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A Korean Air 707: the same aircraft type involved in the incident (Photo: Steve Fitzgerald [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

A Forgotten Soviet Shoot-Down: The Story of Korean Air 902

In September 1983 the Cold War was on the brink of becoming hot. The Soviet Union had shot down a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 that had strayed over their airspace. The strike resulted in the deaths of all 269 on board, including prominent conservative congressman Larry McDonald. 

The intentional hit by the Soviets remains tangled in controversy to this day. However, just five years earlier an eerily similar incident occurred.

Korean Air Lines flight 902 was a scheduled operation from Paris, France to Seoul, South Korea with a refueling stop in Anchorage. On April 20, 1978, the Boeing 707 operating the route took off from Paris with Captain Kim Chang Ky at the controls, with 97 passengers and 11 crew members under his command. 

The flight proceeded normally as it headed northwest from Paris, taking the polar route towards Anchorage. The flight plan called for the flight to fly over the arctic, over the northern tip of Greenland and Canada, and over the Alaskan wilderness before the stop in Anchorage but something went wrong.

The Boeing 707 was not equipped with an inertial navigation system, nor was GPS in use by the public at the time. This meant that Captain Chang Ky and his crew relied on navigation using magnetic headings to find their way to Alaska. As the flight reached near the location of the magnetic north pole, the flight crew began a wide turn to the right. 

Shortly after 9:30 in the evening, the flight crew were intercepted by a Soviet fighter jet.

The Captain Chang Ky slowed his aircraft down and turned on the aircraft’s landing lights to show his compliance with the Soviet aircraft. He also attempted to make contact via the aircraft’s radios three times. Shortly after making the radio calls a bright flash shot by the cockpit. This was immediately followed by a large explosion behind the left wing. The Soviet fighter jet had shot two missiles at the Korean airliner. The first shot passed the aircraft while the second exploded behind the wing. 

This caused damage not only to the wing but also pieces of the missile punctured the fuselage causing an explosive decompression, which killed two people onboard.

The aircraft made a rapid descent and spent the next 40 minutes searching for a place to land. Captain Chang Ky located an open lake that had frozen over in the cold winter. He successful landed the aircraft on the frozen lake, coming to a skidding stop.

The crew was detained by Soviet forces until they apologized for the embarrassing incident. The passengers were taken to the city of Kem and were eventually released to the U.S. consulate and deported to South Korea.

The Soviet investigation into the incident was done without outside help and revealed that the Soviet fighter identified the jet as a passenger airliner but was still ordered to shoot down the aircraft by his commanding officers.

A reason for this was that the aircraft wasn’t detected and intercepted until it had entered Soviet airspace. This caused a shake-up in the upper command of the Soviet military and contributed to the loss Korean Air Lines 007 five years later.

Although five years prior, the shoot-down of Korean Air Lines 902 is eerily similar to flight 007. Both were operated by Korean Air Lines, with scheduled stopovers in Anchorage. Both, for unknown reasons, entered Soviet airspace. Both times, the Soviet fighter pilots believed the possibility that the intruding aircraft was a passenger airliner, not a spy plane.

While the story of flight 902 ended with most passengers returning home to their families, flight 007 never got to see their loved ones. Korean Air Lines 902 is often an overlooked or unknown part of the Cold War, but it helped set the stage for one of the tensest points in history.          

Daniel Morley
Daniel Morley
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