Korean Airlines Flight 902 was shot down by a Soviet fighter in April 1978 after the pilot turned through 150 degrees and entered Russian airspace. The New York Times reported it happened around 8.30 pm Paris time, so this happened during sunset. But if he had kept to the correct course, he should have been flying over the North pole and into the middle of the day.

Given that magnetic compasses are not helpful at this latitude, the aircraft did not have an inertial navigation system, and the Earth's surface (if visible) is presumably similar in both directions, what other clues could the pilot have to his heading?

In other words, for flying at high latitudes in the late 70's, what checks were available to the accuracy of navigation?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ More specifically, the plane came down near Sofporog and Google says that sunset would have been at about 8:50pm. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 14:15

2 Answers 2


According to the German Wikipedia the 707 has been equipped with LORAN-C and VOR. It most likely also had (at least one) Gyroscopic Heading Indicator.

Wikipedia does not tell something about this concrete plane but these devices where available since the 1950s and there is no reason why this particular plane should not have them.

So from a technical point of view the crew should have been able to detect the deviation from the planned path, given that they had some training in using all of that equipment, and that not all of them broke altogether during the flight (before the rocket hit).


There's an article in the Washington Post April 30th, 1978, just after the flight crew was released by the Soviets, and 10 days after the shootdown.

Pilot of Korean Jet Downed In Russia Fails to Explain Incident By Kevin Klose April 30, 1978

The Captain said almost nothing specific and had an airline official sitting next to him as he ignored most questions, but journalists had earlier spoken to the co pilot and navigator without an airline official present.

The only hard information came from the navigator, Lee Kun Sic. He said the plane was not equipped with a special Inertial Navigation System that provides relatively trouble-free directional aid and is especially important in a circumpolar route such as that taken by Flight 902 when it left Paris April 20 headed for Seoul via a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska.

Lee, a veteran of 70 such fligts, said the plane, a Boeing 707, was equipped with gyrocompass system that went awry sometime during the flight. Somewhere in polar airspace, the plane veered east and south over the Soviet Union's heavily defended Kola Peninsula. It was shot down after passing over Murmansk at 35,000 feet. Murmansk is the base for the Soviet Union's intercontinental ballistic missile submarine fleet and center for other major military installations.

Lee said that in reviewing the events of the flight he now realized the gyrocompass system, which needs frequent astronomical observations to maintain its accuracy during polar flight, began steering them wrong while he thought he was somewhere over Greenland.

Lee also said a radio navigation beacon called Loran failed as well. There have been reports that the flight plan filed according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations in Anchorage asserted that the plane had an Inertial Navigation System aboard. The new conference was ended before Lee could be asked about this.

I would also point out that it's reported elsewhere, that Capt Kim had doubts about their heading but proceeded regardless. It's asserted that he disclosed this in his apology to his passengers while they awaited rescue helicopters to find them on the lake they'd landed on.

What I find amazing is that they didn't think to keep trying ATC until they got somebody. On their way West and North, the Sun was visible on their left. When they made that huge turn to the left, the Sun would have been on their right and to the rear. That should have been enough of a clue that they needed to figure out where they were rather than press on regardless. During the Cold War to discover you're in the far North heading South East is not something to be passive about. They overflew Svalbard before they reached the USSR. Svalbard, the northernmost airport in the world would have been a decent place to land when completely lost, instead of stubbornly following their nose and arriving over Murmansk 3400 miles from Anchorage.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .