Twenty years on, the downing of the Korean airliner violating Soviet airspace is tragically remembered. Another tragedy is that there are many questions still not answered
It has been 20 years since the tragedy over Sakhalin, when the Soviet Su-15 pursuit plane downed Boeing 747 of the South Korean company, when the plane found itself in the Soviet airspace. The newspaper Pravda published an article in 1992, presenting fragments of radio a conversation between the pilots of the Soviet pursuit planes and the ground command center. Those excerpts proved that the Soviet pilot did everything possible to prevent the downing of the plane, which was not identified as a civilian object. We believe that this material remains of great interest to this day.
On September 2, 1983 the major Soviet news agency TASS was rather short-spoken. A new day has come for everyone, but an unidentified plane was still flying in the direction of the Sea of Japan in the Far East of Russia. The events that actually happened would be exposed a lot later. The full text of radio talks between the Soviet pilot and the command center has never been released.
This transcript, which shocked the world, had only one phrase: “Target destroyed.” The transcript became a testament for the “empire of evil.” The words from pilot Osipovich, who downed the Boeing, were intercepted by Japanese ground stations. Later, these recorded words were played-back during session of the UN Security Council.
Below are found excerpts of that transcript:
6.02. 805: I can see the target, the height is eight thousand
6.03. Command Post (CP): I got you, you detected the target, there are 12…15 kilometers between you and the target
6.04. CP: 805, destroy the target if it crosses the state border. Activate the special system.
805: Yes, Sir.
805: What is the speed of the target?
CP: The target’s speed is 900
805: I got you.
6.05. CP: Can you see the target?
805: Yes, I can.
CP: Ok. Keep following it.
805: Yes, sir.
6.10. CP: 805, can you identify the plane?
805: No, of course, not.
CP: Ok, the target is 12 kilometers far.
6.11. CP: Can you still see the target?
805: I can virtually see it on the screen.
CP: Ok, notify when you see it.
805: Yes, sir.
CP: 805, can you see the target?
805: Yes, I can, I got it.
КП: 805, contact the target.
805: Yes, Sir
6.13. 805: The target is not answering the inquiry.
CP: Ok, activate the special system.
805: The system is on.
КП: 805, follow the target.
805: Yes, Sir, it is on the same route.
CP: 805, prepare to open the fire, be ready.
6.17. CP: 805, can you see the enemy?
805: Yes, I can.
CP: Right, ….stroy!
805: Repeat, please.
6.18. CP: 805, the target crossed the state border. Destroy the target.
805: Yes, Sir.
CP: 805, are the target’s lights on?
805: Yes, they are.
CP: 805, signal the target with your lights.
CP: 805, make the target land on our airdrome! (this order cancels the previous one)
6.20. CP: 805, open the warning fire!
805:...I am getting closer to it.
CP: Open the fire!
CP: 805! Execute!
805: I am opening the fire.
CP: Have you opened the fire?
805: Yes, I have.
CP: Can you see the target?
6.21. 805: Yes, I am getting closer.
805: The target is going down, I am 2 kilometers far from it.
CP: Is it still going down?
805: No, the height is ten thousand.
805: The target is decreasing its speed.
CP: I got you. Decrease your speed, 805.
6.22. CP: Give it a light signal.
805: Yes, Sir. I am increasing my speed.
CP: 805, open the fire!
805: I can’t. I am in the wrong position for the attack.
CP: Try to take the position for attack.
6.23.CP: 805, try to shoot the target with missiles.
805: Yes, I am trying missiles now
CP: 805, get closer to the target and destroy it!
805: I am doing it.
6.24. CP: 805, are you getting closer?
805: I am watching the target, getting ready for the attack.
805: Missile launched.
805: Target destroyed.
КП: Stop the attack.
805: Yes, Sir.
The specialists who deciphered the transcript in 1983 commented on it. They were directly involved in the investigation of the reasons why the Boeing 747 was destroyed, but it is too early to give their names and positions.
