September 15, 2013

The Dangers of Cold War Air Travel


The Dangers of Cold War Air Travel

On this day 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan ordered the FAA to revoke Aeroflot’s license to operate flights to the United States, in response to a Soviet fighter pilot shooting down a passenger plane, Korean Airlines (KAL) Flight 007.


It’s 1983, and the world is tense. Imagine yourself making a trans-Pacific flight. Purely hypothetically, let’s say you depart from Anchorage and are headed for Seoul. About six hours after takeoff, you hear an explosion, and the PA system starts repeating:

Attention emergency descent.

Put out your cigarette, this is an emergency descent.

Put the mask over your nose and mouth and adjust the headband.

Put the mask over your nose and mouth and adjust the headband.

Put the mask over your nose and mouth and adjust—

What actually happened on KAL 007 after this point is unknown – the tape cuts off a little less than two minutes after the explosion. The aircraft kept going for over 10 minutes before spiraling into the sea. There were no survivors.

But let’s backtrack. In your nightmarish hypothetical, you know that you did nothing wrong. The plane didn’t malfunction. There was no inclement weather. What did you ever do to deserve this untimely end? Let’s be clear: you didn’t do anything. In fact, your identity, the identity of your pilot, the origin and destination of your flight – all that didn’t matter. You were a blip on the radar screen of the Soviet armed forces, an unidentified object in their airspace, and that made you – and everyone on your flight – fair game.

Flight deviation of KAL 007

What actually happened to KAL 007? Most likely, a minor detail was out of place in the autopilot, so that the plane flew straight rather than curving around Soviet airspace. After it had crossed the Kamchatka peninsula and re-entered international territory, Soviet commanders were alerted to its presence, made the assumption that it was a military aircraft, and sent a fighter pilot after it. As the pilot came closer, it became apparent to him that the unidentified jet was not your usual reconnaisance plane. "I saw two rows of windows and knew that it was a Boeing,” the pilot later recalled. “I knew it was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use..."

When in doubt, ask – but no one on the Soviet side tried communicating with this civilian-looking plane, making sure it was what it looked like. The U.S. had been pestering the Soviet Union with planes all up in their airspace all year, so the pressure was on to bring the plane down, no questions asked. So down it went.

There you are – one more bullet point on the long list of reasons you should be glad it’s not the Cold War anymore.


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Full transcript of associated transmissions can be found on Wikisource

For more on the context of the shootdown, see “1983: The Scariest Year” in the March/April 2013 issue of Russian Life.

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Russian Rules

Russian Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
The Little Humpbacked Horse

The Little Humpbacked Horse

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Steppe / Степь

Steppe / Степь

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Driving Down Russia's Spine

Driving Down Russia's Spine

The story of the epic Spine of Russia trip, intertwining fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. 

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955