In the early hours of September 1, 1983, Major Gennady Osipovich in a Su-15 missile equipped jet fighter of the Soviet air force took off from Dolinsk-Sokol Airfield on the island of Sakhalin to fly into history and into infamy and to intercept an unidentified aircraft that had penetrated Soviet air space. His unnamed partner was flying a MiG 23.


The unidentified aircraft was a KAL South Korean airline Boeing 747 – 200B flight KE007 from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska. At Anchorage there was crew change over. Chun Byung-in, a 45-year-old former Korean Air Force colonel, an experienced and highly regarded pilot with over 10,000 hours of flying time, commanded the new flight crew.


He was very familiar with the designated route to Seoul-Kimpo, Romeo-20, also known as Red Route 20. It was one of five parallel commercial air routes connected Alaska and Southeast Asia. Chun Byung-in, apparently, did not following the pre-ordained flight plan and was a long way off the designated international route when intercepted.


Reports indicate that the Soviet fighters overtook the intruder with ease. Osipovich flew close enough to make visual contact with the clearly marked Boeing 747 commercial passenger aircraft. Then, on orders from his ground controller, he shot it down with two air-to-air missiles. The Boeing had 244 passengers and 25 crew on board, all perished.


The Russians claimed that they had mistaken the commercial Boeing 747, in Korean Airlines livery, for the drab grey, US Air Force ‘star’ emblazoned RC-135 spy plane they knew to be in the area at the time. The cowboys of the USAF regularly played ‘chicken’ with the occasionally shoot-from-the-hip Russians on the fringes of Soviet airspace. This situation appeared to be yet another provocative US incursion claimed the Russians.


Subsequent reports emanating from Washington sources suggested that an American spy plane was in fact near enough to observe and report on events and to monitor the voice traffic between the Russian aircraft and the ground controller. They, the American eyes and ears in the sky, watched and listened but for whatever inscrutable American reason, made no attempt to correct the Russian error.


The loss of KE007’s almost indestructible flight recorders created a significant gap in the ‘knowledge’. The flight data, including any navigational malfunction or unauthorised course modification, captured by this instrument would almost certainly have helped to establish why the aircraft was so far off course. The recording of cockpit conversations may also have thrown some light on the pilot’s motives as to why he had flown into a dangerously proscribed zone.


This absence of empirical evidence was manna from heaven to the conspiracy theorists. The first and foremost theory was that the black box was not lost. It simply suited the interests of some Russians and very possibly some Americans that it be ‘not found’. This theory turned out to be close to the mark.


This ‘not foundness’ accommodated the almost instant generation of both plausible and implausible theories and it allowed the pernicious spooks, the glory-hunting generals and the self-serving politicians to muddy the waters and sink the truth, like the aircraft, without trace. By the time the Russians admitted having the boxes and returned them, contents corrupted, conflicting reports and conspiracy theories run the game.

In the days following the aircraft’s disappearance the frenetic search for reasons why came thick and fast. The naming of passenger Congressman Larry P McDonald, Democrat of Georgia and chairman of the right wing, communist hating John Birch Society, as a possible target gained a deal of traction.


The Russians, someone postulated, had electronically misdirected the aircraft into dangerous territory in order to shoot it down and kill him. This seemed a little heavy handed, even for the Russians.


A theory dear to the heart of the pale pink pussycats of the ‘American Left’, pointed to right wing chicanery and a plot, in conjunction with certain elements of the CIA, to poison American-Russian relations for decades to come by steering the innocent airliner into the killing fields, or killing skies, of Russian paranoia in the hope that ‘the evil empire would do what comes naturally’ and shoot it down.


Other theorists suggested that flight KAL KE007 had strayed out of the international corridor and over the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island because of mechanical or technical problems or pilot error?


This theory begs the question: How could this aircraft be accidentally off course? Even if all three inertial navigation systems aboard had malfunctioned, the crew would have known they were off course from other flight data, ongoing, remote flight plan monitoring, weather radar in broad scan or in routine ground-mapping mode etc. This latter procedure, often used, would have shown the Kamchatka landmass passing below.


In his treatise, ‘KAL 007: The Questions Remain Unanswered’ Robert W. Lee, in part, mounts a voluminous argument in support of the theory that KAL KE007 was not shot down but forced to land at Dolinsk-Sokol Airfield, either by highjackers or by war planes, there the aircraft was in some way disposed of and the occupants abducted. Far fetched, perhaps but Lee’s many ‘unanswered questions’ highlight a number of unusualties.


There were no ‘Mayday’ signals from KAL 007 during the minute or more that it was in radio contact with Tokyo after the attack. Searchers found little debris at the indicated point of impact, 55km off Moneron Island. What they found was anonymous detritus, no identifiable parts of the aircraft, no luggage at all, no owner attributable personal effects and no life jackets, on or off bodies. The search recovered two bodies only. This sad and suspect harvest did not accord with known or subsequent crash profiles.


Finally, Lee and others have asked: ‘Why was the search for KAL 007 abandoned by the US after only ten weeks, and never resumed, when searches for debris and remains from other far less controversial air-crash incidents often last for many months or even years?’


