Atrocity In the Skies: KAL Flight 007 Shot Down by the Soviets

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The first blush of the approaching dawn was barely visible as Captain Chun nosed his craft back into the Alaskan sky at 10 a.m. (4 a.m. in Anchorage). He set off on "Jet Route 501," a southwesterly course along the Aleutian Islands and one of five commonly traveled flight paths at the start of the 3,800-mile run to Seoul. A checkpoint Bethel, about 340 miles wes of Anchorage, he would switch to what pilots call "Red Route 20," the most northerly and direct of the internationally recognized courses to Tokyo and Seoul. It would take him off the Soviet Union's Kamchatka Peninsula, about 30 miles from the Kuril Islands, which are claimed and occupied by the Soviets, then over the main Japanese island of Honshu, and finally westward to Seoul.

The Soviet zones were well marked on Chun's maps. One blue-bordered warning declared: "Aircraft infringing upon non-free flying territory may be fired on without warning." Read another: "Unlisted radio emissions from this area may constitute a navigational hazard or result in border overflight unless unusual precaution is exercised." Still, Red Route 20 was routine to the hundreds of commercial airliners that follow it each month.

Back in the passenger cabins, by KAL's usual procedures the women flight attendants would now switch to native Korean dress. The bright and multicolored costumes include long skirts (chima) and short, flared blouses (chogori). They had orange juice and sandwich wedges on hand for the tourist passengers, fancy snacks of chicken florentine, zucchini au gratin, rice and cheddar croquettes, and soba, a Japanese broth, for the first-class travelers. Everything presumably would have seemed normal as the passengers munched and dozed their way toward Seoul.

As Captain Chun and his craft bucked the prevailing headwinds, which normally reduce the plane's speed from 540 m.p.h. to about 460 m.p.h., he advised air controllers in Anchorage, who supervised the first 1,800 miles of his trip, that he had passed the mandatory navigational checkpoints, such as "Nabie" and "Neeva."

The KAL pilot had no way of knowing that other electronic eyes were watching Flight 007 from far ahead of him, although he would assume the Soviets would be monitoring the aircraft. Soviet radar had locked on to the 747 at about noon (E.D.T.) that day, when Flight 007 was cruising southwestward over the Bering Sea, and would follow the plane for the next 2½ fateful hours. As always, U.S. and Japanese intelligence stations were in effect watching the Soviets as they watched the jumbo jet. The stations did so by recording the radio communications between the Soviet radar operators, probably located in northern Kamchatka, and their superiors along the military chain of command. It would be many hours later before those tapes would be examined and their significance determined.

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