Soviets shoot down U.S. jet

Soviets shoot down U.S. jet

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The U.S. State Department angrily accuses the Soviet Union of shooting down an American jet that strayed into East German airspace. officers aboard the plane were killed in the incident. The Soviets responded with charges that the flight was a “gross provocation,” and the incident was an ugly reminder of the heightened East-West tensions of the Cold War-era.

According to the U.S. military, the jet was on a training flight over West Germany and pilots became disoriented by a violent storm that led the plane to veer nearly 100 miles off course. The Soviet attack on the plane provoked angry protests from the Department of State and various congressional leaders, including Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, who charged that the Soviets had intentionally downed the plane “to gain the offensive” in the aggressive Cold War maneuvering.

For their part, the Soviets refused to accept U.S. protests and responded that they had “all grounds to believe that this was not an error or mistake…It was a clear intrusion.” Soviet officials also claimed that the plane was ordered to land but refused the instructions. Shortly after the incident, U.S. officials were allowed to travel to East Germany to recover the bodies and the wreckage.

Like numerous other similar Cold War incidents–including the arrest of suspected “spies” and the seizure of ships–this event resulted in heated verbal exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union, but little else. Both nations had bigger issues to contend with: the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War, and the Soviet Union was dealing with a widening split with communist China. The deaths were, however, another reminder that the heated suspicion, heightened tension, and loaded rhetoric of the Cold War did have the potential to erupt into meaningless death and destruction.

How the USSR captured American aircraft

An air-to-air left front view of an F-111 aircraft during a refueling mission over the North Sea.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union became a golden era for military aviation. Fighters and bombers supplied by the two superpowers to the warring sides in numerous proxy conflicts around the world played no small part in their outcome.

Often, the result of not just an air battle, but of a local war as a whole, depended on whose planes had better speed, manoeuvrability and resilience. Which made it all the more important to capture the enemy&rsquos aircraft and study it in every detail.

Hunting for a Sabre

View of F-86 airplanes on the flight line getting ready for combat.

During the Korean War of the early 1950s, Soviet MiG-15 and American F-86 &lsquoSabre&rsquo fighter jets were largely on a par with each other. Both sides tried to get hold of one of the other&rsquos planes, but only the USSR managed to do it.

In April 1951, a group of test pilots headed by Lieutenant Colonel Dzyubenko arrived in North Korea. Their task was to force an F-86 to land at a North Korean airfield.

Although the group&rsquos mission was a failure, a Sabre soon fell into Soviet hands. During a battle on October 6 of the same year, Soviet pilot Lieutenant Colonel Yevgeny Pepelyaev did such carefully calculated damage to an American plane that the latter landed on the North Korean coast practically unscathed. The U.S. pilot was picked up by a U.S. Air Force search and rescue party, but the aircraft was seized and sent to Moscow.

Four U.S. Air Force North American F-86E Sabre fighters of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing over Korea on 22 May 1953.

The USSR decided to copy the &ldquokiller of MiGs&rdquo, as the F-86 was nicknamed in the Western press. Stalin gave designer Vladimir Kondratyev a year to create a &ldquoSoviet Sabre&rdquo. However, Kondratyev failed in the task and after Stalin&rsquos death, the project was abandoned. In the end, it was decided to borrow individual units, components and materials of the captured fighter for use in the Soviet aviation industry.

As for the Americans, in order to capture a MiG-15, they launched Operation Moolah on November 1, 1950, promising a large reward to North Korean pilots for defecting to South Korea on serviceable fighters. However, the operation flopped. It was only on September 21, 1953, when the war was already over, that defector No Kum-sok landed a MiG-15 at the Kimpo air base near Seoul.

Hunting for an Aardvark

General Dynamics F-111A (SN 63-9768, third pre-production aircraft) with unswept wings at the aircraft rollout on Oct. 15, 1964.

On March 17, 1968, six of the USA&rsquos newest F-111 &lsquoAardvark&rsquo jet bombers arrived in Vietnam. For its ability to appear unexpectedly and almost silently, to strike swiftly and disappear without a trace, the North Vietnamese dubbed this aircraft &lsquoWhispering Death&rsquo.

Soviet intelligence officers first saw the &lsquoAardvark&rsquo in the spring of 1967 at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget. Despite being strictly guarded by U.S. military police, it was nevertheless photographed multiple times and from various angles by Soviet agents. However, the most difficult and important task &ndash that of studying the aircraft's &ldquoinsides&rdquo &ndash was yet to be accomplished.

In reality, the &lsquoWhispering Death&rsquo turned out to be not quite so threatening. Just a few weeks after their arrival in Vietnam, two &lsquoAardvark&rsquo aircraft were shot down by the air defense forces of the Vietnamese People&rsquos Army, while another was captured and sent to the USSR.

There are several versions of how that &lsquoAardvark&rsquo was seized. According to one of them, the F-111, which was performing a night flight at a low altitude, was &ldquodrowned out&rdquo, i.e. its communications with its base were jammed, while a Soviet pilot in a fighter jet forced the U.S. plane to the ground and making it land at an airfield in North Vietnam.

At the same time, others doubt it that the Soviet Union had sufficient technical capabilities to jam the U.S. plane&rsquos radio signal. According to this theory, the pilots had simply been bribed and they cut off communications with their base themselves.

Generally speaking, the Vietnam War became a rich source of trophies for the Soviet Union. In addition to the F-111, Moscow got its hands on an F-4, a A-37 and an F-5E aircraft, CH-47A &lsquoChinook&rsquo helicopters, an AIM-7 &lsquoSparrow&rsquo missile and several hundred more models of American weapons and military hardware.

If using any of Russia Beyond's content, partly or in full, always provide an active hyperlink to the original material.

