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The Fate of KE007: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Murray Sayle’s cover article in the April 25 issue of The New York Review is ostensibly a critique of two new books about KAL 007; Black Box: KAL 007 and the Superpowers by Alexander Dallin and KAL Flight 007: The Hidden Story by Oliver Clubb. Sayle also purports to critique several other technical reports and documents about the tragic downing of the Korean airliner in August 1983. With the possible exception of Professor Dallin’s work, Sayle seriously addresses none of these. Instead, he devotes much of his attention to a work not even listed as a subject of review: my article entitled “KAL 007: What the US Knew and When We Knew It,” which appeared in The Nation in the August 18–25 issue last year. The reason for this curious asymmetry, according to Sayle, is that the arguments in my article “underpin all conspiracy theories and certainly, although no doubt independently, reflect the thinking of Soviet leading circles.”

By labeling the Nation article a “conspiracy theory” and linking it to the Soviet Union, Sayle seriously misrepresents it.1 The article was actually a lengthy critical examination of the Reagan Administration’s official version of the downing of KAL 007—i.e., that the plane accidentally flew over two sensitive Soviet military installations; that the US government had no knowledge of the plane’s deviation from course and therefore had no opportunity to warn it; that the President and his top advisers knew nothing about the plane’s downing until at least seven hours after it occurred. My central thesis was that such an explanation, requiring that we accept a remarkable set of coincidences, was extremely difficult to believe given the facts already in the public record. Among these were the anomalies of KAL 007’s known flight path, the US’s considerable military and intelligence capabilities which had the ability to detect the plane on its deviant course, and the capabilities of the US command and control system, which should have kept top Administration officials informed of such a dangerous situation as it was developing. I put forth several alternative scenarios which could account for both the plane’s deviation and the US government’s failure to warn it. These included: 1) that the plane was on a planned intelligence mission; 2) that US military and intelligence service communications systems suffered a major breakdown, leaving the President and the Pentagon unaware of the plane’s deviation and downing; and 3) that US intelligence hardware did pick up the deviation, but a decision was made not to warn the plane so that Soviet defense systems could be monitored as they reacted to the intrusion. As is evident, scenarios two and three require no assumptions as to the intentionality of KAL 007’s deviation from course.

Lacking crucial data which have been kept secret by all the governments involved, I could not and did not purport to prove any of these theories. Rather, I concluded my article by asking a number of specific unresolved questions about the case, suggesting the US government release a wealth of data which could help answer those questions, and calling for a Congressional inquiry into the circumstances of the tragedy.

Sayle accuses me and others whom he calls “conspiracy theorists” of eliminating from the realm of possibility an accidental deviation from course by KAL 007 and attempts to discredit our work by suggesting that a plausible accident scenario exists. This scenario says, basically, that the pilots of KAL 007 mis-set their automatic pilot switch and never noticed the error during their five-and-a-half-hour flight. The result was that the plane, rather than being flown by its Inertial Navigation System which was programmed to take it on its assigned route, flew instead on a fixed magnetic compass heading of 246 degrees to the spot where it was shot down. This theory is hardly new, first appearing in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 1983. The following December, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) also examined this particular “accidental” scenario, along with several others, and noted serious flaws with each. In February 1984, the ICAO’s own expert Air Navigation Commission refused to endorse a scenario, “because any of them contained some points which could not be explained satisfactorily.” In spite of these findings, Sayle picked up the theory sometime thereafter, publishing it in a two-part series in the London Sunday Times in May of last year. With the addition of a generous number of ad hominems and the attempt to debunk “conspiracy theories,” this is the same argument he put forth almost a year later in The New York Review.

While Sayle has made numerous factual errors in his article, I here confine myself to a discussion of his central thesis: the 246 degree magnetic heading scenario that he supports seemingly without reservation. The irony here is that Sayle is guilty of precisely that of which he accuses others: He simply refuses to entertain any alternative to his own conclusion that KAL 007’s deviation was accidental. Instead of addressing evidence that directly contradicts his theory, he sets up a series of straw men which he then proceeds to strike down, inviting his audience to believe he has shattered his opposition in the process. For example, we know that KAL 007 passed some twelve nautical miles (NM) to the north of Bethel, its first required reporting waypoint, yet reported itself to be on course. Sayle says that this means the aircraft “could not have been coupled to either its own INS [Inertial Navigation System] or the Bethel VOR [a very precise land-based navigational aid], neither of which could have permitted errors of such size so early in the flight.” He goes on to say, “There is only one other possibility: KE007 was being flown by magnetic compass, or, in pilots’ jargon, in ‘heading mode.’ “2

If you managed to get through the jargon and technical sleight of hand, you still might fail to recognize that you were being called upon to take an extraordinary leap of faith. Sayle suggests that because the airliner was off course, the pilots must have been negligent and oblivious to an extraordinary number of warnings from their navigational aids and instruments. Sayle has entirely ignored the possibility of intended “error.” His explanation is a bit like saying, “Because the car was speeding, the speedometer could not have been working.” It is arguing from conclusions to premises rather than the other way around.

The scientific method of analysis, which Sayle purports to employ, requires not only the consideration of alternative models, but the willingness to ask hard questions about a preferred scenario. Such hypothesis testing, which Sayle avoids, is precisely what Alexander Dallin does. Proceeding methodically through the various possible explanations for the deviation from course of Flight 007 in his book Black Box, he concludes that intentionality is the most likely one. “In fact,” writes Dallin, “it must be acknowledged that with the passage of time this argument, unlike all others, looms stronger than before.” While otherwise attentive to many of Dallin’s points, Sayle somehow fails to mention Dallin’s conclusion on this central issue. Yet this is precisely what Oliver Clubb, whom Sayle calls a “one-hundred-proof conspiracy theorist” and scarcely mentions at all, concludes.

For the record, it should be noted that Professor Clubb, far from having my article in The Nation “underpin” his analysis as Sayle says it does, had taken his manuscript to the penultimate draft before he even saw my work. It was only at a quite late stage that he added a few quotes and references. In short, Clubb arrived at his conclusions independently, as did Dallin. When informed investigators from diverse backgrounds arrive at a similar conclusion, it is reasonable to inquire what evidence might be responsible for this agreement. Sayle does not pursue this line of inquiry at all. Deriding those who believe that intentionality can play a role in complex human affairs, Sayle cautions that to so suggest “gets us into the heady world of laundered funds, trench coats, and exploding cigars so familiar from movies, TV, James Bond, and Watergate.” I am not certain about the other examples, but as to Watergate, I recall that it was intentional, was conspiratorial, and was proven to be so.

To avoid examining other scenarios, Sayle brings front and center the principle of Ockham’s razor, which he renders as saying, “When offered a number of different theories, start with the simplest.” It is reasonable advice. To find out whether Sayle’s own theory is up to Ockham’s set task and offers us the most parsimonious explanation, I consulted seven senior 747 pilots representing five major US airlines. Several of these pilots have extensive experience flying the North Pacific routes. Two are the Flight Training Officers for their respective airlines. Because of the controversial nature of the KAL 007 tragedy, all requested that their names not be used. All agree that the 246 degree magnetic heading theory fails that test of parsimony. In order to accept Sayle’s thesis, we have to make at least twelve different, independent assumptions. It must be assumed:

  1. That the INS automatic pilot selector switch was improperly set to “heading mode,” an error which went unobserved by both an experienced pilot and co-pilot for almost five and a half hours. This is Sayle’s overarching assumption.

  2. That the crew of Flight 007 forgot to use the Very high frequency Omni Range (VOR) navigational beacon at Bethel to verify their position, although to do so is very important for an airliner at the beginning of a long overwater flight. The VOR, as Sayle says, “broadcasts pencil-thin beams of radio waves that radiate like the spokes of a wheel and so are called radials. An aircraft that has ‘captured a radial,’ as the pilots put it, can fly along it with a maximum error of a mile at a distance of sixty miles from the transmitter.” The Bethel VOR beacon’s coverage extends 135 nautical miles (NM) east and 160 NM west of the waypoint, which means that KAL 007, given its speed, had access to the navigational aid for about three quarters of an hour. To use the VOR is a required Korean Air Lines procedure, and to do so on August 31, 1983, was especially important because the VOR beacon at Anchorage, KAL 007’s point of origin, was out of service that night. Bethel was thus the first opportunity for the pilots of KAL 007 to verify their position. Sayle’s scenario demands that the navigational aid and the requirement to use it were both forgotten.

  3. That the crew could not have looked at the Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) readouts on their instruments as the airliner passed Bethel. This information is automatically displayed in the cockpit in front of both the Captain and the First Officer. The DME gives the precise distance to a DME signal, at Bethel part of an ultra-high frequency system called TACAN (Tactical Air Navigation). The Bethel TACAN is co-located with the VOR, producing a combination with the ponderous acronym VORTAC. This navigational aid provides pilots with a very accurate cross-check on their inertial navigation system. Had the DME been used, as required by Korean Air Lines, the pilots would have known how far their aircraft was off course.

  4. That neither Captain Chun Byung-in nor First Officer Son Don-hwin used one of their INS’s to check the “cross track distance/track angle error,” which tells pilots how much they are off course. Sayle admits it is prudent to monitor this display. To do so is especially important at waypoints. A senior 747 pilot with a major US airline noted that his company requires monitoring this display at waypoints. While not required for all airlines, according to several pilots the use of this display is customary and thus it would have been highly unusual for a crew to have flown for five and a half hours without checking the reading once.

  5. That the pilots did not notice that the course adjustments normally made by the INS at waypoints did not occur. A plane being flown by the INS goes directly to a waypoint, whereupon there is usually a course correction as the system automatically steers to the next waypoint, which is seldom on precisely the same heading. Passing Bethel, the INS would normally change course as it steered the airliner directly toward the next checkpoint, NABIE, in what a senior pilot with a major US air cargo carrier who has frequently flown on the route in question, Romeo-20, described as a “dramatic turn.” Given Sayle’s theory, the airliner would have just continued on the same heading with no correction at all. The lack of this course change at Bethel (and at subsequent waypoints) would itself be a warning to the crew that something was amiss with their navigational equipment. Sayle requires that the pilots of KAL 007 be oblivious to the fact that these expected course corrections never took place.

