A leading South Korean airline.
In 1962, the South Korean government established a new airline to replace the former national carrier, Korean National Airlines. Korean Air Lines (KAL), as the fledgling company was then known, began to offer domestic flights and international flights to Hong Kong and China on Boeing 707’s. Seven years later, the Hanjin Transport Group acquired the airline from the government and began to make changes, launching international flights to Japan and Southeast Asia. In 1973, KAL began to use Boeing 747’s on their Pacific Ocean routes to Tokyo and the United States. The company also inaugurated KAL’s first European route, a service to Paris, using the aging 707 aircraft. In 1984, the company shortened its name to Korean Air and unveiled a new look for its fleet: All the aircraft were repainted a sky blue color on top. Two years later, Korean Air began supplementing its fleet of Boeing 747’s with McDonnell Douglas MD-11’s. As the airline’s passenger traffic has grown, the MD-11s are now used mainly in cargo operations. The airline’s passenger fleet is now primarily composed of Boeing and Airbus aircraft, including Boeing 737’s, 747’s, and 777’s and Airbus A330’s.
Korean Air has been dogged by its safety record. One of Korean Air’s most notable disasters happened on the night of September 1, 1983. Korean Air Lines Flight 007 took off from Anchorage, Alaska, on its way to Seoul, South Korea. The flight plan called for the flight to follow the northernmost international air traffic lane between Alaska and Japan, called R20. Instead, the flight deviated more than 200 miles to the northwest, flying over Soviet airspace.
Along R20, there are seven waypoints. After passing each of these waypoints, flights are supposed to check in with air traffic control and estimate their distance to the next waypoint. Throughout the flight, the jet reported as if it were on course, following the international air traffic lane well south of Soviet territory. However, the jet actually flew over sensitive Soviet military installations on the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island.
As the jet flew over the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Soviet Air Defense Forces monitored the flight’s progress. Soviet fighters were scrambled over Kamchatka but were unable to intercept the plane before it passed back into international airspace on the other side of the peninsula. The plane continued on a southeastern course that took it straight over Sakhalin Island. Over Sakhalin, Soviet Air Defense Forces deployed at least four and as many as six Soviet interceptor planes. At 18:26 Greenwich mean time (GMT), one of the interceptor planes fired on KAL 007 and reported, “The target is destroyed.”
In the wake of the tragedy, analysts tried to account for the plane’s deviation from its flight path, advancing four main sets of hypotheses. The first hypothesis suggested that the jet strayed due to causes beyond the control of the plane’s flight crew. Scenarios involving equipment malfunction, crew incapacitation, or hijacking fall into this category. At first, Korean Air Lines officials suggested that a passenger’s onboard use of a personal computer somehow could have interfered with the navigational equipment.
A second hypothesis proposed that innocent human error was to blame. Seymour Hersh’s The Target Is Destroyed: What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It (1986) makes a strong argument that the flight engineer made an error of 10 degrees when initially programming the navigational system. Plotting the flight with a heading of longitude 139 degrees west, instead of longitude 149 degrees west, closely approximates the flight’s actual path.
A third explanation posits that the crew deliberately flew into Soviet airspace, possibly to save time and fuel, or to fulfill a dare, or out of a misguided sense of adventure. Some commentators have noted that most Korean Air pilots, including KAL 007 pilot Captain Chun Byung In, are former South Korean air force pilots, who are trained to take risks. Most other airlines employ civilian pilots, who are specifically trained not to take risks.
The last hypothesis, and the Soviet Union’s explanation for its actions, is that Flight 007 was conducting intelligence missions for the U.S. government. It should be noted that during 1983, the United States routinely flew missions in the area to gather intelligence about possible Soviet missile tests. Although many writers have produced cogent arguments to support each of these explanations, it is impossible to say with any certainty which of these hypotheses is correct.
Korean Air has suffered other incidents. On August 6, 1997, a Korean Air flight crashed into a hillside in Guam, killing 228 of the 254 people on board. A navigational aid called a glide slope was not working that day. The crew did not understand that the glide slope was out of service and descended below the approach profile, striking the hillside, about 3 miles short of the runway. It has been suggested that the pilot’s English was not good enough to understand that the glide slope was unusable.
On March 15, 1999, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 overran the runway at Pohang, South Korea. The accident occurred on the plane’s second attempt to land in high winds and poor visibility. The aircraft broke into several pieces; fortunately, none of the 156 people aboard was killed.
Dallin, Alexander. Black Box: KAL 007 and the Superpowers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. An account of the downing of KAL Flight 007, focusing on the role the U.S. and Soviet superpowers played in the tragedy. Hersh, Seymour M. The Target Is Destroyed: What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It. New York: Random House, 1986. An account of the ill-fated KAL Flight 007 that argues for navigational error as a factor in the incident. Johnson, R. W. Shootdown: Flight 007 and the American Connection. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986. An account of the KAL Flight 007 incident that holds the flight was actually on an American surveillance mission over the Soviet Union.