During the Korean War formally the air forces did not meet, as the Soviet Union was not a combatant in the conflict. In August 1945 the USSR declared war on Japan and commenced their offensive campaigns against the Japanese Army. Moving into Japanese occupied Korea, the Soviets gained a foothold in that region, ultimately making it North Korea, and an ally to the Soviet Union. Nearly 72,000 Soviet personnel served in North Korea and their presence was suppressed by both the Soviet and American governments [1] air dogfights between USSR and US pilots were numerous. The Soviets flew planes that had Chinese or North Korean markings and were initially forbidden from speaking in Russian over the airwaves. [1] The ban was soon lifted due to obvious problems with using Korean to communicate in critical battle situations. [2]

Unlike North Korea, Nationalist China invaded French Indochina (Vietnam) in 1945 to regain the region from the occupying Japanese military at the end of World War II, [3] but were unable to gain a foothold in North Vietnam. Student North Vietnamese MiG pilots were sent to China and the Soviet Union for up to three years for training. Student North Vietnamese SAM operators were sent to the USSR for about six to nine months of training. [4] [5] Soviet and Chinese Communist pilots were restricted to test flying MiGs which had been exported to North Vietnam from their countries. [6] [7] Due to the urgency brought on by Operation Rolling Thunder, and until North Vietnamese missilemen could be trained, Soviet PVO SAM Anti-Aircraft Missile operator/instructors were quickly deployed to North Vietnam in 1965, and through 1966 were responsible for downing approximately 48 US aircraft during the course of defending North Vietnam. [8] [9] There is one reported ace pilot from the USSR nevertheless, Col. Vadim Shcherbakov who is credited with 6 air-to-air kills. [10]

During the Cold War many nations including the Soviet Union and the United States were fiercely protective of their airspaces. Aircraft which entered an opposing nation's airspace were often shot down in air-to-air combat. The incidents produced a heightened sense of paranoia on both sides that resulted in the downing of civilian craft. Many of the aircraft listed at that link were not shot down as a result of Cold War paranoia by US or USSR aircrews, but rather direct action by active combatants (for example, the two Air Rhodesia flights).

The table lists air combat losses outside of the war zones, such as Korean War or Vietnam War. It does not include losses to ground-based defenses, and it does not include civilian aircraft.

Soviets shoot down U.S. jet - HISTORY

In the bright sunshine high above the Korean peninsula, the silver-skin of 39 B-29 Superfortresses gleamed as they flew in formation. Their mission that day on April 12, 1951, was to destroy a bridge on the Chinese border and disrupt the flow of munitions and men pouring into North Korea.

Lumbering along at just more than 300 miles per hour, the heavy bombers were the pride of the United States Air Force. Viewed as “invincible,” the piston-engine aircraft had helped win World War II against Japan six years earlier by dropping tens of thousands of tons of bombs on the island nation, as well as two atomic weapons.

For this attack, the Superfortresses were escorted by nearly 50 F-84 Thunderjets, a first-generation jet fighter. The much-faster straight-wing planes had to throttle back considerably to stay with the bombers.

Suddenly from high altitude, the Americans were swarmed by lightning-fast enemy jets. Featuring a swept-wing design and powerful engines, approximately 30 MiG-15s swooped down and began peppering the American bombers and jets with cannon fire. Adorned with North Korean and Chinese markings, these aircraft were actually flown by top Soviet pilots who had honed their skills against some of the best German aces during World War II.

The slow B-29s were easy pickings for the superior MiG-15s. The Soviets darted in and out of the formations, shooting down three Superfortresses and heavily damaging another seven bombers. Outmaneuvered and outclassed, the American escort jets were helpless against the attack. In the confusion, they even shot at their own planes.

“Our MiGs opened fire against ‘Flying Superfortresses,’” Soviet ace Sergey Kramarenko later recalled. “One of them lost a wing, the plane was falling into parts. Three or four aircraft caught fire.”

The slow-moving B-29s (above: a formation drops bombs over Korea) would prove easy pickings for the superior MiG-15s. (Hulton Archive, Getty Images)

It was a humiliating defeat for the U.S. Air Force. While most military leaders knew the days of piston-driven bombers were numbered, they didn’t expect it would be that day 70 years ago, which became known as Black Thursday. American bombing missions over the Sinuiju area in North Korea were grounded for three months until enough squadrons of F-86 Sabres, a swept-wing jet that matched up well against the MiG-15, could take on this new challenge in the Korean War.

The air battle over “MiG Alley,” as this sector of North Korea was called by Allied pilots, changed the course of the conflict between the world’s superpowers.

“By 1951, the B-29 Superfortress was an antique, though we didn’t know it at the time,” says Alex Spencer, curator in the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “Things went very badly, very quickly for the bomber forces. This battle changed the nature of the American air campaign over Korea.”

The MiG-15 shocked the West with its capabilities. This aircraft looked eerily similar to the Sabre but had certain improvements—namely its ceiling level. The MiG-15 could fly at heights of 50,000 feet, giving it a slight upper hand over the F-86. Plus, the Soviet jet carried cannons, not guns: two 23-millimeters, plus a 37-millimeter. The Sabre was equipped with six .50-caliber machineguns.

Those armaments had a destructive effect on the B-29 Superfortresses, says Mike Hankins, the museum’s curator of Air Force history.

The MiG-15 was developed by Soviet aircraft designers Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich. (NASM) The Soviet aircraft (above: a view of the cockpit of the Smithsonian's MiG-15) “could drop and do these hit-and-run attacks,” says curator Mike Hankins. (NASM)

“The kill rate of bombers by MiG-15 was devastating,” he says. “The larger cannon was made to take out B-29s. You get a few of those cannon hits and the whole thing could go down. I heard some pilots referring to them as ‘flaming golf balls.’”

Those heavy weapons, plus the high-altitude capability, made the MiG-15 a formidable aircraft. The Air and Space Museum displays one of these jets in the Boeing Aviation Hangar of its Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The MiG-15 is positioned near its archrival, the F-86.

“The MiG-15 could drop and do these hit-and-run attacks,” Hankins says. “They would go into a steep dive, follow a path and hit as many bombers as they could. If they shot them down, that was great. If they damaged them enough to keep them from getting a bomb on target, that was also great. The aircraft was very effective at that.”

“I still remember the image in my mind: an armada of planes is flying in combat formation,” Soviet ace Sergey Kramarenko (above in 2014 in Moscow's Red Square) told a journalist years later. “Suddenly we swoop down on top of them. I open fire on one of the bombers—immediately white smoke starts billowing out. I had damaged the fuel tank.” (Associate Press)

Developed by Soviet aircraft designers Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich, the MiG-15 stunned American military leaders when it first appeared over Korea in 1950. It was far superior to the Shooting Stars and Thunderjets, and quickly chased them from the sky.

This is what happened on Black Thursday. The F-84 jet fighters with their straight-wing design similar to World War II aircraft were at a definite disadvantage to the streamlined MiG-15.

“Our early fighter jets were not very good performance-wise,” Spencer says. “The designers at that time were still working on what they knew. With the F-86 Sabre, you get the introduction of the swept wing, which made a huge difference in the performance of jet aircraft.”

