IT WAS A CLOSE ONE, MAYBE

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Firsthand Account of the ICAO Resolution of the KAL 007 crisis

Petrov’s decision from  Serpulkhov-15 that the warnings were FALSE

ICAO Council and Assembly support US

By Jim Loos

The JDA Journal has benefited from frequent submissions by our colleague at the FAA, Jim Loos. He hearkened back to his work on the KAL 007 crisis and put his insights on the ICAO review of the Soviets’ despicable act of war on the Korean aircraft.

With the global tensions making headlines these days—Russia’s purported interference with the US elections, the clash between Mr. Putin’s oligarchy and the Ukraine, etc., Jim’s observations are most relevant.

THANKS, Jim


On May 19 2017 Lt Col Stanislav Petrov (ret.) died at his home in Fryazino, Russia. He was 77. He had a fair sized obituary in the Washington Post and probably a few other newspapers around the country, so you might know who he was. I’ll get back to that in a bit.

On the morning of September 1 1983 FAA Headquarters was informed that Korean flight 007 was missing on a flight from Anchorage to Seoul. It was not until noon that it became known that it had been the victim of a rocket fired by a Russian interceptor.

KAL 007 had 269 people on board, including one U.S. Congressman. There were 240 passengers, 3 flight crew, 20 cabin attendants and 6 crew employees of KAL being repositioned to Seoul.

The FAA immediately went to work on collecting material for an accident package…transcripts, controller statements, checking involved navigational aids etc. We developed info on the international coordination that lead to the ICAO approval of the route the Korean jet was (supposed) to be on. It had been approved just about 18 months before after the usual ICAO process plus a meeting with the Soviets since the route was close to their oceanic airspace boundary.

The shootdown was a major international incident. President Reagan, at his home in Santa Barbara, expressed revulsion and returned to Washington. Various methods of retaliation were expressed from sanctions to banning Soviet airliners from US airspace.

Mark Ambinder, in his book “Brink”[1] says the Soviets were already tense. A large-scale NATO military exercise was planned for later in the year which put troops on the Warsaw Pact borders. It was just the previous March that President Reagan had made his “evil empire” speech.

Yuri Andropov, an ex KGB chief and from November 1982 General Secretary of the Soviet Union was in the job for a less than a year at the time of the shootdown. In May of 1981 Andropov “…gathered his (KGB) senior officers to a secret conclave to issue a startling announcement: America was planning to launch a nuclear first strike, and obliterate the Soviet Union.”[2] He held that view until his death in February 1984.

Secretary of State George Schultz recounts the US initial discussions in the development of the US reaction:

People began to give me drafts of what I should say. I found them all dangerously overdrawn, couched in an ominous tone that might suggest some form of U.S. military reaction or retaliation. I rejected the confrontational rhetoric.[3]

President Reagan wanted a strong response, but he did not want to foreclosure on the progress being made with the Soviets on arms reduction and other negotiations.[4]

The Administration, along with a number of other States asked for a meeting of the UN Security Council which went from Sept 1 to Sept 12. On the 12th the USSR vetoed a condemnation resolution, as expected. The Administration decided to go to ICAO where there was no veto.

The US delegation was headed by J. Lynn Helms the FAA Administrator, with Don Segner, Assistant Administrator for Policy and International, Irene Howie, the FAA’s international lawyer, and me, the bag carrier (and I couldn’t even type) plus a couple of really good State Department people.

We knew it was going to be an ICAO meeting like no other ICAO meeting and we weren’t disappointed. We flew up in an FAA airplane. On arrival we taxied over to the customs shack for a routine check in. Strangely we were asked to get out of the plane and walk over to the shack where we were told thank you and got back on the airplane. I found out later that NBC news had asked the customs folk to get us off the airplane so they could get the “USG officials arrive for important meeting” picture.

The ICAO building was surrounded by Koreans protesting the shootdown, another unusual scene. The building itself was full of media looking around frantically for somebody important to talk to.

As the Council members started to file in the meeting room it was apparent that the NATO members States represented on the ICAO Council had “friends” from their Foreign Ministries to assist.

The Soviet position was that the airplane had violated its sovereign territory and they had every right to shoot it down. Our position was that there were agreed intercept procedures designed to either turn the airplane away or have the airplane land at a suitable airport. There was no evidence that these procedures were used even though the airplane had been over Soviet territory for several hours.

