The great-circle route from Western Europe to, say, Japan involves putting in a lot of miles above Russia, for example like this (London Heathrow–Tokyo Narita; map from gcmap.com).

enter image description here

Would routes like that have been possible during the days of the Soviet Union or would civilian planes have had to take a more circuitous route, flying south of the USSR and maybe even avoiding the Warsaw Pact countries, too?

I'm aware that at least some of Soviet airspace was prohibited which, for example, led to the Soviet Air Force shooting down Korean Air Lines flight 007. Presumably, the route shown in the map would be prohibited, since it goes over the Kola Peninsula, where the Northern Fleet is based and Novaya Zemlya, a major nuclear weapons test site.

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    $\begingroup$ Passes pretty close to another shootdown. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    May 20, 2015 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Pondlife *sigh* There is no need to edit the title so it's a literal question with a literal question mark. There was nothing at all wrong with the original title. (There's nothing wrong with the new title, either, but the edit was unnecessary.) $\endgroup$ May 20, 2015 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby I don't want to rehash the meta discussion here. It's a subjective thing and I don't claim to be right, but if you feel strongly about it then you can simply roll back. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    May 20, 2015 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ BA used to operate LON-ANC-TYO right up into the 1980s. There was also a tag-on to OSA. Later they got permission to stop and refuel in Moscow instead. $\endgroup$
    – Calchas
    May 20, 2015 at 23:51

1 Answer 1


During the Cold War, Soviet airspace was very restricted to other countries. Flights from the US often had to follow polar routes to Asia and Europe that avoided entering Soviet airspace. The end of the Cold War allowed new routes to be used.

Polar Routes Map

Flights to the USSR were allowed on a limited basis, often in conjunction with service by Aeroflot. Air Canada had the first service (via Copenhagen) from North America in 1966. Some flights were allowed to cross the USSR (JAL started in 1985) but would often stop on Moscow. Otherwise, Anchorage was a typical stop on such a route. International relations may have improved since the Soviet era, but even today not every airline gets permission to overfly Russia.

The strict policies are the reason that flights such as Korean Air Lines flight 007 were shot down when deviating from these routes, and the flight of Mathias Rust to Moscow was a big deal.

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    $\begingroup$ Flights were permitted, IF they had prior clearance. KAL007 had not requested clearance as they had no intent of overflying the USSR and did so accidentally, Rust of course was a romantic idiot who had no clear idea of the implications of his action. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    May 21, 2015 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting But in what circumstances was clearance available? Presumably not routinely or all those flights wouldn't have gone miles out of their way to Anchorage (for example, LHR-ANC-NRT adds 2,000 miles, or 33%). $\endgroup$ May 22, 2015 at 0:21
  • $\begingroup$ The "not every airline... " link is broken. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Jun 12, 2019 at 21:46

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