But before the Sabre’s arrived on the scene, the American fighters could not keep up with the much faster MiG-15. Sorties of three and four enemy jets zoomed down on the helpless Superfortress bombers, then quickly zipped back high out of range from the American fighters.

After Black Thursday, the U.S. Air Force called a halt to its long-range strategic bombing campaign and waited three months (above: a group of F-86 Sabre jet fighters are readied for combat, June 1951) until it could get enough F-86 Sabres into the air over Korea to match the Soviets. (Interim Archives, Getty Images)

“The F-84s were much slower,” Hankins says. “And they were also going slower to stay with the bombers. The MiGs were so much faster, the American pilots just didn’t have a chance to catch up. It caught them by surprise.”

For Soviet pilot Kramarenko, it was an important moment. Not only did his squadron prevent the bombing of the Yalu River bridge, it demonstrated to the world that the Soviet technology was on a par with the American's.

“I still remember the image in my mind: an armada of planes is flying in combat formation, beautiful, like during a parade,” Kramarenko told a journalist years later. “Suddenly we swoop down on top of them. I open fire on one of the bombers—immediately white smoke starts billowing out. I had damaged the fuel tank.”

After Black Thursday, the U.S. Air Force called a halt to its long-range strategic bombing campaign and waited three months until it could get enough F-86 Sabres into the air over Korea to match the Soviets. Only then were B-29s allowed to resume missions to MiG Alley along the Chinese border–and only when accompanied by Sabres.

Also, on view at the museum's Udvar-Hazy Center is the swept-wing fighter, the F-86 Sabre—archrival of the MiG-15. (NASM)

“For several months, the battle affected B-29 operations,” Hankins says. “It put limits on what the Air Force was willing to do and where they were willing to send the bombers.”

While considered by many experts as the equal of the Sabre, Spencer believes the Soviet jet might have had a slight advantage. It was a durable aircraft and easier to maintain, he notes.

“The MiG-15 was a very robust aircraft,” Spencer says. “That was a characteristic that Soviet designers kept going throughout the Cold War. Their aircraft were able to operate in much harsher conditions and much rougher airfields than our aircraft were able to do.”

About the Author: David Kindy is a journalist, freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He writes about history, culture and other topics for Air & Space, Military History, World War II, Vietnam, Aviation History, Providence Journal and other publications and websites. Read more articles from David Kindy and Follow on Twitter @dandydave56

The Amazing Story of How a Stealth Fighter Was Shot Down

The F-117’s effectiveness was supported by countermeasures to any prospective missile defense system the plane would meet. For instance, EA-6 Prowler aircraft could be used to electronically jam the missiles’ sensors, and “Wild Weasel” aircraft could target the SAM sites when their radars turned on.

In 1998, following years of unrest and insurgency, an open war began between the government of Serbia, led by Slobodan Milosevic, and the Kosovo Liberation Army, a Kosovar militant group operating in Serbian-controlled Kosovo. Following reports of ethnic cleansing against Albanians in Kosovo, NATO voted to intervene against Milosevic to end the war, and airstrikes on Serbia began on the night of March 24, 1999.

U.S. participation in this campaign was led by the F-117 Nighthawk. The Nighthawk was one of the first true “stealth” aircraft it had been highly successful during the 1991 Gulf War, and not a single plane had yet been lost.

The F-117’s effectiveness was supported by countermeasures to any prospective missile defense system the plane would meet. For instance, EA-6 Prowler aircraft could be used to electronically jam the missiles’ sensors, and “Wild Weasel” aircraft could target the SAM sites when their radars turned on.

Both of these countermeasures, however, were absent on the night of March 27, when Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko took off for Serbia in an F-117 Nighthawk. Moreover, some of the cautions that had been exercised during previous wars had given way to complacency. When F-117s launched raids on Baghdad in 1991, they would never the same flight paths in and out of Iraq. U.S. F-117s in Kosovo and Serbia, on the other hand, would.

And while the F-117 was nominally invisible to radar, it had a fatal flaw when its bomb bay doors opened, its radar signature expanded, allowing it to be targeted far easier.

The Serbian government was not ignorant of NATO’s advantages, but they also knew that the war was unpopular in the United States. They reasoned that by shooting down a high-profile aircraft such as the F-117, they could embarrass the Clinton administration and force an early end to U.S. involvement.

Therefore, on the night of March 27, the Serbian Army had laid a sophisticated trap for Zelko. Serbian spies stationed in Italy watched NATO planes take off from airbases there. Two separate radar systems were used by the Serbian air defenses. One low-bandwidth radar, the P-18 “Spoon Rest D”, was used to track the F-117 although it could only detect it from 15 miles away and was too imprecise to guide a missile toward it, this radar was nearly impossible to detect by NATO countermeasures, so it could be left on. The second system, the SNR-125 “Neva-Pechora” – or SA-3 “Goa”, to NATO – could be used to guide missiles, but was more vulnerable to attack. Therefore, SNR-125 radars were normally only turned on in short bursts twice a night.

Moreover, there was a margin of error the SNR-125 could only lock onto the plane if it was within 15 miles. The SNR-125 radar commanded by Colonel Zoltan Dani, which had been placed along the anticipated flight path, turned on twice, to no effect.

But because the spies in Italy had seen no Prowlers take off, Dani decided it was safe to try again. He turned the radar on the third time – and spotted Zelko’s F-117 with its bomb bay doors open.

Two missiles were fired. The first narrowly missed the second exploded near Zelko’s F-117, downing it.

Zelko parachuted out of the plane with the aid of a U.S. search-and-rescue team, he was able to narrowly evade Serbian pursuers. While his escape was extremely fortunate for the United States, the event was nonetheless a propaganda coup for Serbia using sophisticated tactics, they had shot down an advanced U.S. stealth jet, for the first and only time in its history. “Sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible,” a propaganda poster triumphantly proclaimed in the aftermath.

Parts of the downed plane are still visible in the Museum of Aviation in Belgrade. The F-117 was retired in 2008, although some remain operational.

The Kosovo War was not a “good war,” but it had one small silver lining: in 2011, decades after the shootdown, Zelko traveled to Serbia to meet Dani, the man who had shot him down, and the two of them became friends.

Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.