  6. That the crew of KAL 007 could not have known that the position coordinates continually displayed on their Inertial Navigation System were incompatible with the plane’s assigned route because there were no maps in the cockpit. Sayle correctly notes that INS number I, also known as the “Captain’s INS,” is always set to display the aircraft’s present position in longitude and latitude. But then he hands us a real whopper: “Had Captain Chun plotted any of these against a chart, he would have instantly seen he was off course. But he did not have the necessary maps to do so. Neither the Korean Air Lines rule book nor the NOPAC [North Pacific] manual required him to plot his position on a chart.” Two points: First, Sayle is simply wrong about the maps. The Air Navigation Commission, the expert investigative panel of the International Civil Aviation Organization, noted that a “Jeppesen high-altitude en-route chart for the North Pacific was available [on board KAL 007] for use on the flight deck.”

Second, given Sayle’s reasoning, we might wonder why it was necessary to display the latitude and longitude data if there was no way to interpret them. The answer is simple: the coordinates for the waypoints are on the computerized flight plan carried in the cockpit. Procedures require that the aircraft’s present position be compared to the flight plan at waypoints—verifying one’s location at waypoints is, after all, what waypoints are for. Even as early as Bethel, the first waypoint, the readout on the INS would have been different from the coordinates on the flight plan. It would become radically so at subsequent waypoints as the airliner continued to diverge from course. Indeed, it is possible to demonstrate that KAL 007’s pilots looked at the flight plan. This is because they reported themselves flying behind schedule at several waypoints. Behind what schedule? Behind the schedule printed on the computerized flight plan.

The coordinates for waypoints are not only written down on the computerized flight plan, but are almost certainly in the pilots’ heads as well. When asked if it was possible for an experienced crew not to understand that their present position display was showing longitude and latitude data appropriate for as much as 300 miles off course, the Flight Training Officer for a major US airline responded: “A deviation that large should be apparent to any pilot, flying any route.” To say that Captain Chun and First Officer Son could not understand without charts that their INS was continually displaying a position significantly north of course is to ascribe to them the sophistication of schoolchildren. And presumably even schoolchildren could read the numbers off the computerized flight plan.

  1. That the pilots never used their weather radar in ground-mapping mode to check the land masses and water beneath them, although to do so is customary practice and a valuable cross-check on their navigational systems. This is especially important when an aircraft is flying near hostile territory on a route such as Romeo-20. All the pilots with whom I have spoken frequently use their radar in this mode. The New York Times described the usefulness of the on-board radar during a flight on Romeo-20 shortly after the shootdown. Located near the captain’s knee, the screen “clearly showed the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kuril Islands to the right of the jet.” KAL 007 had an identical system on board capable of informing the crew that their aircraft was off course and nowhere near the commercial flight lanes. As a representative of the Air Line Pilots Association said of the North Pacific routes, “Everyone who flies out there is very much aware of the potential to get off course. I doubt very much that someone would not align the radar [to ground-mapping mode].” Sayle’s theory requires that this never was done.

  2. That the crew did not verify its position at waypoints NABIE and NEEVA, although KAL procedures require it to do so. The method for verification is to use the NDB/DME (Non-Directional Beacon/Distance Measuring Equipment) navigational aid located on St. Paul’s Island when passing NABIE and the VOR/DME aid on Shemya Island when passing NEEVA. Because of its deviating course, KAL 007 never came within range of either. Given an innocently errant flight, for a pilot to have failed to receive the signals from these aids would have been extraordinary, indicating that the plane was either significantly off course or that its instruments were not working. This should have caused the pilots to check other instruments to find out what was wrong. But Sayle has the pilots failing to notice that the signals from the navigational aids were not received and failing to look at any of their instruments.

  3. That the crew of KAL 007 never thought it unusual that they could neither send nor receive messages from air traffic controllers over their Very High Frequency (VHF) radios. Three were carried on board the airliner and these are the preferred way to communicate with controllers. The VHF signals propagate only in line-of-sight, which means that they cannot travel beyond the horizon. To overcome this limitation, there are a number of VHF relay stations on islands off the Alaskan coast and along the Aleutian Island chain, situated in such a way that during its flight an on-course airliner would have access to VHF communications through waypoint NEEVA—about halfway between Anchorage and Seoul, South Korea. As KAL 007 deviated to the north, it soon passed out of range of these relay stations, with the result that the airliner was forced to forward its mandatory position reports through another Korean airliner that had taken off from Anchorage fourteen minutes behind it. While messages are occasionally relayed in this manner, for it to be necessary to do so for a long period of time would, according to a senior 747 pilot, be unusual in the extreme. KAL 007’s inability to communicate with air traffic controllers should have warranted questions, checks of radio and navigational equipment in the cockpit, and attempts to contact controllers about the problem. Sayle asks us to believe that this condition somehow went unnoticed by Flight 007’s crew and none of these things occurred.

  4. That the crew of KAL 007 could not have noticed still another instrument in the cockpit, the Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI). The HSI has a needle that indicates whether or not the aircraft is off course. The HSI has a small box in the left-hand corner that indicates whether the instrument is set to monitor deviation of the aircraft from its INS-programmed route or from a navigational beacon course. Unless Sayle is willing to argue that an independent switch was mis-set on this piece of equipment as well as on the autopilot, it would be set to “navigation” (to monitor the INS course).

Like the INS itself, the HSI has waypoint alert lights which come on two minutes before a waypoint is reached, provided the HSI mode selector switch is properly set to “navigation.” As a senior 747 pilot who has frequently flown this route commented, “The HSI could indirectly catch the error of flying in heading mode [Sayle’s thesis]. When ‘navigation’ on the HSI is selected, the needle on the HSI is centered if the plane is on the selected course. If the plane flies to the left or right, the needle will move to the left or right to show that the aircraft is no longer on course.” The pilot and co-pilot each have their own HSI displays. The HSI needle goes off the scale at eight miles. Given the magnitude of KAL 007’s course deviation, the HSI needles would quickly have gone off the scale. Sayle says, “Once they had passed Bethel, the pilots would have had no obvious indication that they had not engaged the INS to fly the aircraft to the preprogrammed waypoints unless they had looked at the INS autopilot selector switch itself.” However, according to all the pilots consulted, the HSI would have shown the plane off course during the entire flight, not just at Bethel.

Were KAL 007’s pilots unwittingly off course, this would have been more than sufficient cause for verifying their position by other means to get back on course. As one 747 captain commented on this type of error, “There’s no way I can see doing this. You would have to have both pilots making the same error [mis-setting the Radio/INS switch on the HSI] at the same time.” He said that for the cockpit crew to have made the mistakes required by Sayle’s scenario, someone would have had to place a size 12 shoe on the instrument panel over the HSI and kept it there for the entire flight.

  1. That nobody ever bothered to look at the distance/time readout that is normally displayed on one of the three inertial navigation systems. In essence, what this does is provide a “countdown” in time and distance to the next waypoint. An on-course airliner’s readout will be zero at a waypoint; no distance to go, no time required to fly that distance. Since an airliner on a deviating course never actually arrives at a waypoint, the time and distance would only tick down so far: the distance would count down to the number of miles the aircraft actually was off course when it passed “abeam” (at a right angle) to a waypoint, and the time would count down to the amount of time necessary to fly from one’s erroneous location back to course. That is, the INS would never read “zero miles to go,” as it should. As KAL 007 deviated ever further from course, the time and distance figures would never even get close to zero. Sayle says this would be a “minute difference,” capable of escaping notice. But far from a minute difference, when KAL 007 reported itself to be at waypoint NEEVA, the INS must have shown that the distance to NEEVA was still several hundred miles. Sayle’s scenario requires that pilot and co-pilot not notice these extraordinary discrepancies as they passed numerous waypoints.

Anticipating Sayle’s objection, we should inquire whether it is possible that none of the inertial navigation systems were set to display the distance/time data. While perhaps no unit was set to display these data continually, according to several pilots it is routine to make “sweeps” of the INS’s throughout the flight, calling up the data to ascertain such factors as wind and distance/time to the next waypoint. Indeed, it can be demonstrated that the readouts from these instruments were being used during the flight. This is certain because KAL 007 revised its estimated time of arrival (ETA) to waypoint NEEVA. According to a 747 captain, the only way such a revision can be done is using the data from the distance/time display on one of the Inertial Navigation Systems. The pilots of KAL 007 were looking at their INS readouts with sufficient attention to revise their ETA, using INS data to do the calculations, yet Sayle would have us believe that they never understood that the data before their eyes were utterly incompatible with being on their assigned route, Romeo-20.

  1. Finally, it is necessary to assume that Sayle is correct when he says that two amber alert lights “come on in the cockpit to inform the pilots that arrival at [a] waypoint is imminent…even when the INS system is not directing the aircraft on its preprogrammed route and it is not passing over the waypoints but a beam up to a distance of two hundred miles off track.” This assumption is central to Sayle’s thesis. Without these lights, there would be no way for the pilots of the aircraft to ascertain their proximity to a waypoint save for using navigational aids or looking at their instruments. Had they done so, however, they would immediately have seen they were off course. In Sayle’s scenario the lights, so to speak, are necessary for keeping the pilots in the dark.

While Sayle’s description of the alert lights is more or less accurate for some older INS models, it is inaccurate for the Litton model LTN-72R-28 carried on board KAL 007. Improvements in the INS have been made over the years precisely to avoid errors such as the one described by Sayle. According to two Litton Industry representatives, the LTN-72R-28 has a “ninety-second circle” around a preprogrammed waypoint. What this means is that the alert lights will come on only if an aircraft gets within ninety seconds’ flying time to a waypoint. With the possible exception of Bethel, the first waypoint, KAL 007’s deviating course took it well beyond the proximity needed to trigger the alert lights. Sayle says that the lights “all too easily” could have fooled the pilots into believing they were on course. But the lights never came on.

This is no simple explanation. The foregoing assumptions all represent independent errors, each requiring extraordinary negligence on the part of KAL 007’s crew for a protracted time. One senior 747 pilot, who spent considerable time trying to make Sayle’s theory work before finally abandoning it, flatly concluded, “The 246 degree magnetic heading theory is not tenable. It fails on a number of levels.” It is far more than simply mis-setting one switch on the automatic pilot. Sayle asks us to believe that there was absolutely no adherence to requirements and procedures, no checks or cross-checks, no use of any navigational aids or instruments, total incomprehension of obvious signals, etc. As the director of 747 flight training for a major US airline remarked of Sayle’s scenario, “It assumes that the three-member crew was in a coma, waking up only at waypoints to give position reports without looking at any of their instruments. They then go back into a coma until the next waypoint.” As a possibility, it is implausibly remote, or as one pilot commented, “this is simply not a good answer to the problem.” As an alternative one should, in the interest of examining all possibilities, entertain another: the pilots knew where they were and were flying their course intentionally. This one assumption explains all the irregularities and improbabilities known to have taken place during the flight. In contrast, Sayle’s scenario requires a considerably more complex set of assumptions. Having invoked William of Ockham and set up the criterion of parsimony of explanation, Sayle fails his own test.

