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The Flight of KE007

In response to:

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

To the Editors:

I regret to be replying to Murray Sayle’s article on the Korean Air Line incident [NYR, September 26, 1985] so long after the article was published. But the words used about myself and my magazine—including “crude trickery,” “weasel words,” and other unpleasantries—were as abusive as they were unnecessary, and a firm reply is required. We have therefore taken some time to treble check the facts concerned.

Mr. Sayle, it may be recalled, bases a complex theory of what happened to KAL flight 007 on technical faults resulting in malnavigation. Sayle’s ire was aroused because we had reported that the single map on which he bases his theory was not a publication of a British official organization, as he had claimed.

The map from which he draws and develops his theory was prepared by officials working for the British Civil Aviation Authority. In a report in the New Statesman in May 1985, we pointed out that Mr. Sayle (in writings elsewhere) was considerably overstating the status of internal working papers.

In NYR, Mr. Sayle attacked us for having reported that the CAA “have not published and do not publish such material” as the map he used. He proceeds to imply that I have made this quote up because I attribute these words to an unnamed “representative” of the CAA organization. This phrase, he says, is not even worthy of “cub reporters.” He quotes a senior official of the CAA, Mr. Roger Croxford, as his source. Who, he asks, is my source for saying that the map was not published?

My source for refuting Sayle’s abuse is the same Mr. Roger Croxford. Croxford is the Deputy Director General of the CAA. We drew Sayle’s NYR article to his attention. He has replied that “the CAA has not published the material prepared in connection with its examination of the available evidence on the KAL disaster” (our emphasis). This letter, dated January 26, 1986, is available if required to the editors of NYR.

(Croxford further states their exact status: “CAA officials prepared several charts, diagrams, etc. to illustrate the cumulative effects [of incorrect auto-pilot connection]…the material[s] were presented, in response to requests, to journalists [including Mr. Sayle]).

As to the “representative” whom we originally quoted, he was the official press officer of the CAA, Mr. Kennedy, who spoke to us officially in the name of his Authority. Mr. Kennedy saw the published text about Sayle and the map, before publication, and confirmed to us on April 23, 1985, that it was correct so far as the CAA was concerned. The correspondence with Mr. Kennedy, and a witnessed minute of the conversation, is available if required to the editors of NYR.

Mr. Sayle goes on (and on, and on, and on) about my using the specific term “representative” as an excuse for further criticism of my article. This is exceptionally silly. I use that word only because it’s not gender-specific like “spokesman,” and not ugly like “spokesperson.” That is all.

The real issue behind all this is whether Sayle can cite our British Civil Aviation Authority as deus ex machina, and claim its lofty official backing for his journalistic speculation about KAL. He can’t. The map was quick, back-of-the-envelope job by Tom White of the CAA, an air traffic control specialist who has since retired. He did the calculations quickly so that the BBC TV program, Newsnight; could use his work in a program soon after the accident. Spare copies of the maps were handed out to journalists Sayle included.

Later, White’s maps were submitted for further consideration by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which examined this and other suggestions at length. His calculation was a rapid estimate which inspired but did not agree with the later simulations carried out for ICAO. The ICAO thus rejected it as an insufficient explanation of the tragedy.

Sayle is clearly in difficulties because of the discrepancies found by ICAO, which he attempts to disregard. I assume this is why so much energy is invested in playing up White’s original suggestions, and why he reacts so badly to its status being set out clearly to others. Indeed, had he not selectively misquoted from the New Statesman, he would not have been able to launch this artificial debate at all.

More fundamentally, I think that readers will have spotted that the matter dealt with above is a clear example of Sayle’s approach to the subject. His writing is actually highly personalized, while pretending to be analytical. Those ideas which he likes are important because important people say them, and those he doesn’t like are demolished by making their authors the target of personal abuse.

A physical scientist by training, I don’t like this at all. And I’m still waiting with interest for Sayle to start attempting to explain away the outstanding technical criticisms of his theory—in terms other than the personal.

Duncan Campbell

London, England

Murray Sayle replies:

Readers may well need reminding what this is all about.

On April 25 last year I published in this magazine a lengthy review of various books and reports dealing with the shooting down of the Korean airliner KE007 by Soviet fighters on September 1, 1983. In my article I argued that by far the likeliest explanation of the aircraft’s deviation from course was a simple and not altogether uncommon error of navigation, namely that it had inadvertently been steered to where it was shot down by magnetic compass, and not by the triple inertial navigation system carried aboard. The aircraft’s actual track, I argued, corresponded to a magnetic heading of 246 degrees, which was the magnetic bearing of its first compulsory reporting point, Bethel, after it had departed Anchorage in Alaska on its last flight.

My sentence introducing this argument read: “If we consider the possibility that the plane was accidentally being flown on a magnetic compass course, we make an interesting discovery: the spot at which KE007 was shot down lies on the magnetic heading of 246 degrees from Anchorage, taking account of the winds the aircraft encountered that night, as reported by the aircraft’s copilot by radio, plus or minus fifty miles to allow for the less-than-precise measurement of the wind pattern and variations in the earth’s magnetic field.” A footnote to this sentence added “Source: The British Civil Aviation Authority.” My review also spoke of getting “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” from the same CAA, and added that the CAA had “offered the opinion that it [inadvertently flying in magnetic heading] is the ‘only reasonable explanation’ of what happened.” My NYR article was illustrated by a map showing the CAA’s calculation of where a heading of 246 magnetic from Anchorage would most probably have taken KE007, namely to where it was shot down, and much other information supplied by the CAA.