Here's the last time Russia shot down a passenger plane

It's impossible to observe the world react to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine without thinking of the day the Russians shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over the Sahakin Islands on Sept., 1, 1983. Then, as now, the area was saturated with intelligence sensors, and the two superpowers had a very good idea about what exactly had happened within hours. But the battle to gain geopolitical leverage from the tragedy poisoned the public's understanding.

But thanks to the signals intelligence collected by the actual RC-135 surveillance plane that the Russian fighter pilot thought he was aiming at the United States knew almost immediately that he had shot down the plane by accident. The passenger plane had flown, probably accidentally, on a magnetic heading of 246 degrees soon after leaving Anchorage, Alaska, and its pilots assumed that another navigation system was in control, having failed to link the plane's compass heading to its instrument navigation system (INS).

The Americans had expected the Soviets to test a new missile later that day, a missile that was supposed to land somewhere in the vicinity of the Petropavlosk Navy Base, where dozens of nuclear subs were stationed. KAL 007's 246-degree heading put it on a direct course to that sensitive area. So when the Soviets saw a target of interest heading to that area, they naturally scrambled a response, assuming that the plane, if it was an RC-135, would stay outside the roughly 20 km prohibited zone that marked the boundary of Russian territory. But the plane did not stop. It flew through, and then, on the same heading, soon found itself in international waters again.

The Russians watched the plane approach, and then fly through, a second swath of Soviet territory. The Su-15 pilot, Gennadie Osipovich, part of a fighter wing based at Dolinsk-Sokol, tried to contact the plane on the international distress frequency. The Korean pilots probably did not hear his pleas they had no reason to think that they were in any danger based on where they thought they were.

Osipovich was under pressure from his ground commander not to let the plane leave Russian territory a second time. Even still, he showed significant restraint, not wanting to fire until he had a positive identification on the aircraft. Why? He knew the stakes: Shooting down an American spy plane could lead to real war.

His location in three-dimensional space did not afford enough of a visual of the plane to identify it as a passenger liner. From below, the two jets looked identical. And on the radio, he never betrayed any awareness that the plane was not, in fact, an RC-135 identified earlier.

From 1985, here is Murray Sayle's excellent description of what happened next:

At this point the fighter must have been behind and below KE007, the normal attack position. He would see only a dim black shape, with no ready way of estimating its size, and the red and white lights the aircraft was showing astern. All the cabin lights would have been dimmed and the blinds drawn, at this stage in the flight, so that the passengers could sleep past sunrise. The fighter several times reported the "target's" course as 240 degrees, a reasonable approximation for the few seconds at the fighter pilot's disposal.

While the Soviet fighter was astern of him, KE007 called Tokyo Air Traffic Control, asked for and was given permission for a "step-climb," normal at the end of a long flight when the aircraft has burned off most of its fuel and can fly both higher and faster. A few seconds later the fighter, evidently on instructions from the ground, reports, "I have broken off lock-on. I am firing cannon bursts." The fighter was clearly making a hasty attempt at the Soviet interception procedure-wing waggling, firing tracer bullets, and calling on the emergency frequency — with no sign of response.

The fighter saw but misinterpreted KE007's step-climb, reporting, according to the air-to-ground transcripts: "The target is decreasing speed. I am going around it. I am already in front of the target." This is evidently some sort of maneuver intended to attract "the target's" attention, but it is brief. Twenty-four seconds later the fighter tells his ground controller: "It should have been earlier. How can I chase it, I am already abeam of the target [meaning that the fighter is flying alongside KE007, level with the airliner's wing-tip light, and all but invisible from the 747's cockpit]. Now I have to fall back a bit."

At 1823 GMT some sort of order comes from the ground controller, which the fighter pilot wants repeated: "Say again," the transcript reads. We can easily deduce what the order was, because he then reports: "I am dropping back. Now I will try rockets." And, a few seconds later, "Roger. I am in lock-on."

The transcripts, which come from both Japanese and American sources, clearly show that some sort of interception was attempted. They also show that the attempt lasted three minutes and thirty-two seconds, which includes the time taken to break the lock-on, approach KE007, make whatever signals were attempted, fall back, and lock on again. The fighter cannot have been in the vicinity of the airliner for more than a minute, at which exact time, by an evil chance, the crew was busy with a routine message to Tokyo, and the copilot (on the side of the aircraft that the fighter approached) would have had his map light on to see the knobs and switches of his radio.

A minute later, the fighter tells his ground controller, "I am closing on the target, I am in lock-on. Distance to target is eight kilometers." And then, "I have executed the launch. The target is destroyed." [The New York Review of Books]

That day, at least five American RC-135 orbits were planned to monitor the Soviet's missile tests. The Soviets were, naturally, on alert for RC-135s, and they saw what they expected to see. Russian air defense pilots would have been briefed. Indeed, one of them was within about 30 miles of the Korean plane at the time of the shooting.

According to the NSA's own still largely classified history, it recorded the air-to-ground conversations of the pilots and then transmitted them to NSA LADYLOVE, the satellite intercept station in Misawa, Japan. CRITIC cables containing verbatim transcripts were at the National Security Council within hours.

One of the sentries on board the RC-135 told a colleague later that when the Su-15 fired, he thought the RC-135 was the target. His fallback theory: The Soviets must have been conducting an unusually elaborate air defense drill.

Much of the NSA history is redacted, but even the agency admits that "no one in the intelligence community had any reason to suspect that a commercial airliner was the object of all that attention."

In fact, in the commotion after the shoot-down, the NSA was convinced for a brief moment that the Soviets had actually shot down an RC-135. You won't see this in any unclassified history, but I have confirmed this from two former NSA officials I interviewed for an upcoming book on an unrelated subject. An urgent cable from NSA in Fort Meade to Misawa asked for confirmation that all of the RC-135s were accounted for.

Some particularly paranoid Russians, like the chief of its general staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarchov, insisted for days the passenger plane was a false flag job, that the Americans had painted an RC-135 to look like a regular 747 or had somehow spoofed Soviet radar. Since Ogarchov would not allow for any sort of accidental shoot-down, the Reagan administration easily called his bluff: hey, even the Soviet's most storied general is admitting that they did it on purpose. And, of course, the world knows that the Korean Air Lines plane was real.

When Ronald Reagan later told Americans that "our RC-135 that I mentioned earlier had been back at its base in Alaska," he was lying by omission. There was another RC-135 in the air.

And when Reagan said, "Make no mistake . this was the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere. It was an act of barbarism," to say that he was not properly characterizing the story would be an understatement. Reagan's national security team saw the chance to make a point about Soviet aggression at a very critical juncture in the Cold War — and they took it.