Sayle’s theory isn’t so simple after all, but does this necessarily invalidate it? Major accidents almost invariably come about from some unexpected and complex concatenation of errors and failures. Isn’t there some chance, however small, that Sayle’s theory might be correct in spite of all the assumptions he asks us to make? Only if it can be demonstrated that all other known aspects of the tragic flight are consistent with a 246 degree magnetic heading. However, this most emphatically is not the case. The ICAO report examined this possibility in some detail and found several significant flaws. First, the report notes that such a course would have put the airliner only 6.5 NM north of track at Bethel, its first waypoint, rather thant the 12 NM actually observed. In addition, the ICAO report shows that a 246 degree magnetic heading would not have taken the plane to Sakhalin Island, but rather much farther south. Flying a 246 degree magnetic heading, KAL 007 should have made its second landfall over the island of Hokkaido, Japan, at a point about 100 miles south of where it actually ended up. In short, this means that for the airliner to have passed 12 nautical miles north of Bethel and later over Sakhalin Island, as we know it did, it could not have been flying on a 246 degree magnetic heading.

The sloppy nature of Sayle’s argumentation can be illustrated by looking at his map showing the flight path for KAL 007. It is clear that he has drawn a course that is identical to the ICAO version for about the first half of the flight, yet quite different thereafter. (See map p. 47.) To arrive at this flight path, Sayle uses the initial portion of the ICAO report’s 246 degree magnetic heading ground track but not the latter portion which does not take the plane to Sakhalin. To get the plane to Sakhalin, Sayle uses a segment of yet another ICAO hypothetical flight path (not the 246 degree magnetic heading) for the final portion of the flight.3 If Sayle had reasons for incorporating elements of two disparate scenarios into the same flight path so it resembled the course actually flown by KAL 007—while rejecting those parts that don’t fit—he has not made those reasons clear. Sayle gives the source for his map as the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell has discovered this is not so. “The CAA,” he notes in the New Statesman, “deny this responsibility. They have not published and they do not publish such material, a representative said.”

For his thesis to work, Sayle also has to make any and all turns made by the airliner disappear. Sayle correctly notes, “If the Soviet trace [the airliner’s path as recorded by radar] accurately represents changes in course that KE007 did make, then they cannot be explained either by the aircraft’s flying in magnetic heading unknown to the crew, or by any conceivable misprogramming of the INS.” Turns would suggest that the pilots of Flight 007 were watching their instruments and flying the aircraft manually. The Soviets reported that KAL 007 made a slight adjustment in its flight path as it approached Kamchatka, the first of its two entries into Soviet airspace, and a sharp turn to the west-northwest as it approached Sakhalin, where it made its second entry. Anticipating the use of the Soviet data, Sayle tells us that any turns recorded by the Soviet radars were due to a so-called “slant effect,” caused by electronic distortion as the airliner passed overhead their radar transmitters. Sayle assumes that the only radar data presented to support these turns have come from the Soviets, meaning that in the current climate of suspicion and hostility the data can practically be dismissed outright.

Fortunately, we do not have to rely exclusively on Soviet radar tracking data; we have radar data from the Japanese military station at Wakkanai, on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. The Wakkanai radar, over which KAL 007 did not pass, was not subject to the distorting “slant effects” which Sayle posits would apply to the Soviet radar. Plots of these radar data were originally published in the aerospace industry journal Aviation Week & Space Technology on September 12 and 19, 1983. The source for the radar data was the Japan Defense Agency. Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone released additional data. Parts of these data have been included in two recent articles published abroad: one by Yoshitaro Masuo in the May 1985 issue of the Japanese journal Sekai, and another by Duncan Campbell in the April 26 issue of the British journal New Statesman. Plotted on a map, the data clearly show that KAL 007 was flying in a broad turn from the time it was picked up by Japanese radar until it was lost, a turn of about 20 degrees in total. And unless we are willing to argue that the plane had been flying for hours in big circles, it is also clear that an earlier turn had to have taken place at approximately the location claimed by the Soviet Union. The Japanese data leave no doubt that the turns are genuine. By Sayle’s own criterion, this means the 246 degree magnetic heading theory is nothing more than Fata Morgana—mirage.

The Japanese data also show, contrary to the claims of both Sayle and the US government, that KAL 007 took evasive actions over Sakhalin Island. After finally admitting eleven days after the downing that the Soviets fired cannon bursts along the path of the airliner as part of an interception procedure, State Department officials claimed “the Korean airliner was not aware of the Soviet fighters nor was it aware that any warning was given,” because the plane was out of range and allegedly innocently changing altitude at precisely that time. What was happening in the minutes prior to Flight 007’s destruction was that the plane’s pilots had requested permission from Narita airport in Tokyo to change altitude from 33,000 to 35,000 feet, something quite normal at this time if the flight itself had been normal. In a calm-voiced transmission, it was reported several minutes later that the airliner had reached the new altitude. Yet it was during this time that a Soviet interceptor jet overflew KAL 007, reporting to his ground controllers that the “target” had reduced its speed. Official explanations have cited both the calm-voiced nature of the message and the Soviet fighter overflying the target as evidence that KAL 007’s pilots were unaware of the Soviet pursuit and interception procedures, i.e., the message shows that the crew was unaware of the interception in progress and the Soviet pilot overflying his target was due to KAL 007 using power to ascend to a new altitude, thus reducing its speed in the process.

It all sounds plausible until we note that the change in altitude took place under circumstances extremely different from those one would expect if the members of the cockpit crew were unaware of their situation. According to the Wakkanai data, KAL 007 ascended all right, but to an unauthorized altitude of 32,000 feet from the lower unauthorized altitude it had been flying previously. About eight minutes earlier, almost precisely when the airliner entered Soviet territory, it had descended by 3,000 feet to an altitude of 29,000 feet. At that time, Flight 007 was supposed to be flying at its assigned altitude of 33,000 feet. Such a change of altitude is not permitted under normal conditions (permission for altitude changes have to be granted by air traffic controllers for obvious reasons of safety), and is inexplicable given Sayle’s 246 degree magnetic heading theory. If an airliner inadvertently strays from its assigned altitude, both an alert light and buzzer go off in the cockpit, warnings a 747 captain said would be “impossible to miss.” Far from flying unawares, Captain Chun and his crew seem to have been taking rather violent evasive actions. As Figure 1 shows, not only did KAL 007 change its altitude but, shortly after entering Soviet territory, it altered its speed as well. The Japanese radar data also suggest that during the minutes prior to the attack KAL 007 had increased its speed markedly. Such changes could not have been made unknowingly.

What are we left with? KAL 007 made turns although Sayle’s scenario requires turns not to have taken place. The airliner took evasive actions, changing speed and altitude without authorization, although there is no way to account for these in an accidental fashion. Knowingly false reports about changes in altitude were sent from the airliner to air traffic controllers in Tokyo. Finally, it has been shown that the “246 degree magnetic heading” scenario—far from being the simplest explanation—requires an unbelievably complex set of assumptions. Sayle thus presents us with a thesis for the deviation of KAL 007 that is fundamentally flawed.

There are a variety of other problems with Sayle’s article beyond the magnetic heading theory, most of which have to do with the way he misinterprets materials in the public domain to support his case. These include the extent of US radar coverage in the area into which KAL 007 flew, the US government’s claim that the ICAO’s investigation was comprehensive and complete, when in fact information was withheld by all the governments involved, and the “apology” of the British magazine Defence Attaché for an article it published about the incident, which in fact represented little more than a poor organization not wishing to go bankrupt defending itself. These issues are too numerous and would require too much space to discuss here. Other investigators and I will address each of these in due course.

In the meantime, the question of how the 747 200-B airliner got to Sakhalin in the first place remains unanswered. Equally important are unanswered questions about what the US knew and when we knew it. To answer these questions, the public must have access to important data which the US government has been conspicuously unwilling to make available.4 As an example, it should be pointed out that the United States government has had access for over eighteen months to the radar data only recently released by Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone. These data were withheld from the International Civil Aviation Organization investigation into the tragedy, an investigation our government describes as “authoritative.” While questions remain, one thing is unmistakable: There has been an extraordinary and intolerable amount of obfuscation by our government concerning the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. Accounts such as those advanced by Murray Sayle only add to that obfuscation. Certainly there is now ample evidence in the public domain raising the probability of a non-innocent flight and the implausibility of the Reagan Administration’s explanation of events that a Congressional inquiry is not only justified, but necessary.

David E. Pearson

Murray Sayle replies:

There seems to be a great deal in dispute beween Mr. Pearson and myself, beginning with the fairness of my account of his article in The Nation of August 18–25, 1984. In his second paragraph above, he complains that I have seriously misrepresented him “by labeling the Nation article a ‘conspiracy theory’ and linking it to the Soviet Union.”

This is what I said about Pearson and the Soviet Union:

Of course I am not for a second suggesting that Pearson is a Soviet dupe or sympathizer, but his acceptance of the Soviet version as established fact contrasts noticeably with the way in which he builds his case against the possibility of an accident in the navigation of KE007.

It does so contrast. Anyone who doubts this should read his article. If one side in so bitter a dispute is capable, as Pearson charges, of concealing or falsifying evidence, then so is the other. Soviets may make errors, just like Americans. To rely on a Soviet radar trace, derived from unspecified equipment, in order to support a conclusion that KE007 changed course shortly before it was shot down, and therefore, as the Soviets charge, was on a spying mission, strikes me as incautious, to say the least. But the whole question of the reliability of radar traces is further discussed below.

Can Pearson’s thesis as originally presented in The Nation fairly be described as a “conspiracy theory”? Occasionally, conspiracy theories turn out to be true: Pearson and I both mention Watergate, archetype of them all; and semantically, surely a “conspiracy theorist” is a person who advances a theory that a conspiracy has occurred. In his fourth paragraph above, Pearson appears to be denying any such intention:

Lacking crucial data which have been kept secret by all the governments involved, I could not and did not purport to prove any of these theories. Rather, I concluded my article by asking a number of specific unresolved questions about the case, suggesting the US government release a wealth of data which could help answer those questions, and calling for a Congressional inquiry into the circumstances of the tragedy.

