THE Soviet Union remains solely responsible for the destruction, 10 years ago on Sept. 1, 1983, of Korean Airlines Flight 007, despite the latest official report from Moscow blaming the airliner crew for the tragedy. The latest Russian claims are just a new attempt to evade responsibility and legal liability for the deaths of all 269 people aboard the plane.
On a flight from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, the airliner drifted north of its assigned route as it crossed Alaska. It flew over the Kamchatka Peninsula, where Soviet jets failed to catch up with it, and then across the narrow neck of Sakhalin Island, over which one Soviet jet destroyed it.
The new Russian report shows significant progress from earlier Soviet propaganda campaigns about the doomed plane being on a CIA spy mission or involved in a deliberate provocation. No such accusations are made in the current report, but much distortion remains. Last June, the United Nations special group for commercial aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal, released its own final report on the tragedy, made possible by the appearance of the airliner's ``black boxes,'' recovered by Soviet military forces but hidden away until after the collapse of the communist regime in 1991.
According to ICAO, a fairly common navigation error by the crew led to the course deviation. This control option called ``heading mode'' makes the plane's autopilot follow a constant magnetic heading through the sky. The crew evidently also programmed their inertial navigation system correctly, but those computers were never ``coupled'' into the plane's autopilot. The pilots were clearly negligent in not cross-checking their navigation, but such human errors are known to occur regularly. However, despite Moscow's most recent claims that the crew's navigation mistake was the main cause of the tragedy, the official ICAO report explicitly says otherwise. It was deliberate Soviet action, not the Korean pilots' accidental actions and inactions, that caused the disaster.
The recent Russian report claims that the plane was attacked only after it had failed to respond to proper contact attempts. This is a gross misrepresentation of the final minutes of Flight 007.
Due to radar and communications problems, the lead Soviet interceptor only reached the airliner as it was first crossing the Sakhalin coastline inbound. The target was observed to be flying with navigation lights, although the Russian pilot had been advised to expect the presumed spy plane to be dark.
No radio calls were made to the airliner on the international distress frequency of 121 megahertz, as required. No Soviet commercial air-traffic center was asked to interrogate the intruder's radio beacon for identification, which would have shown its civilian nature.
The Russian pilot fired off several rounds of cannon fire, but there were no tracer shells interspersed with the armor piercing rounds, so he knew at the time there was no way anyone could have seen them. Firing live ammunition is not an accepted airborne contact procedure in any case.
In Moscow, officials said it ``was policy'' to load tracers, but thousands of miles away, headquarters policy gave way to front-line reality. The tracers had not been available, according to the pilot's 1991 newspaper interviews.
As a last-ditch effort, the Russian pilot reported flashing his lights abeam of the airliner for a few seconds, but at that time the crew was talking to Tokyo traffic control. Air crews only glance outside their cockpit occasionally during mid flight, so the Russian pilot should have, as required, remained in position flashing lights for several minutes. He did not. Instead, he dropped back to missile attack position. Later he recalled that he fully realized at the time that the target aircraft was certainly no RC-135 spy plane and in fact not any Western military aircraft he'd ever been trained to recognize. But he assumed it was some new military spy craft, and he had his orders to destroy it.
During the course of the overflight, Soviet military commanders had ample opportunity to determine that the intruder was a civilian airliner. They had no contrary evidence beyond their initial presumption that it was a spy plane. All of their evidence argued against it being an RC-135. It had been flying higher and faster than any RC-135 had ever been observed to fly before. One officer repeatedly urged caution, proclaiming,``This is a very odd intruder, to fly so straight for so long.'' But his caution was overruled.
The immediate cause of the attack, contrary to recent claims from Moscow, was not the exhaustion of all proper contact attempts. None of the contact attempts had been properly performed. The attack was ordered for only one reason. The plane was about to depart Soviet air space, to escape out over the Sea of Japan.
The ICAO report last June reconstructed the flight path from aircraft parameters preserved on the Digital Flight Data Recorder. Since precise inertial measurement unit position reports are not saved, the exact location of the aircraft at the moment of the attack was not determined.
However, a supplemental Russian Federation report also released last June did provide this location, based on ground radar data. The latitude and longitude given out clearly showed the plane was attacked in international air space, half a minute after it had crossed the Soviet 12-mile limit on its way outbound. The Soviets clearly employed deadly force far outside all internationally accepted standards. Their target was not properly identified, due to grossly inadequate procedures, nor was it warned. The departing target was not a threat to any Soviet resource, human or otherwise. It was attacked by instinct, not by reason.
The missile attack therefore becomes what is legally known as a ``superseding cause'' of harm - an event unforeseeable to the air crew who made the original navigation errors. The pilots would share culpability only if it could be shown that they deliberately rejected the Soviet contact attempts. Although the new report attempts to prove exactly that view, it fails.