The last time a Russian jet was shot down by a NATO jet was in 1952

A Russian Su-24 Fencer, a multi-role attack aircraft, was shot down by Turkish F-16s while reportedly flying in Turkish airspace Tuesday. The shoot down — while having wide-ranging ramifications for countries operating in the region — marks the first time a NATO country has shot down a Russian jet in just over 63 years.

On November 18, 1952, in the waning months of the Korean War, four U.S. aircraft carriers were steaming through the Sea of Japan with orders to strike North Korean supply lines in the city of Hoeryong, North Korea. Hoeryong sits near the mouth of the Yalu river on the spit of land that borders both Chinese Manchuria and Russia.

As the ships neared their targets, the U.S.S. Helena with a team from the National Security Agency aboard, detected radio traffic coming out of the Soviet Union, according to an account in the aviation magazine Flight Journal. The transmissions indicated that the carriers had been detected and Russian aircraft were preparing to intercept.

In response, the U.S.S. Oriskany scrambled four F9F-5 Panthers and launched them in quick succession. The F9F was an early model jet fighter used extensively in the Korean War. The single-seat, stubby looking aircraft was billed as inferior to its Russian MiG counterparts because of its slower, non-swept wing design.

As the flight of four broke the clouds, radio traffic indicated that enemy aircraft were approximately 80 miles north, but as the Russian MiG 15s came into view two of the Panthers had to return to the carrier. The flight lead had a mechanical malfunction, and his wingman was required to escort him home.

That left Lt. Royce Williams and his wingman Lt. junior grade David Rowlands up against seven MiG 15s in the skies over the sea of Japan. The Panthers were armed with 20mm cannons, while the Russians had similar armaments.

In the fierce dogfight that followed, Williams shot down four of the MiGs, a feat unheard of until that point in the war. Badly damaged, Williams was forced to fly too low to be able to eject. He barely made it back to the Oriskany for an emergency landing, and after tanking his aircraft on the flight deck, he emerged unscathed. Williams told Flight Journal that his Panther had over 260 holes in it from the Russian MiGs and it was so damaged that the flight crew merely pushed it into the sea instead of trying to salvage it.


At least 50 American airmen shot down on spy missions over or near the Soviet Union since World War II have never been accounted for and may have been held as prisoners by the Soviets, according to several specialists on Cold War aerial surveillance.

Those estimates yesterday came after Russian President Boris Yeltsin wrote U.S. senators Friday that 12 previously unacknowledged Americans shot down over Soviet territory during the 1950s were imprisoned in the Soviet Union.

Yeltsin, in a letter to the Senate Select Committee on POW and MIA Affairs, acknowledged that for years Soviet leaders had lied to the United States.

The Pentagon said that it always became a matter of public record when a plane went down. But the intelligence specialists said the Pentagon did not identify them as spy craft and seldom said they were missing as a result of Soviet action. Neither the U.S. nor the Soviet government ever admitted that any U.S. spy planes were downed over Soviet territory other than the highly publicized U-2 flight piloted by Francis Gary Powers in 1960.

President Bush, a former CIA director, said yesterday in response to a question that he was unaware of the 12 Americans Yeltsin identified, adding, "I believe that Gorbachev denied it."

The Yeltsin letter referred only to planes brought down over Soviet territory, not those downed along its periphery, and also referred only to those being held prisoner as of Aug. 1, 1953.

But specialists on the history of Cold War aerial spying said from 1945 until 1969, the United States flew hundreds of flights over or touching Soviet territory, and thousands of flights near its borders, for example, in the Baltic or near Armenia. They said many planes were downed and at least 50 airmen are unaccounted for.

James Bamford, an investigative producer on ABC's "World News Tonight" and author of a 1982 book on the National Security Agency, "The Puzzle Palace," said that after World War II and continuing at least through the 1960s, there was a "bloody electronic war" in which the United States repeatedly sent planes to learn military information.

In one incident, a U.S. EC-130 shot down near the Turkish-Russian border in September 1958 with 17 aboard. It was established that six died, but the fate of the 11 others is unclear.

Bamford's book detailed a number of such incidents and he said he believes that "at least 50" crewman on spy missions were "missing or unaccounted for."

Jeffrey Richelson, author of the 1987 book, "American Espionage and the Soviet Target," said he had found the fate of a minimum of 42 U.S. airmen on such missions had not been determined and that they are still unaccounted for. He noted that a 1961 story in the New York Times quoted a Soviet magazine, Ogonek, as saying that in the 1958 EC-130 incident 11 had parachuted safely and were captured.

Paul H. Nitze, a former deputy secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy, was involved in overseeing some of the intelligence operations, declined to discuss details yesterday.

William Burrows, a New York University journalism professor who wrote "Deep Black," a 1987 book on intelligence matters, said that when a plane was downed the Pentagon would make an announcement that concealed that it was a spy flight. He said the announcement might say "a B-29 had navigational problems and disappeared" or the plane "was swept off course by weather" in the Sea of Japan.

Researcher James Sanders, who is writing a book on intelligence, estimated that 100 to 200 airmen were shot down and remain unaccounted for, and that two to three dozen may still be alive. Sanders compiled from declassified documents at least 10 incidents, which he made available to the National Alliance of Families for the Return of Missing Servicemen. It was published in the Morning News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., yesterday.

They include: Navy plane downed over the Baltic Sea, April 8, 1950 Navy plane dowed over Sea of Japan, Nov. 6, 1951 Air Force plane shot down over Sea of Japan, June 13, 1952 Air Force plan downed off Japan, Oct. 7, 1952 Air Force plane shot down over Sea of Japan, July 29, 1953 Navy plane downed off Russia's Asian coast, Sept. 4, 1954 Air Force B-29 downed near Japan, Nov. 4, 1954 Air Force plane downed over Sea of Japan, Sept. 10, 1956 Air Force C-118 forced down over Soviet Armenia, June 27, 1956 EC-130, shot down over Armenia, Sept. 2, 1958.

How the Soviets Stole an American F-86 Sabre Jet in 1951

During the Korean War (1950 to 1953) America and her allies sided with South Korea, while Russia and China sided with North Korea. Among their many weapons, the US had the North American F-86 Sabre (also called the Sabrejet), while North Korea used the Russian MIG-15. Both sides were therefore curious to know about the other’s planes. Which is why, the Soviets decided to steal a Sabre.