Here we have the self-portrait of an honest man judiciously weighing the evidence, hampered in his search for truth by all the governments involved who are keeping crucial data secret. But in his original article Pearson offered rather more than a hint of the way we should think. Examining the possibility that pilot error brought KE007 innocently to the point where it was shot down, he wrote in his Nation article (I quote at length, to avoid charges of selective quotation):

Finally, human error does not explain why KAL 007 veered from course only after leaving the range of civilian airtraffic control radar, why it may have changed course at the time of its rendezvous with the RC-135, why it changed course again and made evasive maneuvers over Sakhalin. [Who says that any of these things happened? M.S.] Canadian Maj. Gen. Richard Rohmer, retired, noted of the airliner’s pilots, “Yes, they knew exactly where they were from the time they left Anchorage through the false way point checks that they transmitted past Kamchatka and over Sakhalin Island to their destruction.”

Which leaves us with the most persuasive theory: that the airliner made a deliberate, carefully planned intrusion into Soviet territory with the knowledge of US military and intelligence agencies. [Emphasis added.] Its object would probably have been to activate Soviet Air Defense Forces. All the evidence points in that direction. Yet even the best-laid plans can go awry. It is unlikely that the Soviet test of the SS-X-25 ICBM was taken into account. Such a test, occurring within the Soviet Union and employing only a single re-entry vehicle, would not have been announced ahead of time and was probably detected only several hours before KAL 007 first intruded into Soviet territory. An intelligence mission for the airliner would have been planned much farther in advance. And in all probability it would not have been intended that 269 people lose their lives. Pilots, even aggressive ones, do not fly suicide missions. KAL 007’s pilot may well have believed that electronic countermeasures would be used to safeguard the flight of the airliner.

As I read this, Person is asserting that a conspiracy is “the most persuasive theory.” He says that “all the evidence points in that direction.” Its planners, however, operating well in advance, “in all probability” did not intend 269 people to die (a generous thought). “Even the best-laid plans can go awry.” I took, and still take, these to be the words of a man who is advancing a conspiracy theory with his warmest endorsement. Can this be read any other way? That Pearson is not trying to “prove” his theory seems to me to be a quibble.

I, too, would be delighted if the governments concerned (American, Soviet, Korean, and Japanese, I suppose) would release all their data on KE007 and related intelligence activities and nonactivities and let Pearson and myself judge what is crucial. But it is likely to be a long wait. What is an honest seeker after truth to make of the tragedy in the meantime? Pearson now appears to be taking the prudent position of withholding judgment, until such time as the governments release the data he knows they have. But “all the evidence,” he told us earlier, points in the direction of “a deliberate, carefully planned intrusion into Soviet territory with the knowledge of US military and intelligence agencies.” It is his first position I disagreed with, the one I expected him to defend, and the one I don’t believe he has abandoned yet. (Pearson’s editor at The Nation agrees with me: Introducing an article by David Pearson and John Keppel in The Nation of August 17–24, 1985, the editor writes, “If Pearson and Keppel are right, and the plane approached sensitive military installations deliberately….”)

Pearson makes constant reference to the two ICAO reports, presented on December 13, 1983, and February 29, 1984. They are, in fact, central to everything he (and I) has to say, and Pearson’s handling of them strikes me as tricky at best. A reading of his fourth paragraph, beginning “Sayle accuses me,” suggests that ICAO first examined the possibility that KE007 was inadvertently flown in a magnetic heading mode and then abandoned it, along with other theories, as they “contained some points which could not be explained satisfactorily.” Then, “in spite of these findings,” I came along, “picked it up somewhere,” published the theory, which now became mine and not ICAO’s, and what’s more, published it twice.

An unalert reader unused to Pearson’s style of argument might well think that ICAO had already pronounced its own theory false before I “picked it up somewhere” and unloaded it on various gullible publications. In fact, I “picked it up” by reading the ICAO reports themselves, which I procured as soon as they were released. (That is what a journalist is supposed to do.) ICAO is, of course, an international body, reporting to the United Nations and cautious in its conclusions. This is what it says about two possibilities by which KE007 could have accidentally reached the point where it was shot down:

None of the flight position reports, or the contacts with KE015 [another Korean Air Lines aircraft in the vicinity that night] suggested that the flight crew of KE007 had any problem with the aircraft, were under any strain or difficulty themselves, or were aware that the flight was significantly deviating from their assigned route. In the absence of the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder there was insufficient information to draw firm conclusions: it was possible to postulate that either the holding of a constant magnetic heading (246°) or an undetected error of 10 degrees east in longitude was made in the insertion of the present (ramp) position into one of the three INS units, [and either of these events] would have produced a track to the area of KE007’s destruction that is also consistent with the radar track information provided by the USSR and by Japan. [Emphasis added; December 13, 1983 Report, p. 54.]

Both of these scenarios, ICAO says, are “possible” (I will discuss their relative merits further on). Pearson goes on to quote from the second ICAO report that these and other scenarios “contained some points which could not be explained satisfactorily.” He has already used this well-worn quote in his Nation article, which I dealt with in my review:

The Nation: The ICAO Air Navigation Commission said, “The Commission found it difficult to validate and endorse the conclusions connected with the [human error] scenarios…because any one of them contained some points which could not be explained satisfactorily.

[Sayle:] This sentence crops up monotonously in the expositions of all KE007 conspiracy theorists. Semantically, it is quite accurate: no one has “satisfactorily explained” why KE007’s crew failed to check their course against the VOR at Bethel, and the best we have is surmise, as outlined above. But is Pearson saying that the ICAO report therefore endorses conspiracy theories?

ICAO’s position is, in fact, the contrary. The same ICAO Air Navigation Commission report of February 28, 1985, says, “There is no evidence that the flight crew was aware of the deviation from the planned route” (p. 5).

Here is Pearson’s method, clearly exposed to scrutiny. The ICAO commission’s cautious observation that there are points it cannot explain satisfactorily becomes a “finding” which I am supposed to have ignored (although I quoted it), while the plain assertion, or shall we say finding, by the same commission that “there is no evidence that the flight crew was aware of the deviation from the planned route,” which flatly contradicts Pearson’s conspiracy theory, appears nowhere in his article, or his reply. This is a semantic trick, but not a clever one.

Pearson follows a similar strategy in the matter of the map I am supposed to have used to bolster a dubious case, namely that a magnetic heading of 246 degrees could have brought KE007 to the spot where it was shot down (which, as we have already seen, the ICAO report also says). As Pearson reports, I gave the source for the map as the British Civil Aviation Authority. But, says Pearson, “British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell has discovered this is not so. ‘The CAA,’ he [Campbell] notes in the New Statesman, ‘deny this responsibility. They have not published and they do not publish such material, a representative said.’ ”

My contacts with the CAA were not a secret. I described them in my NYR article:

The officials of the British Civil Aviation Authority, which controls the North Atlantic air route (North Atlantic and North Pacific are easily the world’s busiest), gave me the results of computer calculations of the various possibilities of KE007’s track over Soviet territory, and statistical information about the frequency of different air navigational errors on the North Atlantic route.

I asked for a briefing, in short, from the body which was likely to be well informed on the KE007 incident, for the reasons stated, and is not restrained by court order from talking about it, as is the American Federal Aviation Authority. Journalists often ask for briefings, and another journalist should instantly recognize the process. I have permission to amplify and say that I first approached the CAA in March 1984 and was received by Mr. T.A. White, a former British Airways captain and then Director-General (Planning) of international air traffic control of the CAA.

Mr. White and his colleagues accompanied me through the ICAO reports and prepared the map subsequently published in the Sunday Times of London (and plainly labeled “Source: British Civil Aviation Authority”). The diagram which accompanied my NYR article was drawn from the same map. It differs somewhat from the ICAO map, since the CAA made their own estimate of the winds likely to have been encountered that night, and thus of the plane’s path. But these differences do not offer a glimmer of hope for conspiracy theorists; for no complete wind chart for the regions traversed by KE007 is available to anyone. Mr. White checked the published chart, and my text, for accuracy. He has subsequently retired, and his successor in respect to KE007 matters, Mr. Roger Croxford, confirmed as I wrote this reply that the NYR map “conforms to the view of the CAA,” which had not changed. KE007, the CAA believes, was inadvertently flown to disaster in magnetic heading mode, a view it conveyed to ICAO.

There is my source. What source is “British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell” using? As quoted by Pearson, Campbell reports that the CAA “have not published and they do not publish such material, a representative said.” Pearson would appear to be calling me a liar, not to put too fine a point on it, on the word of Campbell, who cites a nameless “representative.” This is what professional journalists call a “blind quote,” never to be relied on as a source, as cub reporters are usually told in their first week of training. But then we notice that little weasel word “publish.” “British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell” has not discovered that the CAA is not the source of my map, only that the CAA has not “published” the map. Can this sort of crude trickery be called “investigative journalism,” in Britain, the US, or anywhere else the truth has a following?

Proceeding through Pearson’s letter, I see that “Sayle has entirely ignored the possibility of ‘intended error.’ ” I certainly did not overlook it in my thinking, but the notion seemed so close to paranoia that I did not, indeed, discuss it in a review which was already getting quite long (14,000 words). But, since Pearson raises it, let us examine it now. KE007 was, by American radar evidence (must I wearingly add, “unless that, too, was faked by conspirators”?) six miles north of track when it left the radar surveillance of Anchorage airport, and twelve miles north of track passing Bethel, the first compulsory reporting point on its flight. It was shot down 365 miles off track and, according to the Soviets, it spent the final two and a half hours of its journey north of its normal flight path toward Seoul.

So, if Pearson is ready to accept all, or indeed any of these pieces of evidence as facts or near-facts, KE007 was off track from the first few minutes of its last flight, as all the evidence would seem to me, and ICAO, to suggest. Now, at first glance this seems extraordinary behavior for a flight crew departing on a preplanned spying mission. After all, to advertise that the flight was not an innocent one in plain radar sight of Anchorage and Bethel would seem foolish behavior even by organizations as notoriously incompetent as “US military and intelligence agencies,” especially as no one has so far explained how being off track all the way would help achieve the aims of Pearson’s “deliberate, carefully planned intrusion.” There are, as far as I know, no Soviet military installations anywhere near Anchorage.

But now Pearson himself supplies the answer—“intended error”! The conspirators faked an accidental off-course flight, so that, if anything went wrong, people like the ICAO, the CAA, the American Air Line Pilots Association (see below), and myself would naively conclude, and even argue in print, that a genuine accident was the best available explanation. This is truly a heady thought. The fact that the VOR radio navigation aid was out of service at Anchorage that night was either a lucky break for the conspirators, or (why not?) they shut it down themselves. And, come to think of it, the Bethel radio beacon must have been installed by far-sighted conspirators twenty-five years ago on a heading of 246 degrees magnetic from Anchorage so that, if some future CIA operation wanted to fly over the Soviet naval bases at Petropavlovsk and Korsakov, a plausible alibi would be available if the plan went awry. If the fake accident corresponded down to the last detail with a genuine one, how could anyone (except Pearson and Keppel) ever tell the difference?