There were specific points at issue. There had been a USAF surveillance aircraft orbiting well off shore for several hours. The Soviets maintained that the targets of the KAL and USAF planes had merged and it appeared that one had taken over for the other. We maintained that the aircraft had never been closer than 75 miles and the radar targets couldn’t have merged

The more perplexing question was how did a modern jetliner, equipped with modern navigation equipment (for the time) could have flown 500 miles off course.[5] We didn’t know the answer to that one but we knew that the Soviets had recklessly shot the aircraft down and that this Organization could not let that go.

The only Council member supporting the Soviet position was from Czechoslovakia, although at the vote three abstained and two were absent. The Council member from India strongly urged that the Organization delay any action until a thorough investigation had been completed, which we were afraid had some logic to it.

We strongly felt that the action of the Soviet Union was so blatant that this civil aviation Organization simply could not let it go without speaking out. The Council approved our proposed resolution which included the phrase:

DEEPLY DEPLORING the destruction of an aircraft in commercial international services resulting in the loss of 269 innocent lives,

On October 1, 1983 the 24th Session of the Assembly adopted resolution A24-5 which endorsed the Council resolution. The Assembly resolution was adopted by a vote of 65 in favor to 10 against, with 26 abstentions.

After the Council action we flew the FAA airplane back to Washington National. There were no cameras to greet us, just a couple of guys from the hangar to take care of the airplane. Administrator Helms did go on one of the late night news shows, but it was over before I got home. The next morning we were on page 3 of the Times, top left corner, maybe 10 column inches. Not the front page.

So Mr. Helms had accomplished his mission. The US Government, along with its allies, had successfully taken action on an international stage, the aviation world had strongly condemned the Soviet action and, perhaps a paradox, had moved the subject to the mundane (e.g. the B-52s were not in the air).

Serpulkhov-15 was a secret bunker housing one of the Soviet Union’s stations to monitor its early-warning satellites over the United States. On September 26, 1983 one of those satellites sent a signal that a nuclear attack was underway when its computer determined that a missile had been launched from a base in the United States. Soon the system was reporting that five Minuteman intercontinental missiles had been launched. In less than five minutes the senior officer in the bunker, lieutenant colonel Petrov decided the alarms were false. He based his decision partially on a guess, simply that the five missiles were not sufficient to achieve the devastating first strike that logic demanded.

What if President Reagan had decided to take a more militant stand on Sept. 1 and the crisis had escalated, would Lt Col Petrov have felt obliged “to push the button”?

POST SCRIPT: During the second Council meeting on the shootdown Don Segner was asked to come to the Soviet delegation’s office. When he returned, he passed on a message to the State Department informing them that he was told that if we continued to pursue this matter it would have a detrimental affect on US-Soviet relations. We waited a little bit for instructions and then Mr Eagleburger called to inform us that “we would not be blackmailed” and to continue according to our original instructions.

The second Council meeting agreed on an even stronger resolution which said inter alia:

  • CONDEMNS the use of armed force which resulted in the destruction of the Korean airliner and the tragic loss of 269 lives;

 

After some rough moments President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Ghorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987

POST POST SCRIPT: The resolution referred to above also said:

  • URGES all Contracting States to cooperate fully in the work of examining and adopting an amendment to the Chicago Convention at the 25th Session (Extraordinary) of the ICAO Assembly and in the improvement of measures for preventing a recurrence of this type of tragedy. (emphasis added)

 

We entered into several trilateral meetings with the objective of establishing coordination procedures with Soviets. The last meeting occurred just a few days before the first summit meeting between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Ghorbachev. Both sides wanted an agreement that would show cooperation. We finalized and it was included in the report of the successful summit. We were back on the front page of the New York Times, lower right corner, four lines.

 

[1] “The Brink, President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983”, Marc Ambinder, Simon and Schuster,2018

[2] “The Spy and The Traitor” by Ben MacInyre, Crown Press, Pg. 142

[3] “Turmoil and Triumph”. By George Schultz, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, pg 361

[4] Ibid; pg 365

[5] At the second Council meeting that reviewed the ICAO secretariat report of the shootdown, Jim Gaustad a member of the Secretariat informed the Council that there had been an incident in 1974 involving a jet airliner which was carrying modern navigation equipment, on a flight from the Caribbean to London. The autopilot was inadvertently disconnected and the flight continued in a northeasterly direction which was initially set up after take-off and continued in that mode for approximately two hours. The crew became aware that their position was incompatible with the flight plan but did not identify the cause and assumed there were Nav failures. They advised air traffic control and turned to an easterly heading, achieving land over Portugal 700 NM south of the cleared track. It was an Aeroflot aircraft.



 

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