The US began using F-86s in 1949 as part of the 1 st Fighter Wing’s 94 th Fighter Squadron. Their swept-wing design allowed them to achieve transonic speeds (above the speed of sound at 600 t0 768 mph), leaving their straight-winged counterparts coughing in the dust.

As such, they quickly became the main air-to-air fighters used in the Korean War, though earlier models of straight-winged jets like the F-80 and F-84 were still used. This changed on 1 November 1950 when the Soviets responded to the Sabre with their own Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 jet fighters.

The F-86 and the MiG-15 were similar in design, especially in their use of swept wings to achieve transonic speeds – but each had strengths and weaknesses.

F-86 Sabre

Sabres could achieve speeds of 685 mph, as well as turn, roll, and dive faster. They were also more aerodynamically stable. Finally, they were equipped with AN/APG-30 radar gunsights. These allowed pilots to quickly aim their six 0.50-caliber machine guns more accurately, even compensating for speed.

MiGs could hit 670 mph, were better at climbing and acceleration rates, could fight at higher altitudes, and were far more maneuverable. Their aim, however, wasn’t anywhere near as good as a Sabre, but they more than made up for it with two 23-mm and a single 37-mm cannon.

Overall, however, the Sabre and the MiG were evenly matched. Most of their battles were fought over northwestern North Korea – a zone called Mig Alley. It stretched between North Korea and China, and spanned the Yalu River all the way to the Yellow Sea.

MiG Alley

Although the MiGs were officially flown only by North Koreans, Soviet fighters actually did much of the flying, many of whom were WWII veterans. The Americans who flew the Sabres were also veterans of that conflict.

With their aerial superiority gone, the US launched Operation Moolah. They knew that neither the Chinese nor the North Koreans could have developed the MiGs, so the Soviets were obviously involved. With Soviet citizens risking their lives to defect to the West, it was hoped that some Soviet pilots would do the same.

To ensure that they did, secret agents in the Soviet Union created rumors that any pilot who defected with an MiG in tow would receive $100,000 and US citizenship. Little did they realise that the Soviets would beat them at their own game.

On 6 October 1951, 2 nd Lieutenant Bill N. Garret’s patrol engaged the Soviet 324 th Fighter Air Division – some of the highest scoring pilots in WWII. He was hit and ordered back to base while the rest of his patrol continued to fight. Neither side wanted to risk their jets falling into enemy hands, so Garrett obeyed.

On his way back, however, he encountered a patrol of four MiGs headed by Captain Konstantin Sheberstov. According to his interview in the Mir Aviatsii (a Russian aviation journal), Garret’s Sabre was trailing black smoke and making a controlled descent.

Shebertsov climbed to 3,300 feet, and when he closed in with the American at 975 to 1,150 feet, he fired his cannons. They hit the Sabre behind the cockpit, damaging its J-47 engine and also knocking out the pilot’s ejections seat.

Unable to fire back, Garret began evasive manoeuvres, but lost altitude while Shebertsov continued to tail him. The Soviet captain knew his government wanted a Sabre, so he was faced with a dilemma.

A North Korean MiG-15 at the Chinese Aviation Museum in Beijing, China. Photo Credit

Soviets were not allowed to fly into UN-occupied territory, meaning into South Korea. They also couldn’t attack enemy planes up-close to avoid identification. The Soviet Union was not officially involved in the Korean War, after all, so their pilots wore North Korean uniforms. These rules were so strictly enforced that when a Soviet pilot jettisoned over the sea, his fellow pilots strafed him and his plane to avoid capture and identification.

So Shebertsov needed to bring Garret down before the American reached UN airspace, but neither could he destroy the Sabre if he could possibly avoid it. Garret’s slow descent was exactly what he needed, therefore. It would hopefully crash without too much damage.

The Sabre shot toward the coastline of the Yellow Sea, trying to make it as close to friendly territory, as possible. Garret also knew that the Soviets wanted his plane, so he was desperate to ditch it in the water.

He finally reached the coast, but failed to make it into the Yellow Sea. He had crashed into the beach when a rescue pilot found him and got him out but the plane was another matter, entirely. It was stuck in the mud pools. North Koreans fired at him, so Garret and his rescuers fled.

In the skies, a battle raged as MiGs fought to claim their prize, while Sabres tried to fight them off. Then the tide started coming in. Hundreds of Chinese and North Koreans scrambled to disassemble the Sabre before the sea swallowed it completely, but they were constantly picked off by American planes and by US Navy ships sailing off the coast.

Despite losing seven MiGs, the Soviets got their prize and carted the pieces back to the Soviet Union in a convoy of trucks. They had to travel by night because the Americans had followed them into China, attacking the lead truck, which got away. With Soviet and Chinese pilots to harass the Americans, the pieces made their way back to Russia. Days later on October 24, they captured yet another Sabre.

Desperate, the Americans extended Operation Moolah into China and North Korea, broadcasting their offer on the radio and by dumping leaflets out of planes. It paid off. On 21 September 1952, Senior Lieutenant No Kum Sok defected to South Korea by landing his North Korean MiG-15 at the Kimpo Air Force Base.

Hidden for 40 Years: The Secret Russia vs. U.S. Air Battle of 1952

An admiral warned Williams to keep quiet about his extraordinary accomplishment—it was important that the United States and the Soviet Union remain officially not at war, and that the Soviets not realize they had been spied upon by the NSA unit. But Royce’s actions did not go entirely unrecognized. A month later, he was summoned to Seoul for drinks with President Elect Dwight Eisenhower—prepared by his son John, no less!—who wanted a briefing on the progress of the air war. According to Royce, he would forever regret passing on the president’s recommendation of scotch in favor of his habitual bourbon-on-water.

On the afternoon of November 18, 1952 four sleek jets painted an inky navy blue soared off the deck of the carrier USS Oriskany into a swirling Siberian snow storm gusting over the Sea of Japan. The carrier was part of Task Force 77, a fleet of twenty-five ships which included three carriers used to launch daily airstrikes on North Korean bridges and logistics during the Korean War. Earlier that day, its warplanes had struck the logistical base at Hoeryong, used as a gathering point for supplies received from China and the Soviet Union a short distance across the border.

(This first appeared earlier in the year.)