Here, I feel, we are close to the theory of Stephen Leacock, that the plays of William Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare, but by another poet of the same name. But then again, Leacock was a deliberate humorist. Pearson did not mention the theory of “intended ‘error’ ” in his Nation article and neither did the books and reports I reviewed. Believing that no one could possibly take the idea seriously, neither did I. But now that Pearson brings it up, let me say bluntly: it is absurd.

As to why I am not impressed by the fact that Professors Clubb and Dallin side with Pearson on the “intentionality” of KE007’s flight over the Soviet Union (even if, as Pearson now insists, this is not a conspiracy theory), I imagine that I need not explain to the readership of this magazine why I have preferred, on matters of aircraft navigation, the reports of the United Nations technical body concerned with aviation and the view of the authority which controls the world’s busiest air route to the opinions of a trio of academics deeply versed in Asian and Slavic studies and sociology, respectively.

In fact, I “highly recommended” Professor Dallin’s account of Soviet attitudes toward the KE007 affair, a subject he clearly knows intimately. But Pearson’s chorus of “seven senior 747 pilots representing five major US airlines”—I like that word, “representing,” suggesting that the five airlines, too, support Pearson—is interesting because it raises a question of journalistic procedure, a field where I have some experience. “Because of the controversial nature of the KAL 007 tragedy, all requested that their names not be used,” Pearson tells us. But it is, of course, exactly because of the controversy, if there is to be one, that we want to know who they are. Not, of course, out of any suspicion that Pearson invented them, but because to evaluate their views we need to know the form and substance of the questions he or his associates put to them.

If, for instance, Pearson relayed the possibility of the aircraft having been inadvertently flown in a magnetic heading mode as “Sayle’s theory” in the scornful terms he uses above, I am not surprised that, to a man, they found it wanting. Did he tell them that ICAO advances the same view? Or that CAA does? Have they read the ICAO reports, or my article in the NYR? Are they familiar with the computer program of the Litton LTN-72R-28 Inertial Navigation System? And most important of all, do the “seven senior captains” support Pearson in his conclusion that a “deliberate, planned incursion,” etc.—his conspiracy theory, in short—is “the most persuasive theory” and that “all the evidence points in that direction”? Without their names, we cannot ask them, and yet “seven senior 747 pilots,” if well informed on the case, are surely better equipped than Pearson, Keppel, Dallin, Clubb, or myself to judge the persuasiveness of a theory implicating two Korean colleagues in the deaths of 269 people.

Two experts cited by him are certainly not persuaded. Pearson furnished their names to the editors of the NYR, and I telephoned them. One, an employee of the FAA, was a former pilot who said that he was “no expert” but that, “as a personal opinion” he thought it was unlikely that KE007 could have been held unknowingly on a 246 degree magnetic course. Told that he was contradicting the ICAO report, which he had not read, he asked that his name not be cited and said that his opinion was “off the top of my head.” He did not accept that KE007 must have been on a spying mission. I respect his request that his name be withheld.

A second person named by Pearson declined to be called by the title “Captain” generally used by airline pilots in command and said that he was a World War II flier now working as a ground instructor in navigation for a western airline. He had not read the ICAO reports, or my article. He said he was not familiar with the program of the Litton LTN-72R-28 Inertial Navigation System used by KE007, but could not understand how the alert lights indicating arrival at a preprogrammed waypoint could have come on aboard KE007 when the airliner was many miles away from the waypoints. (The question of the alert lights is discussed further below.) He, too, was not prepared either to support a conspiracy theory or give permission for his name to be printed, which I respect.

Pearson does not tell us whether his list of twelve assumptions which “Sayle’s thesis” (he means the ICAO/CAA thesis) has to satisfy comes from his seven pilots, or is his own unaided work. Either way, he once again employs the strategy of his Nation article, namely to describe various flight-deck happenings and nonhappenings in garbled technical language, and then invite nontechnical readers to judge their probability. His technical terms are more accurate this time around, so something has been achieved—VOR, for example, which was “Visual Omni Range” in The Nation, has now silently and correctly become Very High Frequency Omni Range—but his procedure is just as fraudulent. The ICAO discussion which concludes its report of December 13, 1983, says quite plainly: “Each of these postulations [accidental deviation from track caused by holding a constant magnetic heading or misprogramming the Inertial Navigation System] assumed a considerable degree of lack of alertness and attentiveness on the part of the entire flight crew but not to a degree that was unknown in civil aviation.” (Emphasis added, for the second time; ICAO’s assessment appeared exactly as above in my NYR article, but nowhere, understandably enough, in Pearson’s writings. Does he think that by ignoring it he will make it go away?)

Pearson’s list of the conditions under which KE007 might have been mistakenly flown in magnetic heading therefore serves a useful purpose, although not the one he intends. Nontechnical readers may look through his list and then say, “That all sounds pretty unlikely to me. How much more probable is The Nations’s disclosure that the CIA put them up to faking an accident? That sort of thing happens all the time. Look at Watergate, the Bay of Pigs, Gary Powers….” Let us, however, go through each point on Pearson’s list for an exercise in scientific method, which aims not so much at proof as at disproof. Where in his list is the impossibility which would indeed invalidate what the CAA, ICAO, the American Air Line Pilots Association, and (the only one Pearson mentions) I have all described as a scenario that fits the known facts?

  1. Pearson expresses in his first point the view aviation professionals and I have advanced. Other pilots have made the same mistake, according to the CAA whose statistics were in my article, ignored by Pearson. When I flew route Red 20 on a 747 flight deck myself, the “experienced pilot and co-pilot” I was with did not once glance at the autopilot selector switch. This switch figures on no inflight checklist. A British 747 pilot explained in the BBC commentary on KE007 presented by the CAA to the ICAO general assembly in May 1984, “If you don’t see the incorrect setting at once, quite possibly you will not see it at all.”

  2. I agree. The crew of KE007 no doubt intended to use the Bethel VOR as a check on the aircraft’s heading before engaging the INS, as their company rule book directed them to do, and for some unexplained reason did not do so. They could not have been flying by either the Bethel VOR or the INS at this point, since neither could have steered the aircraft twelve miles north of Bethel—unless, of course, they were staging Pearson’s pointless and preposterous “faked accident.” As Bethel came approximately abeam of the aircraft, however, the alert lights of the INS would have come on, leading KE007’s crew to believe they were actually over Bethel.

  3. Pearson is being obtuse or tricky. The DME is not “automatically displayed” as, say, the speed of a car is automatically displayed; you have to switch it on and tune it in. If the KE007 pilots thought they were over Bethel as the alert lights came on, why must they have checked this with the Bethel DME? Why would they? Recall ICAO’s remarks on lack of alertness and attentiveness.

  4. Sayle admits it is prudent to monitor this display”—as if I were conceding some vital clue that points to conspiracy. It is indeed prudent to make all the checks Pearson mentions and many more. The pilot and first officer of KE007 must indeed have been most imprudent even on Pearson’s conspiracy thesis. The alternative, to which, according to Pearson, “all the evidence points,” is that they joined a criminal conspiracy, naively believing that “electronic counter-measures would be used to safeguard the flight of the airliner.” One minute they are too experienced to make a mistake, the next they fall for a CIA confidence trick. Or was there, perhaps, an accidental error in the execution of the conspiracy? Then why, apart from the production of Pearson’s “exciting and thought-provoking issue of the Nation,” as the magazine’s advertising puts it, do we need any conspiracy theory at all? Incidentally, there is no evidence of how much time Captain Chun Byung-in spent in the left-hand seat of KE007’s flight deck that night after takeoff. And as I wrote, there were a number of reasons why he might have been absent—for example, the presence of a US congressman on board whom company policy required him to greet, or that of the three off-duty KAL captains, two first officers, and a flight engineer, who were flying home as passengers. Wherever the voice of a radio message has been identified, it is that of First Officer Son Don-Hwin.

  5. On route Red 20, which KE007 should have been flying, there is a seven-degree turn at Bethel, a two-degree turn at the compulsory reporting point NABIE, a five-degree turn at NEEVA, and a two-degree turn at NIPPI, none of which, as Pearson says, the aircraft flying in magnetic heading mode would have made. Would the absence of these track changes necessarily have alerted the pilots that they were off course?

I studied these changes in a 747 cockpit as the aircraft executed them. They are gentle; if the members of a flight crew had their attention called to their absence, they would no doubt perceive it, and in daylight the horizon gives some reference as the aircraft banks slightly to make a turn. At night their absence could easily pass unnoticed. The flight crew I flew with were of the same opinion. Here is one point nonspecialist readers can confirm from their own experience: the large turns aircraft often make leaving airports can easily be sensed by passengers, but how many notice the small changes of course which occur every hour or so on most long flights? Their absence might be noticed, but then again, it might not. As the ICAO report says, R20 is “virtually a straight line from Bethel to NOHO [a waypoint off northern Japan] and there are no significant angular track changes to quickly draw attention to an error” (p. 49).

  1. Another confident Pearson claim (note the glee behind the schoolboy word “whopper”) comes unstuck. I did not say there were “no maps in the cockpit.” I said that Captain Chun did not have “the necessary maps.” The Jeppesen chart NP (H/L) which was aboard KE007 is quite unsuitable for the purpose of checking the progress of the flight. All unknowingly, Pearson has himself seen this chart; a simplified version of my copy of it was used to illustrate my article. There is simply no room on it for the geographical coordinates of the various waypoints, much less for the penciled notation of the aircraft’s actual track. What is wanted is a blank plotting chart, familiar to anyone who has ever navigated anything anywhere. Many companies (Japan Air Lines, for instance) supply their pilots with a suitable company chart showing land masses and the grid of meridians and parallels on which each flight has to be plotted afresh, a sound practice. Korean Air Lines did not supply such a chart.

Pearson’s account of how a flight plan is actually used is a sad muddle. It is the universal custom in the airline industry to set the Central Display Unit (CDU) of the Number One, or “Captain’s,” INS to show the aircraft’s present position, as a safety measure—so that, for instance, the position can be radioed in a sudden emergency. When the aircraft’s course lies in a true north-south or east-west direction one coordinate will not change, offering some check that the aircraft is on track. When the course cuts the grid of parallels and meridians diagonally, as on route Red 20, then both latitude and longitude alter constantly and the display of present position is a blur of everchanging numbers. Once again, Pearson repeats that there were many ways the pilots could have discovered they were off course, and he is quite right. But, as ICAO said, “a considerable degree of lack of alertness and attentiveness on the part of the entire flight crew” is not “unknown in civil aviation.” Pearson’s nonflying “Flight Training Officer for a major US airline” who did not want his name published backed off hastily from Pearson’s argument that “all the evidence” points to a conspiracy by the dead Korean pilots. This expert had not read the ICAO reports, and derived the technical account of the incident from Pearson and his colleagues.

