I was reading recently about the shootdown of Korean 007 and it is clear that it was very tense times between the American and Soviet governments.

The one point which struck me as weird throught the entire narrative was that it does not appear that the Soviets made any attempt to contact the Airliner other than firing some cannon shots. Was this usual for the time? Was there no way for them to contact the Korean airliner?

The military pilot possitively identified the target, but it was the Soviets belief that it was a spy plane disguised as a civilian airliner - did this not warrant at least trying to contact them?

  • $\begingroup$ Did the Boeing pilots fly over Soviet airspace by error or accident...? Or were they really following a route intended for a spy mission...? $\endgroup$
    – xxavier
    Jul 23 '21 at 10:39
  • $\begingroup$ @xxavier They were supposed to be following a route which went close to soviet airspace but it seems their A/P was in HDG not INS mode and so they strayed twice into soviet airspace. The second time they were shot down. $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Jul 23 '21 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ Legal aspect: The Downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. "The military pilot positively identified the target", it seems the closest distance between military and KE007 was 2 km. Not really a visual identification, though at least 20 minutes were available for one. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Jul 24 '21 at 18:31

The report of the completion of the ICAO fact-finding investigation confirms that not attempt to contact the aircraft was made:

No attempt was made by the USSR to contact the crew of KE 007 by radio on the distress frequency 121.5 MHz or on any other VHF or HF frequency.

The report also contains a summary of an interview with the pilot of the interceptor plane. He said that he did not have time to contact KE007 because he would have lost connection to ground command:

The ICAO team was unable to meet with the SU-15 interceptor pilot in February 1993, but was provided with articles published by Izvestia in January 1991 containing extensive interviews with him. The contents of the articles were confirmed as authentic by representatives of the Russian Federation. [...]

He also reported that he did not try to establish radio contact with the aircraft because he would not have had the time to do so, he would have had to tune to that frequency and in so doing he would have lost contact with his ground command.

(emphasis mine)

The pilot also reported that he did not know it was a passenger aircraft:

The interceptor pilot stated that 1983 was a difficult year for Soviet interceptor pilots in the Far East region as there had been numerous intrusions into Soviet airspace by military aircraft of the United States. [...]

At that stage he could more clearly see the aircraft, but could not identify its type as Soviet pilots did not "study" foreign civilian aircraft. The flashing lights (rotating beacon) of the aircraft were on. He said that he had no idea that it was a passenger aircraft.

The question why nobody on the ground attempted to contact the aircraft still remains. As far as I could find, there is no definitive answer to this. The following is somewhat speculative.

Initially, the USSR believed the aircraft to be a US spy plane (RC-135). While there was some doubt about this (someone even suggested it could be a civilian airliner), the failed attempt to intercept the aircraft over Kamchatka created more confusion among the USSR air defense command personnel. By the time the aircraft approached Sakhalin Island, the situation was already too time critical to further investigate the identity of the aircraft.

That is my interpretation based on the following points of the analysis summary in the report:

3.23 The proximity of an RC-135 (a United States intelligence aircraft) and KE 007 northeast of Kamchatka Peninsula resulted in confusion and the assumption by the USSR air defence that the aircraft proceeding towards the USSR was an RC-135.

3.24 USSR military aircraft attempted to intercept KE 007 over Kamchatka Peninsula.

3.25 Information was freely available to flight crews that an aircraft penetrating prohibited areas of USSR sovereign airspace over Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island might be fired upon without warning.

3.26 The USSR air defence command centre personnel on Sakhalin Island were concerned with the position of the intruder aircraft in relation to USSR sovereign airspace as well as its identity.

3.27 The time factor became paramount in the USSR air defence command centres. as the intruder aircraft was about to coast out from Sakhalin Island.

3.28 Exhaustive efforts to identify the intruder aircraft were not made, although apparently some doubt remained regarding its identity.

  • $\begingroup$ The second part of this is more what I was speculating about (Why no attempted ground contact). There was also the unfortunately timed climb to FL350 which the military pilot interpreted an avoiding action to make the much faster jet fly past. $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Jul 23 '21 at 11:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Jamiec Yes, that is the more interesting part of the question. Unfortunately, the USSR was not very cooperative during the initial investigation, which is why information about what was going on in the command centre is sparse. The quote above is already from the revised report based on the additional information provided by Boris Yeltsin in 1992. Maybe some will find a better source with more info... $\endgroup$
    – Bianfable
    Jul 23 '21 at 11:51

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