Washington — Professional flying, pilots with the ''right stuff'' like to say, is hours of sheer boredom interspersed with moments of pure terror. I've been thinking about this recently, talking to some civilian and military pilots, recalling my own experience as a naval aviator and Vietnam combat pilot, and trying to figure out what's behind the Korean airliner tragedy.
There may have been some dark and twisted intelligence plot behind it all. But I believe the episode has more to do with these radically different aspects of flying: the deceptive routine and comfort of a warm and humming cockpit six miles up, as well as the chilling personal demands of flying under the maximum stress that one can never be fully prepared for.
And I think the examination of this balance of boredom and terror by pilots and ground controllers now going on in the Soviet Union as well as the West will do more to prevent another Flight 007 than all the political snorting and saber rattling we're hearing from Washington and Moscow these days.
The Korean Air Lines crew had flown that route from Anchorage many times before, relying (perhaps too casually) on sophisticated navigation equipment that is supposed to be triply redundant. But as was reported this week, that same equipment has failed at least 21 times in recent years, sending United States commercial aircraft as much as 250 miles off course.
When a failure like this is discovered, the tendency among pilots is to focus on the problem, heads down in the cockpit, perhaps oblivious to a lurking interceptor that may be trying to get your attention and force you to land. Or if one discovers that the casual disregard for an assigned route (perhaps to save expensive jet fuel) has brought a prickly response, there's the hope that hunkering down will make it go away.
And every experienced pilot knows of just plain stupid things - hilarious, perhaps, but also potentially disastrous - happening in the cockpit. An airline pilot called to tell me of a pilot and co-pilot inadvertently locking themselves out of the cockpit as the plane flew along by itself. As their passengers looked on, the crew broke down the door to get back in.
The Soviet Su-15 Flagon pilot had a different set of problems and worries from the Korean captain (and 268 others) he brought down with two missiles.
According to US Air Force experts, Soviet pilots are not as well trained as their American counterparts. Nor are they given as much leeway to decide and execute flight maneuvers. In a highly sophisticated business that still requires a lot of seat-of-the-pants judgment, initiative by Russian pilots is not encouraged.
Russian pilots had been tracking the jumbo jet for two hours, but had not actually found it. By the time he did, the Flagon pilot was low on fuel and no doubt just as worried about getting back to base as finding the elusive target. He was supposed to be sneaking up on his quarry. But he underestimated the closure rate and went shooting by, putting the hulking craft, which suddenly appeared - no longer just a radar blip or buzz in his headset - at his own extremely vulnerable six-o'clock (tail end) position.
At this point, finding himself in a fighter pilot's nightmare with the potential enemy behind him, he was more anxious to get back in position than to fully identify the 747. They were over some of Mother Russia's major military installations, and for all he knew World War III was about to begin.
In retrospect, this may sound like overdramatization. ''Right stuff'' pilots are supposed to have nerves of steel and veins filled with ice water. Kick the tire, light the fire, and go. But in the ''fog of war,'' as the brilliant 18 th-century military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz called it, things are different. And I'm sure the Korean pilot found it so. I know the Su-15 pilot did. After all, he was on his first combat mission, as were his ground controllers.
As I say, there undoubtedly were a lot of other things involved in the downing of KAL Flight 007. Hundreds of years of Russian history, mistrust on both sides, perhaps callousness, certainly miscalculation.
But the boredom and terror of flying - and the mistakes in judgment and action that can result - had a lot to do with it, too. And these things, as much as anything else, need to be seen and corrected.