  1. Once again, the pilots could have used their weather radar in the “ground mapping mode” [to check the terrain below the aircraft]. But must they have done so? And who is Pearson’s “representative of the [American] Air Line Pilots Association”? The public affairs officer, John Mazor, and the safety officer, Captain John O’Brien, both told me that they did not accept Pearson’s reasoning about KE007.

  2. The crew of KE007 could have checked their positions at either NABIE or NEEVA, the first two overseas compulsory reporting points, by tuning in the DME. Did they? Once again, recall ICAO’s comment on lack of alertness and attentiveness. This argument depends on a familiar tactic of Pearson’s: the pilots, he says, “failed to notice that the signals from the navigational aids were not received.” He does not mention that they are not automatically received. The DME has to be switched on and tuned in. Why does Pearson not say, “the pilots must have failed to tune in the DME at either NABIE or NEEVA,” which is accurate—but not so suspicious-sounding?

  3. Pearson says, “the crew of KAL 007 never thought it unusual that they could neither send nor receive messages from air traffic controllers over their Very High Frequency (VHF) radios.” The first ICAO report says, “The relay of messages through other aircraft was a common occurrence in Anchorage Oceanic airspace” (p. 27). Anchorage Oceanic airspace extends to the waypoint NIPPI, off the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsula, 1,850 nautical miles from Anchorage. Now, was the relaying of position reports “unusual in the extreme” (as Pearson’s “senior 747 pilot” says) or “a common occurrence” (as ICAO says)? Has Pearson’s informant read the ICAO report? Or does Pearson’s argument depend on an undergraduate quibble over how long is a “long period of time”? The relaying of routine position reports has, incidentally, never been accepted on the North Atlantic, and has been barred on the North Pacific routes since the KE007 tragedy.

  4. More muddle. Either Pearson’s nameless 747 captain with the one-liner about footwear does not understand his instrument panel, which seems unlikely, or Pearson did not understand his replies. A third possibility is that Pearson’s “research assistant” is misinformed.

The Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI), an instrument in the center of the control panel directly in front of the pilot, has an eyecatching yellow line properly called the Course Deviation Indicator but commonly known to pilots as the beam bar. The middle section of the beam bar is cut by a line which moves to right or left, indicating that the aircraft is off a selected course, and the bar itself tilts to show which way the aircraft should bank and turn to regain course. When the beam bar is vertical and the indicator mark is centered, the aircraft is on course.

The Horizontal Situation Indicator can be set to display information from several different sources, one at a time. Which information is being displayed is selected by a small switch marked RAD/INS, standing respectively for Radio and Inertial Navigation System. The switch is normally set to RAD on takeoff, and this setting is in fact part of the preflight checklist, because aircraft often begin a flight along a “radial” or radio beam radiated in the appropriate direction by a transmitter, the VOR, at or close to the airport. If the VOR signal is being received, the beam bar will show whether the aircraft is flying along the beam, or has deviated from it, and hence the term “beam bar.”

If the selector switch is set to INS, the Course Deviation Indicator will show how closely the aircraft is following the flight plan preprogrammed into the Inertial Navigation System. The last time I observed this procedure in a 747 cockpit, the index mark “a hair off,” in pilot’s terminology, on the beam bar indicated, when the INS Central Display Unit was selected to display cross track distance/track angle error, that the airliner was an insignificant two miles off track. The display system is, in short, normally unequivocal and highly accurate.

On KE007’s last takeoff at Anchorage, the RAD/INS switch would have undoubtedly been set at RAD, as the preflight checklist required, and in the position in which the aircraft arrived at Anchorage. But the VOR at Anchorage was not working that night, and the crew of KE007 were informed before takeoff that there were no radio aids available. They therefore must have set off for Bethel the first compulsory reporting point, on a magnetic heading of 246 degrees or thereabouts. No other source of navigational information was available since the INS could not at this point have been engaged to steer the aircraft toward Bethel (KE007 passed, in fact, twelve miles north of Bethel), and the Bethel VOR is too far away to be received at Anchorage. KE007’s autopilot selector switch must therefore have been set so that the navigation system was in magnetic heading mode.

What, under these circumstances, would the Horizontal Situation Indicator have displayed? If the RAD/INS display selector switch was set at INS, the course deviation indicator would have shown that KE007 was off the track programmed into the INS system, and was not, therefore, headed straight for Bethel. If the switch was still at RAD, as the checklist required, and the VOR/DME radio receiver was switched on, then the Horizontal Situation Indicator would have shown that no radio information was being received, and that the aircraft was therefore off course. But why would the VOR/DME receiver have been switched on when the pilots had been told that there was no VOR/DME signal to be received?

With the VOR/DME receiver switched off and the display selector switch at RAD and the autopilot selector switch set at “heading mode,” the Horizontal Situation Indicator would have been receiving information only from the magnetic compasses aboard the aircraft. Under these circumstances, if the aircraft was flying on the magnetic heading selected (246 degrees or thereabouts), the beam bar would have been vertical and the index mark centered, indicating that the aircraft was on track, as indeed it was—but on a magnetic track to disaster, not the safe flight plan preprogrammed into the INS. A small, red striped flag, the “heading flag,” was probably visible in the Horizontal Situation Indicator, warning that no radio information was being received, and that the aircraft was in magnetic heading mode with a possible compass problem. But the crew of KE007 had been informed before takeoff in Anchorage that because of a defect in the instrument the heading flag was constantly in view in the copilot’s Horizontal Situation Indicator. I explained all this in my NYR article, adding, in italics, that “it was, however, a fault in the very instrument that could have warned the copilot that he was flying in magnetic heading.” As I added in my piece, action on the report of this defect that was submitted by the crew who brought the aircraft into Anchorage was deferred until the aircraft reached home base in Seoul—which it never did. I realize that an elementary knowledge of the instruments of a 747 airliner may have been necessary to follow my first presentation of this aspect of the story. This fuller version in less technical language will, I trust, at least enable Pearson and his group to grasp the idea I am putting forward, rather than the travesty of it he offers.

Once again, the ICAO report concludes that inattentiveness of this kind is “not unknown in civil aviation.” Has Pearson’s unnamed captain read the ICAO report, and does he accept the thesis that “all the evidence” points to a conspiracy by the pilots or a faked accident?

  1. I am not sure whether Pearson’s grasp of aviation technicalities or of technical English is defective here. I quote the paragraph in which I deal with the problem of how KE007’s copilot came to send estimates of time and distance to the next waypoint close to what they normally would have been, even though each of their position reports was incorrect:

The number two INS must have been set by the copilot on “Distance” and “Time” to the next waypoint, since the copilot supplied these estimates regularly (and erroneously) to Anchorage and then to Tokyo. Wherever the voice transmitting the information has been identified, it is the copilot’s. This is normally his job, anyway. When the waypoint lights come on, the INS readout would indeed show excessive time and distance to the [nearest] waypoint. But when they go off, informing the pilots that the waypoint has been reached, the INS displays time and distance to the next waypoint, information the copilot needs for his radio message, but so minutely greater than normal that they would not (and, to the ground controllers, did not) arouse any suspicion.

The grammar and meaning of the last sentence seem clear to me, and can readily be illustrated. At 1444 GMT on the night of the shoot-down, KE007 sent the following message to Anchorage air traffic control (ICAO report, Appendix C-5):

1444: 20. KE007—Roger Korean Air zero zero seven position NABIE one four three two three one zero estimating NEEVA one five five three.

This means the aircraft was reporting (wrongly, as we know now) arrival at NABIE at 1432 GMT at an altitude of 31,000 feet, and was estimating arrival at NEEVA at 1553 GMT, eighty-one minutes later. ICAO, the CAA, and myself, among others, presume that the copilot who sent the report believed he was at NABIE because the INS alert lights came on, as my explanation, I believe, makes quite clear. Next, at 1600 GMT, Anchorage got the next report from KE007, relayed by another Korean Air Lines aircraft, KE015:

1600: 46. KE015…relay NEEVA report for zero zero seven their position NEEVA one five five eight [1558 GMT] flight level three one zero [31,000 feet] estimate NIPPI one seven zero eight [1708 GMT].

It will be seen that KE007 took eighty-six minutes instead of the estimated eighty-one minutes to fly the sector NABIE-NEEVA, a difference which was, as I said, “so minutely greater than normal that they would not (and, to the ground controllers, did not) arouse any suspicion.” The small difference may at any time have been caused by variations in the wind.

Pearson has misunderstood what I was referring to. He seems to think that I was talking about the display of time and distance to the nearest waypoint, which would be visible, if the pilots looked for it, when the alert lights came on. He thinks this is the “excessive time and distance to the waypoint” I mention. But it is when the lights go off that the copilot reads the time and distance to the next waypoint, which he needs for his radio report. It is this time and distance which is minutely different from what they should be. This may be difficult for nontechnical readers to follow, but Pearson, setting up as a technical commentator, should not have had too much trouble. Ruling out willful deceit, I can only assume that he does not understand the line of reasoning that I, ICAO, CAA, etc., are advancing. Thus, Pearson’s “revision” of KE007’s time of arrival at NEEVA came about, as he fails to mention, as a result of reports from two different aircraft. At 1435 GMT the sister Korean Air Lines aircraft KE015 forwarded to Anchorage a message that KE007 was then estimating NEEVA at 1549 GMT. Nine minutes later KE007 itself radioed Anchorage directly with the message already quoted, estimating time of arrival at NEEVA at 1553, four minutes later than the relayed estimate.

There are many possible explanations of the difference: that the INS system itself changed its estimate of arrival time at NEEVA because it constantly reworks its calculations; that the copilots misheard each other; that one of them misread the estimated arrival time scrawled on a note pad, or misremembered it, and so on. Pearson argues that the difference shows that KE007’s flight crew must have examined their instruments closely, and must have seen they were off course, and therefore they were faking an accident “with the knowledge of US military and intelligence agencies.” In fact, neither reading is in the least incompatible, let alone “utterly incompatible with being on their assigned route, Romeo-20.” The INS display of time and distance to the next waypoint is close to what they would expect to see, and as I already wrote in the NYR, it “would not (and to the ground controllers, did not) arouse any suspicion.”