The NYR of September 26, 1985, carried an even lengthier exchange between David Pearson, author of a long article in The Nation of August 18–25, 1984, and myself. In his Nation article Pearson presented, as he put it, “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.” The technical discussion is complex, particularly for those who know little about air navigation, but the basic dispute between myself, Pearson, and others who share his views is clear: they say the evidence points to a conspiracy, in which the airliner undertook some sort of espionage operation; I say that it points to an accident which took the aircraft over the Soviet Union, unknown to either its crew or the American or Japanese air controllers in charge of its flight, and so the shootdown could justly be called a massacre of the innocents.

Pearson and his followers have yet to produce an aviation professional ready both to give his name and endorse his (Pearson’s) arguments, so the opinion of the British Civil Aviation Authority, controlling the world’s busiest transoceanic air route, is clearly highly important in this dispute, especially as its American counterpart, the Federal Aviation Authority, has long been restrained by court order from giving its views about the KE007 tragedy. Pearson was therefore understandably eager to deny my arguments any support from the CAA, with this comment: “Sayle gives the source for his map [in the NYR] 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.”’

As the “map” was prepared by a group of CAA officials headed by the then Director General (Planning) of international air traffic control of the CAA, Captain F.A. White, who gave it to me, on a Jeppesen chart in Lambert conformal conic projection, a duplicate of the chart carried aboard KE007 on its last flight, I found this accusation extraordinary. A simple inquiry by telephone, “Did Sayle get the NYR chart from the CAA?” would have enabled Campbell to discover that in fact I did. A further question, “Did the CAA tell Sayle that it believes KE007 was accidentally flown in magnetic heading, and does it still hold this view?” would have elicted the answer “yes” to both parts, thus saving Campbell’s brother conspiracy theorist Pearson from being misled. The CAA’s office in London is a short bus ride from that of the New Statesman, and the same CAA officials have told me Campbell could have gotten, and still can readily get, a briefing at any time on what the CAA thought had happened to KE007. I therefore formed a low opinion of Campbell’s journalism, especially that aspect of it concerned with getting his facts right, and I hope I made this clear in my reply: “Pearson,” I wrote,

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?

This comment elicited Campbell’s letter printed above. It will be seen that Campbell still asserts that I cannot claim the CAA’s “lofty official backing” for my “journalistic speculation about KAL,” the point Pearson took up. “The map,” he says, “was a quick, back-of-the-envelope job by Tom White of the CAA, an air traffic control specialist who has since retired.” As the CAA is, like the FAA, in the business of air traffic control, I can only guess that this tautological description of Captain White (whose initials are F.A., and whose friends call him Allen, by the way) is intended to suggest that air navigation is not his field of competence. As Captain White read my original copy on KE007, and Mr. Roger Croxford, his successor at the CAA as the official concerned with KE007, has several times confirmed to me that the CAA’s views have not changed, I took the opportunity of a recent trip to London to call on Messrs. Croxford and Peter Kennedy, the authority’s press officer, and examine the correspondence between them and the New Statesman.

Here is the full text of Croxford’s letter, of which Campbell quotes disjointed and deceptively rearranged excerpts, which I have italicized in the text. (“P. Forbes” is Campbell’s associate at the New Statesman.)

9 January 1986

Mr. P. Forbes,

New Statesman

Dear Mr. Forbes,

Thank you for your letter of 17 December 1985 and for the extract from the New York Review of Books.

  1. The position is, as you know, that the CAA was not a party to the investigation of the KAL 007 disaster. That was performed (or contributed to) by ICAO, Korea, USA, USSR, and Japan. The CAA is, however, responsible for the coordination of monitoring of aircraft navigational performance over the North Atlantic. In this role we have acquired both expertise and experience in the light of which the available evidence on the KAL disaster was examined. As a result of this examination the CAA’s experts formed the theory that the navigational deviation was most probably caused by an incorrect autopilot connection (due to human or electrical or mechanical failure) of a type previously (and subsequently—see paragraph 4 below) encountered.

  2. CAA officials prepared several charts, diagrams, etc., to illustrate the cumulative effect of such an occurrence. The CAA has not published the material prepared in connection with its examination of the available evidence on the KAL disaster, but the theory formed by the CAA experts on the reason for the deviation, and the material prepared by them, were presented by the Authority both to officials of ICAO and, in response to requests, to journalists (including Mr. Sayle).

  3. You are, I assume, aware that a Japan Airlines aircraft reportedly strayed off course recently in the vicinity of Sakhalin because, following a heading alteration to avoid turbulent clouds, the pilot forgot to “flip the switch back to automatic.” In this instance the crew recognised the error but not before the aircraft was some 60 miles off track.

Roger Croxford

Mr. Croxford’s letter is, it will be seen, circumspect, but quite plain in its meaning. The CAA did study the KE007 incident, did prepare the chart illustrating the thesis that the airliner was accidentally flown in magnetic heading, most likely on the course of 246 degrees, did brief me on its views, did give me the chart subsequently published in the NYR, and still holds the same opinions. If we compare this with Pearson’s original assertion—“Sayle gives the source of his map as the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell has discovered this is not so”—then the reason for my low opinion of Campbell’s journalism, as displayed in his handling of the facts of this matter, will be clear. But readers who have stayed the course this far are now in a good position to judge for themselves. I need add no more, except that three years after KE007 was shot down nothing has yet appeared by way of genuine evidence to contradict the view of the British Civil Aviation Authority, the American Air Line Pilots Association, the International Civil Aviation Authority (as one of two possibilities) and, on a much lower level of authority, myself, that KE007 got to where it was shot down unknown to its crew, and as the result of an accident.

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