Marshal Akhromeyev told us to keep silence about it, and we have been doing this for all these years, until the newspaper Izvestia started an investigation. The consequences are always horrible in air crashes, but it can hardly be correct to describe them, concealing the reasons of the tragedy. The things that happened can hardly be portrayed the way that the Izvestia does. For example, it was written in the issue of October 15 of this year: “Almost ten years after the night attack in the sky above Sakhalin, which resulted in the destruction of the South Korean Boeing 747 with 269 passengers on board…”
Why did the UN have only the tape of our pilots’ answers?
Those who prepared it they said that due to the remoteness of the Soviet pointing posts, Japanese could intercept only the communication of the flying planes, but they could not hear what the ground command post was telling them. But we think that it is not quite true. There were other planes, ships, American satellites in the pointing area. It was not good for Americans to reveal the actions of their command posts at the UN.
Why wasn’t that tape played at all?
We offered to do that, but our offers did not approve. Sailors have a saying: “When the sea is quiet after the storm, there will be a lot of smart people on the shore.” The administration of the committee decided not to expose the documents that we knew about. They probably thought that they could be used against us, or they simply wanted to keep it secret.
Is it possible to say that the actions of the pilots and of the command post were qualified?
They were quite optimal for the circumstances of that night.
However, they are accused of the insufficient amount of preventive measures. What is supposed to be done in such cases?
The interaction between a pursuit plane and an aircraft that trespasses a border without any notification of that is regulated with international recommendations, which were developed by the International Organization of Civil Aviation. Those rules have been getting more and more human since the time when first civil planes were downed. Now it is not allowed to open the fire on a plane that looks like a passenger aircraft, although it may only look like a civil one. In 1983 the rules were as follows: exclude tragedies that can be excluded. In other words, it was not the pilot, who had to decide whether to open the fire or not, it was up to the supreme command that had sufficient information, as a rule.
Are you sure that the Boeing’s crew noticed the Soviet pursuit plane?
Nothing can be said for sure in this respect, but there is a very good example on that. In 1978 Boeing 707 of the same airline arrived at a completely different place, thousands of kilometers from the place of destination. The plane flew over to the Russian city of Murmansk instead of landing in Alaska. The Soviet fighter was flying right next to it, but the crew of the Boeing did not pay any attention to it. The fighter launched a missile that blew up some four meters from the wings, but it became possible to land the plane. Two passengers died of fragments out of 108. When we were talking to Boeing’s pilots afterwards, they told us that they did not know what the pursuit plane wanted from them, taking account of the fact that they had spent some 14 thousand hours of their life flying and they both were former military pilots. But passengers said that they could see the fighter very well, they even made jokes that they were flying VIP with an escort. So, we think that both of those cases were the consequence of the uncivilized approach to air passenger traffic at South Korean airline. We reported about that to the authorities that Boeing could not “lose its way,” as Western media outlets wrote, for one simple reason – the plane was not on its way at all, not even for a minute. It was flying in the wrong direction right after it took off, the plane was flying to Seoul along the shortest way, and this could be easily seen on the special navigation device: its route line was totally rectilinear.
Maybe it is about the plane’s computer that had a wrong program installed?
Maybe, there are a lot of unclear things about the whole issue. The crew of 007 flight reported passing the points of reference on the given route, but as a matter of fact, the plane was moving off. Probably the computer was not indicating the data that the plane was actually flying. It is not ruled out that they could see the position data on their scheduled route together with the position data of the actual flight (the combination order). We have to compare the reports of the talks between the pilots of flight 007 that they conducted with American and Japanese ground services. We have to trace the Boeing’s flight from the American air traffic control zone to the Japanese one. It stands the reason there are such records, but nobody wanted to listen to us, so we simply took the blame upon ourselves.
By the way, speaking about that pilot Osipovich. In his interview with Izvestia he said that could see the outlines of the plane, but he could not identify its type, since Soviet pilots did not study foreign civil planes. What about this?
He had to answer a lot of questions from journalists. He did not say that to the committee. By the way, Boeing 747 is not a purely civil plane. It can be easily re-equipped for missile transportation, including the transportation of ballistic missiles and other army freight, like our big planes. Therefore, the Boeing 747 was included in reference books, and those books were widely read and used in all aviation units. Of course that would not be serious to say that they did not know about it, taking into consideration the fact that professionals learn not only those things that they are supposed to study. If there had been moonlight and not so many clouds, the pilot would have surely noticed that peculiar hump of the hull of the plane, which would definitely help him to identify it. But would it change anything? The Boeing 747 was a trespasser.