The four F9F-5 Panther jets were braving flurrying snow, cloud cover down to 500 feet and visibility not exceeding a few miles, to fly a Combat Air Patrol (CAP). The fleet’s air search radars could only reliably detect aircraft under ranges of 100 miles—and Soviet Il-28 jet bombers that could cover that distance in a few minutes had been photographed nearby. Though no direct air attacks on the fleet had been attempted by Soviet or Chinese jets, it was vital to maintain the CAP to guard against a surprise attack.

The Panther flight was flying a patrol pattern at 16,000 feet when they received a report—bogeys detected just eighty-three miles north of their position, heading from the direction of Vladivostok.

The four aircraft from Navy squadron VF-781 assumed an intercept course. Sure enough, they spotted the vapor trails of seven Soviet jets flying high above them at 40,000 feet and the silvery glint of their bare metal fuselages. These were not Il-28 bombers, but MiG-15 fighter jets that could outrun even the late model F9F-5 Panther by seventy miles per hour.

At the same moment, the fuel pump of flight leader Lt. Claire Elwood aircraft began to malfunction. He was called back to the carrier, and his wingman assigned to cover for him. The Panthers of Lt. Royce Williams and Lt. Jg. David Rowland were left to face off against seven superior Soviet fighters.

What happened next remained a secret for the next forty years, and would only be fully detailed in 2013 when Royce was interviewed by Thomas McKelvey for Flight Journal magazine.

Since November 1950, Soviet MiG-15 units had been battling American fighters over Korea. However, they had always been deployed from Chinese bases under the pretense of being Chinese or North Korean units. Officially Soviet forces were not party to the war, and Washington did not seek to dispel this fiction for fear of further escalating the Korean conflict it was seeking to bring to a close.

Soviet fighters did shoot down numerous American reconnaissance planes throughout the 1950s, and U.S. fights did stray over the border and attack Soviet airfields on a few occasions. But generally, a fighter unit based on Soviet territory was not expected to join in the fighting.

Indeed, when the American pilots first approached the Soviet fighters at 16,000 feet, the higher-flying jets appeared to turn back for home. Then they split into two groups, and a four-ship flight peeled around and dove at the U.S. fighters from the ten o’clock position in line abreast formation, spitting cannon shells.

Royce turned hard and managed to fall behind the last MiG and set it aflame with a burst of his cannons. However, the guns of his wing mate Rowland’s Panther had jammed. Wishing to record Royce’s kill for posterity with his gun camera, Rowland stayed on the MiG’s tail as it splashed into the ocean.

Williams was left in a swirling dogfight with the six remaining Soviet fighters that lasted twenty minutes. The swept-wing MiG-15 was faster and more maneuverable than the straight-wing American naval jet. However, the F9F Panther was a legendarily robust design, and also a better gun platform with its four rapid-firing 20mm cannons. The MiGs had two 23mm cannons and a very hard-hitting 37mm gun, but these were slower firing, lower velocity weapons that were less accurate verses nimble fighters.

Williams kept his Panther at full throttle and kept turning inwards of attacking MiGs, firing short bursts from his cannons. The twenty-six-year-old from Minnesota had received high marks during gunnery training. In rapid succession he managed to rake first the lead fighter and its wingmate with 20mm shells while coming out of turn, causing both to burst into flames, and then heavily damaged a fourth MiG.

However, a MiG pounced on Royce’s tail and shredded his plane with cannon fire, shooting up his wing and into his engine, disabling critical hydraulics. The Panther’s rudder and flaps became unresponsive and his ailerons only partially effective. The Panther pilot was reduced to making evasive maneuvers with his only fully functional control surface, the horizontal elevators in the tail.

The Navy pilot dove for the clouds far below, but a MiG-15 followed him down, its cannons flashing. Royce used his elevators to bob his jet up and down as his cannon shells zipped passed him from above and below. Finally, his wingman charged up towards the Soviet fighter, which broke off—fortunately, as Rowland’s guns remained jammed! But Royce was only barely able to pull his shot-up jet out of its dive, emerging from the clouds only 400 feet above the ocean—too low to survive an ejection.

Instead, Williams limped his Panther back to the Oriskany, even braving anti-aircraft fire from U.S. ships which misidentified his passing aircraft. Not desiring to ditch his plane in the deadly cold waters of the Sea of Japan, he instead attempted a high-speed landing at 170 miles per hour, as his Panther could no longer handle safely at minimum speed. The Oriskany’s skipper helpfully angled the ship to the wind and Royce’s successfully snagged the tail hook of his half-destroyed Panther on the third wire of the carrier. Maintenance personnel counted more than 263 shell holes cratering the badly damaged plane, which was unceremoniously photographed, stripped of valuable parts and pitched over the deck.

The Navy pilot would learn that an NSA surveillance unit on the cruiser USS Helena had been spying on the Soviet radio chatter it had both warned of the approaching MiGs and had learned that three had been shot down, and a damaged fourth jet flown by Cpt. Viktor Belyakov had fatally crash landed in the Soviet Union. Royce had achieved an unheard-of feat—in one thirty-five-minute skirmish he either equaled or exceeded all the MiGs shot down by other Panther pilots throughout the Korean War.

An admiral warned Williams to keep quiet about his extraordinary accomplishment—it was important that the United States and the Soviet Union remain officially not at war, and that the Soviets not realize they had been spied upon by the NSA unit. But Royce’s actions did not go entirely unrecognized. A month later, he was summoned to Seoul for drinks with President Elect Dwight Eisenhower—prepared by his son John, no less!—who wanted a briefing on the progress of the air war. According to Royce, he would forever regret passing on the president’s recommendation of scotch in favor of his habitual bourbon-on-water.

Only in the 1990s did Russia would declassify its own account of the air battle near Vladivostok and reveal the names of the four Soviet pilots fallen in action, including Captain Valandov and Lieutenants Palomkhin and Tarshinov. Only then did Williams consider himself released from his pledge to secrecy.

The Panther on MiG skirmish over Vladivostok was the last occasion in which a U.S. fighter plane shot down a nominally Russian fighter, but not the last aerial engagement between Soviet and U.S. military forces. In 1953, an F-84 Thunderjet was shot down by a Czech MiG-15 over Bohemia, and between that year and 1970 more than a dozen U.S. transport and reconnaissance planes would be destroyed by Soviet fighters and missiles.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

From the Archives, 1983: Soviets shoot down KAL jumbo jet, killing 269

Washington, 1 September - The United States today accused the Soviet Union of shooting down a Korean Air Lines jumbo jet with 269 people on board.

A South Korean Airlines Boeing 747 jumbo jet, similar to this one, was shot down, killing all aboard.

