to a Soviet military base, but Captain Kim was just looking for somewhere to land. The aircraft remained aloft for 40 tense minutes during the search as fields of snow-covered trees went by below. At last Captain Kim spotted a level unobstructed surface big enough to land on, which turned out to be the frozen-over Lake Korpijarvi. Kim finally put the plane down, but it was a rough landing. Two passengers were dead. Soviet helicopters soon appeared to evacuate the survivors, who were eventually repatriated through the American consulate in Leningrad.
Who was at fault for the accident? There seems to have been enough blame to go around. Kim should have realized much earlier that he was very badly off course. He also should’ve made greater efforts to communicate with the Russians, but it’s possible that this would have made no difference. Obviously the decision by a Soviet air defense commander to shoot down an unarmed airliner was a monstrous and inhuman act. Everyone was lucky that the plane was still flyable after the attack and that the loss of life wasn’t much, much worse. Unfortunately the Soviets didn’t learn from their mistakes in 1978. Five years later, with their protocols for intercepting unidentified aircraft overhauled for even tighter security, they would make the same mistake with KAL 007, and the same horrifying decision to destroy a peaceful plane that could only have strayed off course by mistake. In 1983 a total of 269 people died.
The story of KAL 902 is a curious and little-known footnote to the history of the Cold War, and it would likely have been forgotten if it wasn’t repeated in the awful KAL 007 attack. Sometimes the relevance of an incident in history isn’t evident until a long time later. Regardless of its historical meaning, the terror and shock of the passengers and crew of this doomed flight is sobering to think about. But at least most of them survived, unlike those on KAL 007.