Unusual Losses of Aircraft
This chapter will identify several unusual aircraft crash events from the 1980s to present day that highlight the tragic consequences of murder/ suicide related aircraft losses. The events that are presented have all been investigated by national accident investigation authorities, and the reports have been publicly published. Typically, each report is a very substantial document with hundreds of pages of factual content, in addition to appendices illustrating the background, facts, and the findings of the investigators. The discussion in this book is not intended to replace or supersede any such published report, rather the pertinent points are identified for the reader and placed in the context of aviation safety and security. Some of the accident investigations are incomplete, awaiting the discovery of further physical evidence, such as the MH370 event. For simplicity, this event will be included as a possible murder/suicide occurrence, due to the weight of evidence regarding its flight characteristics as well as other evidence that has arisen over the years.
Lastly, current aircraft weaknesses are included in this chapter to highlight the real potential for a catastrophic type event. The prediction of such events is always continuous, but is based on the combination of technical performance of the aircraft, historical events and known operational weaknesses.
Korean Air Lines KL 007 Shoot Down, 1 September 1983
Korea Airline KE 007 was a scheduled flight from New York's JFK International Airport to Seoul Gimpo Airport. The aircraft was a Boeing B747-200 series passenger aircraft, and on the 1 September 1983 this flight was shot down with 269 souls on board.
Korea Airlines KE 007,1 September 1983 Flight plan and actual track. (NTSB.)
The first leg of the flight was uneventful, from New York's JFK to Anchorage, Alaska. The aircraft refuelled in Anchorage, and took-off bound for South Korea, as illustrated by the solid black line in Figure 8.1.
During the extended flight over the North Pacific Ocean, the flight procedure required the flight crew to overfly the town of Bethel, Alaska (very close to the Pacific west coast) and enter the North Pacific (NORPAC) flight routes that link the Alaskan and Japanese land territories. Normally aircraft overfly land-based VF1F Omni Range (VOR) radio beacons, and within a modern aircraft the beacon is identified with the respective bearing ('To' or 'From') and the distance from the aircraft to the beacon is shown. However, as it is difficult to operate such beacons on floating structures, a different technology is employed when travelling across large bodies of water, namely Inertial Navigation Systems (INS). Older INS technology used a spinning mass with accelerometers that recorded the rate of change in the three axes of direction, but the newer versions are based on ring laser gyros. These are very accurate once 'aligned' as they use the laser's light-based interference patterns to determine the rate of change (acceleration).
The autopilot system that was fitted to this aircraft required the navigation system to be changed from the VOR radio data to the INS data inputs within a short distance (approximately 7 nautical miles) from the ground- based VOR station. While the INS system was functioning correctly, the flight crews did not select the correct data input source for the autopilot. Figure 8.1 illustrates the dashed line track that should have been flown with the correct procedures, and the solid line is the unintended flight track that took KE 007 into Russian airspace, which was prohibited at the time of the incident.
In the 1980s, the Cold war was ongoing and tensions between the West and the Soviet Bloc resulted in numerous small military flashpoints. On this flight, KE 007 entered Soviet airspace at 15.51 UTC. A compounding factor was that some of the Soviet's ground radar detection was not fully operational; the detection of this civilian aircraft came as a shock to the Soviet radar and ground commanders, because their long-range equipment was not working and the short-range equipment had made a late detection. As a result of this unexpected entry, the military scrambled interceptor aircraft to locate, identify and, if necessary, take action in order to repel the intruders. Unfortunately, due to the nature of interceptors and their limited fuel payload, range, etc., the military flight crews were unable to obtain a clear visual flight confirmation, even though they reported to their commander that they had done so. This was because the intercepted aircraft was dark, and the fighter pilots claimed they could only see the anti-collision beacons and strobe lights. The Soviet military ground commanders believed that the 'intruder' was a military-type aircraft, and thus they gave the interceptors orders to shoot down the so-called hostile aircraft before it could leave Soviet airspace and escape. The Korean Air Jumbo changed altitude around this time, and the fighter aircraft flew past the aircraft. At no time did the interceptors or the Jumbo successfully make radio contact with one another prior to the following tragic events.
