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The Flight of Kal-007

In response to:

KE007 A Conspiracy of Circumstance from the April 25, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

In his response to Murray Sayle’s review [NYR, April 25], David Pearson claims that KAL-007, when it flew over Sakhalin Island, took “evasive actions, changing its speed and altitude without authorization” [NYR, September 26]. Murray Sayle, in his rejoinder, showed that Pearson had no convincing argument for this view. There is, moreover, further evidence that discredits Pearson’s assertions.

As part of its alleged evasive action, Pearson asserts, the 747 “increased its speed markedly.” Nowhere does he state what that change in speed was, though he quotes from the Japanese government statement which gave the figure. In fact, it was twenty miles an hour. Does Pearson seriously believe that this could allow a 600-mile-per-hour 747 to evade a 1500-mile-per-hour interceptor?

Pearson claims that there is “no way” to account for such a change in speed “in an accidental fashion.” In reality, it could be accounted for by a slight shift in either wind velocity or direction; by the technical limitations of radars at the ranges in question; or by the method used to compute the airliner’s speed (calculating changes in the ground track over a fixed period of time).

Pearson claims Flight 7 also made an evasive descent, which he illustrated with the chart above. Note that Pearson shows a 1,000 foot per minute descent. The normal descent rate of a 747 is about 3,000 to 4,000 feet per minute, according to the FAA.

What he did not show (and I have added) is the position of the Soviet interceptor, which was at about 26,000 feet and behind the airliner. What Pearson has pictured, in other words, is the 747 descending slowly into the interceptor’s sights. This, he claims, coupled with the 20-knot “speed change,” constituted “violent evasive action.” Whatever Pearson’s reason for failing to disclose the speed data and the interceptor’s position, these facts are surely fatal to his contentions about evasive maneuvers.

His illustration, moreover, misstates the radar data. The Japanese government said that the 747 was at “about 32,000 feet” from 1812 to 1815 hours, the precise time Pearson shows a descent. If Pearson has some reason for changing the facts, he should state it.

More significantly, Pearson shows a climb beginning at 1821 and asserts (in The Nation) that it was an effort to evade the interceptor’s cannon fire at 1820:49. The KAL pilot, in contrast, told Tokyo control he was beginning his ascent at 1820:20. This is 29 seconds before the interceptor fired his cannons. The Japanese data actually showed the aircraft at “about 29,000 feet” from 1815 to 1823. So Pearson’s allegation that a climb took place at 1821 is not supported by any evidence.

The Japanese data also show (contrary to Pearson’s illustration) that the 747 was at 32,000 feet from 1823 to 1829. If taken literally, this means the 747 was flying straight and level three minutes after it was hit—a virtual impossibility. It demonstrates Murray Sayle’s point about the inaccuracies of height-finding radars at long ranges: they could be off by more than a mile at that range. The Soviet interceptor pilot also corroborated this fact: he reported the 747’s altitude as 10,000 meters (32,800 feet) at times when Japanese radar showed it at both 29,000 and 32,000 feet.

Pearson claims, based on several press stories, that Japanese radar data prove that Flight 7 made a turn over Sakhalin. None of his sources can support this claim, however.

According to Pearson, Duncan Campbell (New Statesman, April 26, 1985) plotted the Japanese data and they show a broad turn over Sakhalin of about 20 degrees in total. Campbell implies, however, that his information came from the September 1, 1983, Asahi Shimbun and from Aviation Week and Space Technology (AW&ST) of September 12, 1983, both of which, he said, plotted the Japanese Defense Agency (JDA) data. Asahi told me that their track was based on JDA data, all right, but that Asahi‘s JDA sources said the curve did not mean that the 747 turned. The data, Asahi said, was plotted on a Bonne projection in which the central meridian is a straight line and all other meridians are curves, so that courses crossing at oblique angles will also appear as curves. (Asahi ran another map on July 21, 1985, also from JDA sources, which shows no curve.)

The September 12, 1983, AW&ST doesn’t support Campbell or Pearson either. The author of that article, Clarence Robinson, told me he obtained his information from Pentagon sources and from phone calls directly to the Japanese radar sites. He said there was no turn over Sakhalin and attributed the gentle curve to the Skylab photograph of the globe he used to show the track.

Pearson also cites a map by Yoshitaro Masuo in the May 1985 Sekai, and one from the September 19, 1983, AW&ST. The Sekai map exaggerates the curve and alleges that a turn took place—before the aircraft ever appeared on Japanese radar, just as Campbell had done. The map in AW&ST, the editor-in-chief, William Gregory, told me, was reconstructed from public sources and should not be considered official. So Pearson’s claim in The Nation that several sources “confirm” the turn is simply wrong. Some repeat the claim; none confirms it. The broad turn is also contradicted by the Soviet interceptor pilot who reported on five occasions that the 747 was on course 240.

There is a primary source on this which Pearson has never cited, though it has been available for two years. It is a map made public by the US government on September 6, 1983, based on intercepted Soviet tracking data. Pearson has ample reason to ignore it. Not only does it show a straight course over Sakhalin, but it contradicts the claim that Flight 7 overflew two sensitive Soviet military installations, a central tenet of his conspiracy theories.

This leaves the Soviet map released September 9, 1983, (Map 2 in Pearson’s letter) as the only “evidence” for a turn over Sakhalin. It shows a double bend in the airliner’s course which the ICAO report attributed to the “slant-range effect” of radar. This is a well-known phenomenon, which Pearson seems to dismiss without understanding it. Standard two-dimensional radars can display only range and bearing, not altitude. If an aircraft passes directly overhead, the radar screen will display the plane’s altitude as a range and bearing, but off to one side or the other of its actual course. It’s not that hard to understand.

So, the “evasive” speed and altitude changes and the turn over Sakhalin are, to use Pearson’s phrase, Fata Morgana—mirage. The ICAO has said that its investigation “indicates there was no evidence of any deliberateness in the flight’s off-course deviation.” Pearson has produced no argument to the contrary that does not depend on misstatement or misinterpretation of the facts.

Thomas R. Maertens

United States Department of State

Washington, DC

(The writer is a Foreign Service officer working in Soviet affairs in the Department of State. His article on KAL-007, “Tragedy of Errors,” appeared in the September 1985 Foreign Service Journal.)

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