The Mysterious Fate of Flight 007, Shot Down by the USSR in 1983 [Google Maps]

In 1983, a Korean Air 747 strayed into soviet airspace and was shot down, killing 269 people, including a member of Congress. Different groups claim that the plane was sacrificed to test soviet defences, that the Rockefeller’s wanted to assassinate congressman Larry McDonald, and that the plane actually survived and that the passengers are still being held prisoner almost 30 years later. KAL 007 was at least partially responsible for the availability of modern GPS services, and almost lead to the United Nations moving its headquarters out of the United States.

I had never heard of KAL 007 before this week, and only stumbled across it in the course of reading about Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. It piqued my interest because like Amelia’s story, it featured a mysterious island – in this case, Moneron Island, in the Sea of Japan, between Sakhalin Island and the Russian mainland:


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KAL 007 was bound from New York to Seoul, via Anchorage. After leaving Anchorage, a minor navigation error put the plane slightly off course, which while crossing the thousands of kilometers of the Bering Sea and North Pacific, added up to enough of a deviation to put the 747 squarely in soviet airspace during the height of the cold war. You can read in detail about how this happened on Wikipedia, but in the image below, the CIA illustrates the problem nicely (source: Wikipedia):

This navigation error, and the fact that it was even possible, is apparently one of the key considerations behind the US military opening the GPS constellation of navigation satellites up for civilian use – Ronald Reagan specifically cited KAL 007 in 1983 when the announcement was made.

Once in soviet airspace, the story gets pretty muddled. The soviets first picked up KAL 007 over Kamchatka, and tracked it over Sakhalin, before (maybe) shooting it down as it was (maybe) about to exit soviet airspace. Its unclear whether or not the soviets ever made contact with the plane, whether or not they had identified it as a civilian airliner, or even whether it was successfully shot down. A fighter shot two missiles  at the plane – but its unclear if it was immediately destroyed, or flew on long enough to land on Moneron Island.

Conspiracy theories abound:

  • Congressman Larry McDonald – the only US congressman killed by the soviets, and the leader of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society (see JBS.org) – was convinced that the Rockefeller’s and an international banking cabal controlled both the US and the USSR. Some think the plane was shot down to assasinate him.  (WikiBin)
  • Senators Jesse Helms and Steve Symms, as well as Representative Carrol Hubbard, were almost on KAL 007 as well – they ended up on the next flight (KAL 015). Each were noted for their strong anti-communist, anti-USSR stance. Some think that the three of them, who were supposed to be on KAL 007 along with McDonaled, were too good a target for the soviets to pass up. (The “Meaconing” theory on Wikipedia)
  • Soviet divers claimed to have never found much of the plane – just scattered debris. Human remains were in short supply, both on the surface and in the wreckage, leading some to believe that the plane was empty. (Wikipedia, WikiBin)
  • The US airforce had a habit of “testing” soviet air defences by dipping into their territory – some have suggested that KAL 007’s navigation error wasn’t an error at all, but was a military test. This theory goes deep enough to suggest that the Flight Data Recorders found by the soviets and handed back to Korea almost 10 years later were planted in the wreckage by the CIA/NSA. Another version suggests that KAL 007 was used as a distraction for a US spy plane operation at the same time  (WikiBin, Wikipedia)
  • Boris Yeltsin handed over the flight data recorders in 1992, and alluded to some amount of concealed soviet-era documentation on the incident: “… there are documents “which would clarify the entire picture.” Yeltsin said the memo continued to say that “these documents are so well concealed that it is doubtful that our children will be able to find them.” (Wikipedia)
  • The deployment of Pershing missiles in eastern Europe was running out of steam; KAL 007 restored momentum and led to their deployment, which in turn is considered a contributing factor to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“KAL 007 changed it all. Suddenly, Andropov looked ruthless and Reagan prudent. The Pershings went in and the biggest peace-time American defense build-up in history was OK’d by Congress. The American government could not have done better if it had planned it all.” (Seattle PI, 1992)  (Also see: Conservapedia)

  • Finally, there are those that believe that KAL 007 landed successfully, and that the passengers are still prisoners in Russia.

“The evidence, however, tells another story.  Japanese radar trackings, Soviet ground-to-ground and ground-to-air communications, KAL 007’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, the debris (and lack thereof), eye-witness testimonies… All these and more, when pieced together, tell of a plane which was, indeed, damaged, but which managed to land safely, and of passengers who survived and were rescued by the Russians — only to be imprisoned to this day.” (Rescue007.org)

For more conspiracy theories around KAL 007, see the Wikipedia Alternate Theories page.

Edit: @surecure in the comments noted that HBO made a movie about it. Here’s the trailer:

7 thoughts on “The Mysterious Fate of Flight 007, Shot Down by the USSR in 1983 [Google Maps]

  1. Thanks @pissedoff. The INS mode mistake was what I took away from all of my reading; the fact that flight crew chatter off the black box was relaxed and banal suggested that they didn’t know that they were in a world of trouble. That being said: its still a remarkable number of human and technological mistakes that led to this.

  2. As I remember, there was at least one Canadian aboard – a young woman whose ID card (?drivers licence or some such) was part of the debris found afterward.

  3. I was in the military form 86 to 90 as an aerial imagery analyst, and I remember hearing something about how the Russians thought we may have been sneaking aerial photography platforms on to commercial flights like this, and that was part of what may have provoked their reaction.

  4. @igpajo – can’t help but imagine the flight number “007” might have tipped them off.

    @frances – interesting – thanks for sharing. I think I recall reading something somewhere in all of the different pages I read – a lady from Thunder Bay perhaps?

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