In the confusion of the fast-changing situation, with the interceptors running low on fuel and the eagerness of the ground commanders to be decisive, two air to air missiles were launched by the Soviet fighters at the Boeing B747. The Jumbo was fatally damaged, and while the aircraft did not explode or break up during the attack, the damage to the aircraft and flight control systems resulted in the Korean Air flight crew being unable to control the plane. The aircraft flew for a short time and descended to a low altitude before crashing into the sea close to the Moneron Island, a Russian territory. All aboard were killed. Attempts by the American military to locate KE 007 on the seabed were scuppered by the Soviet military, who denied knowledge of the crash or the location, and prevented the Americans from starting Search and Rescue (SAR) activities within Soviet waters.
Many years later, the Soviets admitted to sending SAR operations to the location of the crash site. More importantly, the Soviet military secretly recovered both the flight recorders but denied any knowledge of the crash location, nor the recovery of the CVR and FDR recorders. It was not until 1992, some nine years later, that these recorders were returned to South Korea as an act of good will by the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. It was only with the return of these recorders that it was possible to download the actual recorded data for a full analysis. For many years, the West was not able to understand how a Jumbo could accidently fly into Soviet airspace unintentionally, with such tragic consequences.
After this event, the US government wanted to prevent such an event from happening again by allowing civilians free-use of the US military's Global Positioning System (GPS). Using the GPS system would allow civilian users to be able to identify where they were on the planet, by receiving a minimum of four separate satellite signals. Later, the aircraft manufacturers modified their aircraft to make it clearer to the pilots which system was being used with the autopilot system, be it ground-based navigation data or INS data.
This event highlights the effects of small procedural errors made by pilots that can take their planned flight significantly off-course. The violation of flight space and the rush of the military to intercept and take 'decisive action' based on incomplete data cost the lives of all 269 passengers and crew that day, in addition to the financial losses and subsequent compensation that was awarded many years later. The shooting down of this civilian aircraft by the Soviet military resulted in a homicide event.
This shooting-down of a civilian aircraft by a military power is not an isolated event. On 3 July 1988, USS Vincennes was deployed to the Arabian Gulf region. An Iran Air Airbus A300-200 passenger aircraft, flight 655, was operating a scheduled service from Tehran to Dubai Airport in the UAE, via Bandar Abbas airport in Iran. When the aircraft took-off from Bandar Abbas airport, the USS Vincennes was engaged in escort duties close to the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz was a location where many international ships had been attacked during the Iran-Iraq war, with numerous aircraft firing air-to-surface missiles at them. The Iran Air A300 was flying the short distance from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, descending from 14,000 ft. The electronic 'friend or foe' on the USS Vincennes system identified the A300 incorrectly as an F14 Tomcat aircraft from Iran. Numerous radio messages were sent from the US warship to the aircraft using the limited equipment on board, but no reply was made. The Vincennes, already in a heightened combat state from the day's earlier engagement with the Iranian Navy, fired a surface-to-air missile, destroying the A300 aircraft and killing the 290 passengers on board. The Iranians considered the event a deliberate act of homicide, whereas the American investigation considered the events a tragic accident, noting that the warship did not have the correct communication equipment for commercial aviation. Furthermore, an international investigation concluded that while the Iran Air flight crew did hear three warnings given on distress frequencies, they did not acknowledge them, believing they were directed at another Iranian P3 Orion aircraft in the region at the time.
It is worthwhile for the reader to note that the significant difference between KE 007 and Iran Air flight 655 was that the Korean shootdown was a deliberate act to down an 'intruder' aircraft leaving Soviet territory for international airspace, whereas flight 655 was a combination of computer and procedural failures, as well as misidentification and expectation failures from both the US military ships' company and the civilian flight crews.