  1. This is new, and Pearson seems quite sure of himself: “the lights never came on.” The matter would seem easy enough to check by telephoning Pearson’s “two Litton Industry representatives.” But at once we strike trouble. The firm is being sued by the relatives of victims of the KE007 tragedy, along with Boeing, the Federal Aviation Administration, and Korean Air, as Korean Air Lines is now called. These organizations are all subject to an order by a Washington court forbidding them to discuss matters pertaining to the loss of KE007. [A federal judge in Washington, DC, dismissed Litton Industries along with Boeing and the Soviet Union from the suit on August 2, but an appeal by the relatives of the deceased is expected and Litton on legal advice continues to follow the court order.]

I was not, therefore, surprised when Litton’s legal representatives, the New York firm of Bigham Englar Jones and Houston, found themselves unable to put me in touch with a qualified Litton technician who could discuss the capabilities of the 28 program of the LTN-72R-28 Inertial Navigation System carried aboard KE007. A Litton employee (not two) named by Pearson to the editors was out of the country when I telephoned the Litton plant in California. I spoke with another technician there who said he could not support Pearson’s version but, since his firm is subject to litigation on the matter, it does not seem proper to use this information for or against. We are therefore left with the following conflict:

(a) Pearson says his Litton informant told him the alert light would not have come on if KE007 had been mistakenly steered on a magnetic heading, first in the same general direction as its preprogrammed flight plan, but later increasingly further away from it. The pilots, says Pearson, must therefore have deliberately misstated their position, and thus were part of a plot. Pearson does not tell us whether his informant agrees with this deduction, or whether the informant had read the ICAO reports.

(b) ICAO has repeatedly said that the alert lights would have come on in the magnetic heading mode, and the ICAO simulation of the disaster was based on this view. So was that of the British CAA. The ICAO report of December 13, 1983, offers, as its first “plausible explanation,”

that the crew inadvertently flew virtually the entire flight on a constant magnetic heading (in the “heading mode”) due to its unawareness of the fact that “heading” had been selected as the mode of navigation rather than “inertial navigation system” (INS). In such a situation, with the INS system activated although not controlling flight navigation, the crew would have been provided with regular indications of INS waypoint passages at or near the flight plan estimates for such passages and could, therefore, have been under the impression they were navigating in the INS mode [p. 2.]

In another part of the report, ICAO discusses what would have happened “if a magnetic heading of 246 degrees had been selected to take the aircraft toward Bethel before the aircraft reached the minimum reception altitude for that VOR, and that the autopilot mode selector was inadvertently left in heading mode for the duration of the flight.” (This is what Pearson over and over again calls “Sayle’s thesis.”) Then, says the ICAO report (p. 47): “The subsequent flight path would then have indicated waypoint passage at approximately the estimated times despite being displaced from the assigned track” (emphasis added). The only cockpit indication of such passage of the waypoints could have been the conspicuous illumination of alert lights—that is their sole function.

(c) Captain John O’Brien, safety officer of the American Air Line Pilots Association and a former Pan American pilot, told me:

We understand that the 28 program of the Litton LTN-72R-28 illuminates the alert lights on a time and distance basis, as long as the INS system is running, even if the INS system is not in fact steering the aircraft. In the case of KE007, when the track actually followed by the aircraft ran roughly in the same direction as the preprogrammed flight plan, the alert lights would have come on when the true waypoints were more or less abeam, not because they were abeam, but because the calculated time had elapsed. KE007’s crew could thus have been misled into thinking that they were actually at the waypoints.”

Captain O’Brien described Pearson’s assertion that “all the evidence” points to a conspiracy by the dead flight crew as “ridiculous.” ALPA attributes KE007’s deviation from the intended track to pilot error, either the aircraft being left in magnetic heading or a misprogramming of the INS which I discuss below. There have been reports, according to ALPA, of INS systems remaining in magnetic heading mode even when the autopilot had been switched back to INS.

  1. Person takes up another point in addition to the twelve he enumerates. In the interests of brevity, an ambitious objective in this matter, I pass over Pearson’s overworked “director of 747 flight training for a major US airline” (this is the same nonflying ground instructor who backed off hastily when told he was contradicting ICAO, the CAA, and ALPA, something Pearson might in charity have told him himself) and proceed to Pearson’s radar “evidence.” Radar is not, we have already seen, Pearson’s strong point: in his Nation article he informed us that Cobra Dane, the American phased-array radar on Shemya Island in the Aleutians could track an airliner flying at 31,000 feet at a range of 1,400 miles (“well within Cobra Dane’s exceptional range,” as he put it, omitting to mention that this feat would require the earth to be flat, since the range of Cobra Dane in tracking airliners is limited to line of sight). Pearson now silently drops this howler and produces another, once more featuring “British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell” who is now offered as a source himself, with much the same confidence as Campbell put forward his nameless “representative” at the CAA.

Pearson’s Figure 1 shows an apparent contradiction between one flight path for the last few minutes of KE007’s flight, labeled “Department of State Version for KAL 007’s Altitude (no supporting data)” and a second path, showing a suspicious dip in the middle, labeled “Altitude for KAL 007 from Japan Defense Agency Data.” This looks plain enough: the Department of State is lying, without support, and the Japanese Defense Agency has, for some unknown reason, supplied Pearson and Campbell with evidence that nails this lie. Pearson’s Figure 1 was, in fact, first presented in a new publication called The KAL 007 Information Bulletin and Newsletter, no. 1, June 1, 1985, to accompany an article headed “The New Japanese Data” by David Pearson and John Keppel, the bulletin’s contributing editors. (Keppel, a retired State Department political officer, appears to be Pearson’s Svengali in KE007 matters.)

The top part of the map is not, in fact, the Department of State’s version. It is ICAO’s version: it is the flight path as reported by the copilot and, as ICAO put it in their report of February 29, 1984, “there is no evidence that the flight crew was aware of the deviation from the planned route.” Nor is Keppel and Pearson’s “new radar data” new; it is the “Japanese radar track information” made available to the ICAO Air Navigation Commission before its report was prepared. The question is, how reliable is it?

Keppel and Pearson’s “new radar data” has had wider currency than their newsletter and Pearson’s use of it above, and this deserves some comment. On May 15 of this year a Japanese group calling themselves The Society for Discovering the Truth about KE007 called a press conference in Tokyo in order to release the answers to a series of written questions which had been submitted to the Japanese government by Jutaka Hata, a back-bench member of the upper house of the Japanese Parliament. The government’s replies—signed as a matter of form by Prime Minister Yashiro Nakasone but in fact prepared by the Japanese Self-Defense Agency—were released at the conference. At the conference Hata and his colleagues of the society accompanied the government’s replies with garbled commentary of their own, showing that they were ignorant of even the basic elements of radar. The government’s guarded replies do not in fact justify anything like the sensational conclusions that have been drawn from them by Hata and others, including Pearson and Keppel.

The Japanese government’s replies to Hata’s questions say that

the radar records concerning this case were synthesized at the air defense and control command post at Misawa, and they do not show the state of detection of each radar site. The straight-line distances from the Wakkanai, Abashiri, and Nemuro—radar sites located at three points on the northern coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido—to the position of the KAL plane at 3:12 AM were about 160 nautical miles, about 220 nautical miles, and about 270 nautical miles respectively.

Hata’s conference was attended by a group of journalists none of whom showed any conspicuous knowledge of radar. The Society for Discovering the Truth about KE007 produced an instrument repair technician from Japan Air Lines who testified about the accuracy to be expected from the radio altimeters carried aboard KE007—within 5 percent, plus or minus—as evidence that the pilots must have known how high they were above the ground, and therefore were lying when they claimed to be flying at 33,000 feet, which was supposedly “contradicted by the radar data.” The key question, the expected accuracy of radar height estimates at slant ranges of 160 nautical miles, 220 nautical miles, and 270 nautical miles, was neither put to the Japanese government nor asked at the press conference. The journalists, plainly, were ill informed about radar, and the organizers of the conference either obtuse, ignorant, or downright deceitful.

Nevertheless the Associated Press carried a version of the conference which has been published worldwide, raising fresh hope in the hearts of conspiracy theorists everywhere (several have confidently sent clippings to the NYR). One typical version, by John Burgess of the Washington Post, begins:

TOKYO, May 16—The pilot of the Korean Air Lines jumbo jet shot down by a Soviet fighter in 1983 radioed incorrect altitude reports to Japanese ground controllers during the flight’s final minutes, according to radar data released by the Japanese government.

The Japanese government’s data does not say this and the Japanese government does not say that it does. The same Washington Post article shows how readily a muddle-headed but no doubt well-intentioned misunderstanding can be converted into propaganda:

According to the Associated Press, Tass reported that in making public the data, the Japanese government admits that the South Korean aircraft systematically sent ground-based traffic control services deliberately false data about its where-abouts and repeatedly changed altitude, which airliners never do.

The Japanese government admits nothing of the sort. The magnitude of the supposed descent and climb of KE007 which the three Japanese radar stations are said to have measured was 4,000 feet, followed by another supposed discrepancy of 3,000 feet. (See Pearson’s Figure 1.) What is the accuracy of the measurement of altitude by military primary radar, at ranges between 160 and 270 nautical miles, when the outgoing and returning radar signals are grazing close to the surface of the sea or earth?

On this question I spoke with Dr. Eli Brookner, consulting scientist to the Raytheon Company on defense radars, whose article on phased array radar appears in the Scientific American of February 1985 and deals extensively with the Cobra Dane array on Shemya Island. Dr. Brookner, who was recently in Japan lecturing on radar, said “the altitude estimate of radar at such ranges is very unreliable. It is surprising that at the extreme range mentioned by the Japanese [270 nautical miles] they managed to get any usable signal at all through the ground clutter.” Asked to quantify his phrase “very unreliable,” Dr. Brookner referred me to the standard work on the subject, the Radar Handbook edited by Dr. Merrill I. Skolnik of the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, which contains a chapter on “Radar Height Finding” containing a table of “Estimates of Height Error” at slant ranges of 100, 200, and 300 nautical miles (pp. 22–23). At 200 nautical miles (NM) the expected error is given as between 4,000 and 8,000 feet, while at 300 NM (the maximum slant range cited by the Japanese Self-Defense Agency was given as 270 NM, from Nemuro) the expected error is given in Skolnik as between 9,140 feet and 14,730 feet.

As proof for the charge that KE007’s pilots sent “deliberately false data” the Japanese radar records are therefore worthless, as the Japanese government’s reply itself hints: “In making public the altitude of the KAL plane at 3:29 AM, at which time the incident occurred, the expression ‘about 30,000 feet,’ which gave some leeway, was used for the sake of caution.” But neither AP, Tass, Pearson, nor Keppel question the expected accuracy of radar height readings at extreme ranges. Skolnik’s and other standard books are readily available at many reference libraries in the United States and Japan, if not perhaps in the Soviet Union. News agencies sometimes make technical mistakes but ignorance or laziness can hardly be offered as convincing excuses by self-styled “investigators.” The only other explanation is that they decided their findings long in advance, and don’t want to risk upsetting them.