The airliner apparently went down in the sea near a Soviet-held island north of Japan.

The US Secretary of State, Mr Shultz, said he had called in the Soviet charge d’affaires in Washington this morning to express “our grave concern over the shooting down of an unarmed civilian plane carrying passengers of a number of nationalities”.

“We also urgently demanded an explanation from the Soviet Union,” Mr Shultz said.

“The US reacts with revulsion to this attack. Loss of life appears to be heavy.

“We can see no excuse whatever for this appalling act.”

A march from Hyde Park to the Soviet embassy in Woollahra to protest against the shooting down of the Korean plane. Credit: Gerrit Fokkema

Mr Shultz said the US Government had summoned the Soviet charge d’affaires as soon as US sources had confirmed the shooting of the airliner.

He said that the US had made the protests on behalf of itself and of the Republic of Korea.

In a statement, Mr Shultz said the Korean Air Lines plane had strayed into Soviet air space and the Soviets had tracked it for some two and a half hours.

A Soviet pilot had reported visual contact with the airliner at 6.12 pm (Washington time) on Wednesday.

Mr Shultz said the Soviet plane had been in constant contact with ground control and that at 6.21 pm the Korean aircraft was reported at 10,000 metres.

At 6.26 the Soviet pilot reported he had fired a missile and that the target was destroyed.

At 6.30 the Korean plane was reported by radar at 6000 metres. Eight minutes later it disappeared from the radar.

Two US aircraft were taking part in the search for the aircraft in international waters.

The airliner was flying from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska.

The Japanese Defence Agency monitored a message from the pilot of a Soviet MiG-23 which said he was going to fire on a Korean Air Lines jetliner just before a KAL aircraft disappeared early today, the Jiji News Agency reported.

The agency, quoting official sources, said that the pilot told his base on the Sakhalin Island: “I am going to fire a missile. The target is the KAL airliner.”

The sources said the message was intercepted a second before the unidentified plane, likely the Boeing 747 dropped off radar screens.

Mr Shultz, who spoke emotionally, said that at least eight Soviet jets had been involved in tracking the airliner.

A Pentagon source was quoted as saying that the Soviets permit their fighters to shoot at aircraft intruding into their territory. He said US planes did not operate under such rules and would not shoot under similar circumstances. “The shoot, we don’t,” said one Pentagon source.

The MiG-23 is one of the Soviet Union’s most advanced jet fighters. It is armed with air-to-air missiles codenamed by NATO as “Aphid” and “Apex”.

Earlier this week, Japan’s Defence Agency reported that the Soviet Union had stationed more than 10 MiG-23s on Etorofu Island, one of the four former Japanese Islands occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

The island is about 240 kilometres east of the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido.

The Japanese Foreign Minister, Mr Abe, told reporters tonight: “Judging from various circumstances there is a strong possibility that at Soviet aircraft shot down the Korean airliner. If it is true it is an extremely deplorable incident.

Mr. Abe said that from available information it was believed the airliner crashed at 3.18 am Japan time (4.38 am AEST), nine minutes after an unidentified plane, believed to be the Jumbo, disappeared from Japanese radar at a point west of southern Sakhalin.

The Soviet Union told the Japanese Embassy in Moscow earlier today it knew nothing of the Jumbo jet’s fate.

South Korea’s Information Minister, Mr Lee, said today it appeared “almost certain” that a Korean Air Lines plane carrying 269 people had been “attacked and downed by a third country”.

In the Government’s first official announcement on the plane’s disappearance, Mr Lee said efforts to confirm the aircraft’s fate were continuing.

He said that if indications that the plan had been downed “proved a fact, it would constitute a grave violation of international law and an inhumanitarian act” which must be condemned by the international community.

Mr Lee did not name the third country in his brief announcement, but Korean Air Lines earlier had said the Boeing 747 had landed on Sakhalin.

The plane, on a flight from New York to Seoul, was reported missing after reports that it had been lost from contact while flying near Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island.

Korea Air Lines, the national flag carrier, later announced to waiting relatives and friends in Seoul that the plane had landed safely on Sakhalin.

Japanese air force officials said the Korean airliner may have been crippled by a mid-air explosion.

One air force official, who noted the jumbo vanished from radar screens while flying at more than 10,000 metres, said “A mid-air explosion or a sudden dive could be conceivable among other explanations.”

Officials of Korean Air Lines said the pilot, Captain Chun, had more than 10,000 hours of flying time and described him as “a very experienced pilot and not the sort of person who would disappear just like that. “

There were no immediate official explanation for the KAL announcement made earlier in the day that the plane was on Sakhalin, but sources said it was based on premature reports that later proved to be false.

The airline said the plan carried 240 passengers and crew of 29. Among the passengers, it said were 81 South Koreans, many of whom lived in the United States. If said there also were 34 residents of Taiwan aboard, 22 Japanese and 103 people of other nationalities.

There was no immediate breakdown available of the other nationalities, but one of those listed on the passenger manifest was an American Congressman, Mr Larry McDonald. Mr McDonald, a 48-year-old Democrat from Georgia, is chairman of the John Birch Society and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

His staff said he was going to South Korea to attend a security seminar marking the 30th anniversary of the US-South Korea defence pact.

The last radio contact was at 3.23 am (4.23 am AEST), when the pilot reported his position as 181 kilometres south of Hokkaido, a KAL spokesman said. He said the pilot gave no indication of any trouble and that the weather was reported good in the area.

However, Japan’s defence agency said its radar showed no plane south of Hokkaido at the time, but did show what might have been the Jumbo jet about 181 kilometres north of Hokkaido near Sakhalin’s coast.

Earlier the South Korean Foreign Ministry said it received word from US authorities that the plane was forced to land on Sakhalin, where the Soviet Union has large military bases.

But a Soviet Foreign Ministry official in Moscow said that jest was not on the island and Soviet authorities had no other information on the plane, a Japanese Embassy spokesman said.

South Korea and the Soviet Union have no diplomatic relations and communications concerning the plane were said to have been channeled through Japan and other countries.

During an afternoon of increasingly confusing reports, there was speculation that if the plane had been forced to land at Sakhalin or gone down near the Soviet island, the Soviets might claim a violation of their airspace.

Australian on board

A partial passenger list released by KAL showed three members of a family named “Grenfell”.

An airline spokesman said Mr Grenfell was a native of Australia and his family had been visiting Mrs Grenfell’s family in Rochester, New York.



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