As far as I know vacillating authority has not given anything resembling a generally convincing answer to these or any other of the unanswered questions, at the time of the incident or since.


By far the most popular belief, for a while, was the story that the Korean pilot, in the pay of the CIA, had deliberately strayed off course and was photographing a secret soviet installation. Later the Washington rumour mill pitched the theory that the pilot of flight KE007, a former Korean Air Force officer, entered Russian airspace as a favour to his American intelligence buddies. They, according to the scuttlebutt, wanted to monitor the reactions of the Soviet air defence system.


If choosing a theory I would adopt the principle proposed by William of Ockham [1288-1348] in the fourteenth century: ‘Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate' which translates as ‘entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily' or ‘it is vain to do with more what can be done with less’ and is generally interpreted as ‘the simplest solution is often the most appropriate or keep it simple sap.


It is not difficult to embrace the simple, most obvious theory that the Korean pilot entered Russian airspace in the pay of or as a favour to his American intelligence buddies to test the reactions of the Soviet air defence system. It is entirely typical of the way in which the politicians, spooks and military are ever willing to bring the innocent into harms way the serve their more often than not dubious ambitions.


In the days following the ‘Sakhalin Incident’ subtitled in hindsight as ‘the last salvoes of the cold war’ the great powers played the blame game on an international battlefield of microphones and television cameras. In the USSR the failing Yuri Andropov grizzled and his be-meddled, lantern jawed generals bristled and scowled. In the US the failing Ronald Reagan ranted and his be-meddled lantern-jawed generals bristled and scowled.


In Australia Robert James Lee Hawke, the nearly new Prime Minister, put down his can of beer with a thump and banned a coach load of Soviet airline industry tourists from visiting Tasmania. The ghost of Sir Robert Menzies trumpeted and chortled with satisfaction but hardly anybody else noticed.


The world’s newspapers had several ‘field days’ with banner headlines special features, political posturing by presidents and pundits, in-depth analysis by investigative journalists with maps, charts and photographs of aircraft.


The people, however, the passengers and crew, the victims, did not get much of a mention beyond being 269 in number and being dead.  However, The Sydney Morning Herald, on Monday September 5th 1983, did find a small space to note:


 Death-Toll Check: Australia has a direct interest in the incident because of the loss of four possibly five Australians. Neil Grenfell 36, and his wife, Carol 33, and their two daughters, Noelle aged five, and Stacey three, had boarded the ill-fated jumbo jet in New York after a family holiday. The department of Foreign Affairs is now checking on a fifth person on the flight, a woman who had apparently lived in the United States.


On that day The Sydney Morning Herald also published a photograph of two charming children with the sad caption ‘the tragic Grenfell children, Tracy 3 and Noelle 5’. I can’t publish this photograph, though I still have it.


A little while later a news agency reported: ‘The grieving families of Japanese and South Korean passengers threw flowers onto the water in the area where Washington sources claim the plane came down.’


One may wonder at the morality of writing a song so soon after a great tragedy. I can only say that I chose to express my protest in this way, and my grief. After reading of the death of the Grenfell family the compulsion to write this song was irresistible.


I dedicated it to the memory of all those innocent people who died so needlessly on September 1st 1983 and to the families and friends who shared the burden of loss.


It is also a protest against the de-humanizing mental conditioning of young men trained to destroy innocent life without regard for human suffering. It is a criticism of the morally tainted world leaders grown cold and hard with ambition, and reckless and unfeeling in their profligate use of power.


On September 1st 1983 they failed in their duty of care. They did not protect the innocent. They have failed in that duty every day since.



Dermott Ryder September 8th 1983



Wandering wayward flight through Babel,

steel and fire and windswept cable,

born to die in foreign waters,

God protect our sons and daughters.


Cold young men, steel grey eyes,

hunt the lonely moon-drenched skies.

Noelle Grenfell's come to pay 

a child's short life to birds of prey.


Noelle Grenfell died today,

high in the air so far away.

Five years old her life spans run,

snatched from care by a Russian gun.


Wandering wayward flight through Babel,

steel and fire and windswept cable,

born to die in foreign waters,

God protect our sons and daughters.


Sleep in peace through the night,

mother's arms hold firm in fright,

flickering lights and screams of fear,

sleep and gently dream my dear.


Eagle in the darkness near, 

close enough so he could hear,

with firm neat hand wrote down the date,

the crippled bird fell to its fate.


Wandering wayward flight through Babel,

steel and fire and windswept cable,

born to die in foreign waters,

God protect our sons and daughters.


Generals' bristle, statesmen talk,

as down the path to hell they walk.

It doesn't matter what they say - 

Noelle and Tracy died today.


Throw your flowers on the water,

mourn another son or daughter,

their time was short, we will remember,

the guilt and shame of Black September.


Wandering wayward flight through Babel,

steel and fire and windswept cable,

born to die in foreign waters,

God protect our sons and daughters.


Each year, usually in the closing days of August, I find a quiet space in the day, go to my archive, reach for a well-known file, and turn to the section marked Sakhalin – September 1983 and read the cuttings and look at the photographs. Then I get my guitar and I sing ‘The Flowers of Sakhalin’.



Sakhalin Incident Revisited © Dermott Ryder

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