As to the Map 2 offered by Pearson and “British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell,” what is its source? We know that when KE007 appeared on the Japanese radar screen, it was beyond accurate radar tracking range, as the radar textbook and the Japanese Self-Defense Agency both say. Moreover, we do not know whether Campbell’s map, whatever its source, is drawn on a Mercator projection, where rhumb lines (magnetic compass courses) appear straight, or on a Lambert conformal conic projection (like the Jeppesen charts) where they appear curved. Campbell gives no sign that he understands that the difference is crucial to his argument.

It may be noticed that Pearson in his letter has not managed to produce a single aviation professional ready to give his name and agree with Pearson’s proposition that “all the evidence points” toward “a deliberate, carefully planned intrusion into Soviet territory with the knowledge of US military and intelligence agencies.” He may argue that the aviation industry leans toward the political right, and there are certainly few Trotskyite air controllers or 747 captains, for which passengers may occasionally be grateful. On the other hand, I have found even fewer people in the aviation industry who are influenced by political dogma in their professional opinions; civil flying is, above all, a severely practical, unfanatical business in which the safety of passengers and crew is the overriding aim. There is, accordingly, resentment among aviation people against technological amateurs leveling charges of murderous conspiracy against dead colleagues without any evidence at all, beyond uninformed guesses about what might have happened in a setting—the cockpit—with which they are unfamiliar. (Were any of the conspiracy theorists interested in aviation before the KE007 incident?)

I find it difficult, therefore, to join Pearson in his sanctimonious sympathy for the penurious London magazine Defence Attaché (stuffed, incidentally, with defense hardware advertisements), which was obliged to apologize to Korean Air Lines and pay damages for publishing a pseudonymous article by someone calling himself “P. Q. Mann” (who has still not stepped forward to claim credit for his work) accusing the airline of being part of a criminal conspiracy. The editor of Defence Attaché, it is true, wrote in a preface to Mann’s article that he did not accept the charges himself, although he knew who “Mann” was. The editor evidently did not, however, check Mann’s version of the KE007 story closely enough to discover that it is based on a set of physical impossibilities or, if he did, did not caution his readers on the point. While I am myself against recourse to the courts in matters of factual dispute, in the real world editorial recklessness to this degree is likely to have such consequences. When in doubt, as the old advice goes, check, or leave out.

A matter I did not touch in my piece in the NYR, but for the sake of completeness will outline, is the second explanation of KE007’s deviation from its assigned flight path which the first ICAO report, as cited above, describes as “possible.” Logically, of course, it makes no difference to my (and ICAO’s) view of the KE007 tragedy that there are two, and not simply one, accidents that would fit the known facts; either destroys the argument that an accident can be “rejected out of hand,” as Professor Clubb put it, and with it the sole prop of the Pearson-Keppel conspiracy theory. There are many reasons, however, which support the view that KE007 actually was inadvertently flown in magnetic heading mode.

The second possibility considered by ICAO was that KE007’s crew, making preparations for the last flight while the aircraft was still parked on the ramp at Anchorage (the “gate” at which passengers enter an aircraft), punched into the INS system the aircraft’s “present longitude” as W139 instead of W149, the actual longitude of Anchorage. This could then have been automatically transferred to the computer programs of all three INS instruments aboard. Such misprogramming, called “finger trouble” in the aviation industry, is listed among the “commoner causes of error” in the current CAA handbook for North Atlantic operations, along with “autopilot inadvertently left in heading mode.” Shortly after the incident, such misprogramming was cited in The New York Times as a possible cause of KE007’s deviation from its flight path, and it was also the view initially held by the FAA before the administration was silenced by court order (and before ICAO and CAA had carried out their simulations and reconstructions of the various possibilities).

The effect of such a ten-degree error in longitude would have been to move KE007’s flight path bodily to the west, and thus, eventually, over Soviet territory. The alert lights indicating arrival at the successive waypoints would with one exception—at Bethel—have come on close to the expected times, since the presumed initial error in programming the position of Anchorage in the INS—ten degrees longitude—is 296 nautical miles at the latitude of Anchorage, and the distances between waypoints on air route Red 20 are all close to 300 nautical miles. The first leg of the misprogrammed flight, however, would have been not to Bethel, but to NABIE (over the Bering Sea), which would have taken one hour and twenty-eight minutes instead of the expected fifty-three minutes.

Why, then, would KE007’s crew have reported themselves over Bethel, in the absence of any alert light indication in the cockpit? The magnetic heading explanation of the accident requires, apart from one omission (failure to engage the INS in unusual circumstances), only lack of alertness and attention, but not, as ICAO notes, to a degree unknown in civil aviation; otherwise, every action of the flight crew would have been normal, for what they would have believed to have been normal reasons. The ten-degree longitude error explanation, on the other hand, requires a mistaken positive action, namely, reporting KE007 over Bethel without any indication on the cockpit’s instruments that the aircraft was there—for which no convincing explanation has ever been advanced. This seems to me an overwhelming objection.

To a patient reader the differences between Messrs. Pearson and Keppel and myself should now be reasonably clear. The best summary of their position I can find in Pearson’s letter follows the comment of another of his anonymous pilots, that my version (and the CAA’s, and ALPA’s and ICAO’s) of KE007’s last flight is “simply not a good answer to the problem” and Pearson’s gloss that what I and the aviation authorities have argued is “implausibly remote.” Pearson has a quick cure for the perplexed: “As an alternative one should, in the interests of examining all possibilities, entertain another: that the pilots knew where they were and were flying their course intentionally. This one assumption explains all the irregularities and improbabilities known to have taken place during the flight.”

But, as Pearson fails to mention, it at once introduces another improbability: why on earth would the conspirators have started their treacherous flight off course from the first few minutes, in plain radar sight of Anchorage airport? Pearson has now introduced a new concept to cover this difficulty, the “intended ‘error’ “—they were faking an accident. Here we see a familiar process, the introduction of new complications to shore up the collapsing “one assumption” that supposedly explains all irregularities and resolves difficulties, the additional crystalline sphere that will still allow the sun to revolve around the earth. This is, of course, the very process William of Ockham sharpened his razor against, to prune the ever more complex theories of his time. Nor can we accept the Pearsonian rewrite of Ockham, namely that to uninstructed people conspiracies are simple and air navigation is complicated—and therefore that we must accept the conspiracy theory.

My own approach was to begin, not with political analysis, but with a search for some genuinely simple explanation, some small initial mistake in the cockpit which could explain the baffling false position reports, and the calm recorded voice of the first officer sending them (pilots, rarely political zealots, are rarely great actors either). I am interested in politics, too (I regularly wrote for the New Statesman in its more adult years, for instance), but I also have had a long interest in navigation, which may have helped me to follow the explanations offered by pilots and air traffic controllers. In my view there were three proximate causes of the accident: (1) the absence of the VOR at Anchorage that night, (2) the defect in the copilot’s Horizontal Situation Indicator, rendering invalid the heading flag’s normal function of warning that something was amiss, and (3) inattention by both pilots, with the captain possibly absent from his seat for most of the flight, for some unknown reason: illness, an argument, conversations with the six off-duty Korean Air Lines flight crew traveling back to Seoul that night, as passengers. All of these things are known to have caused accidents in civil aviation. Beyond these immediate causes, we have the bizarre coincidence (despite Pearson, it can only be a coincidence) that the magnetic heading of the first leg toward route R20 out of Anchorage leads over the two most sensitive Soviet military targets in the Far East. Add to these elements the inadequate equipment and sloppy radar supervision of a potentially dangerous route by the American FAA (a genuine scandal which Pearson, pursuing his “exciting” conspiracy theory, does not deign to mention), the incompetence of the Soviet air warning system, and the rigid, by-the-book response displayed by the Soviet ground control, and we have all the genuine elements necessary for tragedy.

I, too, deplore the callously opportunistic propaganda use of the tragedy made, on inadequate evidence, by both superpowers, which still goes on. But the deeper lesson, chilling in the times we live in, is how easily a simple error and a chain of mishaps could have led the air force of one superpower to fire on what it thought was a military aircraft belonging to the other. If this lesson is grasped, and steps are taken to prevent such an accident happening again (as some have), then the victims of KE007 may not have died altogether in vain. To succeed, Pearson and Keppel’s reasoning required them to raise the unlikelihood and rarity of KE007’s accidental deviation from its course to the level of impossibility. I submit that they have not come anywhere close to doing so. The continuing missionary zeal of Messrs. Pearson and Keppel to preach conspiracy in the absence of any genuine evidence is further muddying waters already stained with innocent blood, and fueling the paranoid suspicions that triggered the tragedy in the first place.

  1. 1

    Conspiracy theory,” in contemporary parlance, is a pejorative term denoting a suspicious and sinister reasoning without basis in fact. Sayle uses the term, or variations thereof, a total of thirty-seven times in his article.

  2. 2

    In The New York Review, Sayle uses the term “KE007.” While this in fact is the technically correct designation for the flight, it is far less usual in writings on the case than the more popular “KAL 007,” which I have elected to use throughout my work. Sayle puts “[sic]” after “KAL 007” in quoting from my article in The Nation, but not after either Dallin’s or Clubb’s use of the identical term. It might be pointed out, however, that Sayle, almost without exception, has used “KAL 007” in his previous writings on the tragedy.

  3. 3

    Sayle’s ground track for KAL 007 precisely follows the ICAO Report’s track for a 246 degree magnetic heading from Anchorage to the Commander Islands east of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Thereafter, Sayle’s ground track is identical to another ICAO scenario, a 10 degree error in inserting the longitude of Anchorage, Alaska, the point of origin. Like the 246 degree magnetic heading, this scenario has a number of serious problems. Why Sayle combined the two without comment is unknown and unsupportable.

  4. 4

    It has been recently disclosed that data for two military radars have been destroyed. Using language identical to an earlier incident involving proven destruction of evidence, the Air Force said that the destruction of radar tracking data covering a portion of KAL 007’s flight was “routine” and there was “no idea” that the data would prove useful. A 747 captain computer-modelled the course flown by KAL 007 during the early portion of its flight, and noted that its course was not consistent with where the airliner first entered Soviet territory. His conclusion? That a course correction to the north—toward Soviet territory—had to have been made. This turn would have taken place in the area of coverage for the radars whose data have been destroyed.

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