The downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine has stirred memories of a 1983 incident when a Korean passenger jet was shot down by Soviet fighters in what then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan called a midair “massacre.”
As with the Malaysian plane, the loss of life was total, with all 269 passengers and crew aboard Korean Air Lines Flight 007 perishing when the stricken aircraft plunged into the Sea of Japan.
The similarities between the two disasters are striking.
Both involved aircraft from Asian airlines that were brought down by military weaponry in strikes that were directly or indirectly blamed on Russia.
And both came at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow, that fueled angry exchanges over responsibility and hampered the resulting salvage operation and accident investigation.
And, to some extent, the personal tragedy of the hundreds of innocent lost lives was overshadowed by the subsequent blame game and the wider geopolitical considerations that colored the international community’s response.
The downing of KAL 007 in September 1983 coincided with a surge in tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, which Ronald Reagan had denounced just months before as an “evil empire.”
Reagan had also just announced the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative — dubbed “Star Wars” by the mainstream media — which Moscow saw as a dangerous and destabilizing shift in the nuclear balance between the two superpowers.
Some Cold War experts say tensions rose to a level not seen since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the highly charged atmosphere was seen as a major contributor to the Korean Air Lines disaster.
KAL 007 was on the last leg of a flight from New York to Seoul, via Alaska.
Although the precise sequence of events is still contested, it is clear that the plane veered off its intended flight path into Soviet airspace.
International investigators concluded the intrusion was accidental — the result of the autopilot being set in an incorrect mode.
The Soviet air force scrambled two Sukhoi Su-15 fighter jets to intercept the airliner and, in a 1998 interview with CNN, one of the pilots, Gennadi Osipovich, described what happened next.
“I could see two rows of windows, which were lit up,” he recalled. “I wondered if it was a civilian aircraft, but I had no time to think.”
According to Osipovich, the jets fired warning tracer shots but there was no response and the command was given to shoot the plane down.
“My orders were to destroy the intruder,” Osipovich said. “I fulfilled my mission.”
Among the passengers, 105 were South Korean, but there were also 62 U.S. citizens and the reaction in Washington was one of horror and outrage.
Reagan called it a “massacre” and issued a statement in which he declared that the Soviets had turned “against the world and the moral precepts that guide human relations.”
Critics of U.S. President Barack Obama have suggested his response to the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane by suspected Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine was tepid in contrast.
But Reagan’s response was largely rhetorical and little followed in the way of punitive action.
Reagan was later quoted as telling a National Security Council meeting at the time to guard against overreaction and that “vengeance isn’t the name of the game.”
Back in 1983, the Soviets took five days to acknowledge the plane had been shot down, and then it took the official line that it was on a spy mission.
In South Korea, which was under military rule at the time, there was public outrage and numerous anti-Soviet protests, but these were largely drowned out by the war of words between Washington and Moscow.
As with the Malaysia Airlines case, the salvage operation was chaotic and highly antagonistic, with repeated U.S. complaints of interference by Soviet naval vessels in the search for wreckage and bodies.
It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Moscow revealed it had recovered the plane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders.
Classified memos suggested the Soviet leadership had kept them a secret as the tapes offered no evidence to support the claim that the plane was on a spying mission.
The boxes were handed over to the South Korean authorities during a 1992 visit to Seoul by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, but without the tapes, which were only surrendered to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) a year later.
The ICAO said the voice recorder supported its initial finding that the diversion into Soviet air space was accidental.
The flight data also showed that the missile fired by Osipovich fatally damaged the aircraft — but did not cause it to break up.
Instead, the plane experienced emergency decompression and flew in a downward spiral for some 12 minutes. Experts believe most passengers would have been fully conscious up until the point of impact.