Osipovich asserts that Boeing noticed him because the plane decreased its speed and Su-15 had to leave it behind.
This could be explained with the fact that the Boeing’s crew inquired for another climb from Tokyo shortly before the Soviet pursuit plane opened the fire. When a plane starts performing another height climb, it has to decrease its speed, so there is nothing surprising about it at all.
Did Boeing’s pilots see preventative shots? Osipovich said in that interview that he only had armor-piercing shells.
We took part in the investigation on this subject. The firepower that Osipovich had consisted of armor-piercing and tracer shells. The latter shows the pilot the direction of the route and the direction of the fire - they are simultaneously used for signaling too.
Why didn’t Osipovich notice bull’s-eyes?
It was dark. They turn the light off in our planes at night too. If he had approached a little, he would have seen dark bull’s-eyes. But no one would be willing to do it, taking account of bad weather and limited fuel reserves. Osipovich could fly right near the Boeing’s cockpit, but in this case it would be very likely that the planes would “kiss each other.” There were several incidents like that, when American Phantom pursuit plane collided with our TU-16. They have such a method: to fly under a wing of our plane for about five minutes, then they turn the afterburning on, the tail of fire, and they go up. The American plane went up suddenly making a mistake and touching the wing of our plane. Fortunately, both planes landed successfully.
So the goal was to destroy the target or to stop the flight of the unidentified plane on our territory?
To destroy the target, because in 90 second Boeing was going to enter the neutral territory.
Well, maybe it would be the best thing to do – to let it go?
It is possible to say so now, but at that moment it was impossible to let an unidentified plane go, since it flew above two regions of the country, above important army objects. Furthermore, American army planes made a series of provocative sorties in the Soviet airspace above the Kurile islands several months earlier. The weather was terrible, and our pilots would not be able to land, if there were an alarm to intercept American planes. The administration did not allow our pilots to do that, a very strict committee visited them afterwards and they were punished for that. And the committee was right, since there are other means to do something about those impudent fellows. In addition to that I would like to say that there is not even one country in the world that has so much air space to protect. No country is blamed for defending its air borders. The events which happened in September of 1983 were tragic. Even if one human being dies – it’s a tragedy. But there are also laws, not only emotions, and we have to let laws guide us, not emotions. Passenger planes crashed that way not only in the Soviet Union, so it would not be correct to blame the Soviet regime.
Is it always necessary to be that tough about trespassers? As a rule, they do not dare to take risks and cause damage.
Not so long ago a bomber plane of the Afghan Air Force lost its orientation and entered the airspace of one of our republics in the south. The plane had the goal to hit a land target, and 40 second of flying above the Soviet territory was enough for the lost plane to drop bombs on a border village, and kill several people. I am sure that those people’s relatives will definitely support the position, which stands for closed air borders.
Nevertheless, each incident like that needs to be carefully investigated. A group of experts deal with extra investigation of the tragedy of 1983 in Moscow now. It deems that we have created the best conditions for that, we presented new documents, but will this investigation be objective? Black box recorders have been recently exposed, but have they brought any good?
But those records were not presented professionally; one could not distinguish commander’s, co-pilot’s, and flight engineer’s words. Furthermore, as far as we know, the records were translated by KGB specialists of the Korean language, not by those people, who would be familiar with aviation. There can be a part of the truth found on that tape. Flight 007 and had the task to fly along one route with the interval of ten or fifteen minutes, so the pilots had to get worried because of the different wind indications. It was important not only to study those records in detail, but also to compare them with Osipovich’s situation at the moment, with the change of the height, etc. We knew it since the moment when the committee started working, that we could get an objective picture of the entire situation only if we worked on four records: the talks of the Boeing’s crew, the talks between the pilots of flight 007 and flight 015, the talks between the Boeing’s crew and Tokyo, and radio-conversation between Osipovich and the command post. All these records must be compared and structured very carefully. We would like to hope that the expert group will do it. The phenomenon has to be studied thoroughly, because the plane found itself in the foreign airspace and did everything possible to be downed.