Korean Air Lines Flight 902 (KAL 902) was a scheduled Korean Air Lines flight from Paris to Seoul via Anchorage. On 20 April 1978, Soviet air defense shot down the aircraft serving the flight, a Boeing 707, near Murmansk, Soviet Union, after the aircraft violated Soviet airspace.
Flight 902 had veered off course over the Arctic Ocean and entered Soviet airspace near the Kola Peninsula, whereupon it was intercepted and fired upon by a Soviet aircraft. The incident killed two of the 109 passengers and crew members aboard and forced the plane to make an emergency landing on the frozen Korpiyarvi lake near the Finnish border.
Korean Air Lines Flight 902
|Date||20 April 1978|
|Site||near Loukhi, Karelian ASSR, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union; Coordinates: N66°02.893′; E33°04.321′E|
|Operator||Korean Air Lines|
|Flight origin||Orly Airport’ Paris, France|
|Stopover||Anchorage International Airport
|Destination||Kimpo International Airport, Seoul, South Korea|
KAL Flight 902’s flight plan (in blue, Paris to Anchorage to Seoul) and deviation from plan (in red, having turned southeast when over Ellesmere Island)
Flight 902 departed from Paris, France at 1239 UTC on a course to Seoul, South Korea. The plane’s only scheduled stop was in Anchorage, Alaska, US where it would refuel and proceed to Seoul, avoiding Soviet airspace. It was commanded by Captain Kim Chang Kyu, with co-pilot S.D. Cha and navigator Lee Khun Shik making up the other flight deck crew. The aircraft made regular radio check-ins as it flew northwest, the last of which, five hours and twenty one minutes after takeoff, placed it near CFS Alert on Ellesmere Island. Its course then turned to the southeast and it flew over the Barents Sea and into Soviet airspace, reaching the Soviet coast an estimated three hours and 1,500 miles (2,400 km) after its southward turn.
Soviet air defence radar spotted the plane approximately 400 kilometres (250 mi) away from Soviet territorial waters. Alexander Bosov, the pilot of the Soviet aircraft dispatched to intercept the airliner, incorrectly identified the plane as a United States Air Force reconnaissance RC-135. When reporting back to commanding officer Vladimir Tsarkov, Bosov said he could see a maple leaf on the plane’s tail, implying that it belonged to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). After a few moments, he corrected himself, stating that he could see Chinese characters and the maple leaf was a red stork with wings spread.
According to Kim’s account of the attack, the interceptor approached his aircraft from the right side rather than the left as required by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulation. Kim decreased his speed and turned on the navigation lights, indicating that he was ready to follow the Soviet fighter for landing.
According to Soviet reports, the airliner repeatedly ignored commands to follow the interceptor. Flight 902’s co-pilot, S.D. Cha, said that the crew had attempted to communicate with the interceptor via radio, but did not receive a response.
Bosov tried to convince his superiors that the plane was not a military threat, but after receiving orders to shoot it down he fired a pair of R-60 missiles. The first missile flew past the target. The second one hit the left wing, knocking off approximately four meters of its length. The missile also punctured the fuselage, causing rapid decompression and jamming one of the plane’s four turbines. Korean passenger Bahng Tais Hwang died in the missile strike, which wounded several others.
After being hit, the airliner quickly descended from an altitude of 9,000 m (30,000 ft). It fell into a cloud, disappearing from Soviet air defence radars. Soviets mistook the part of the wing that had fallen off Flight 902 for a winged missile and dispatched another Su-15 interceptor to fire at it.
Accounts of the time between the missile strike and Flight 902’s landing differ. According to Soviet media the airliner flew across the whole Kola Peninsula at a low altitude for about 40 minutes, searching for a place to land. After several unsuccessful attempts at landing, Kim brought the plane down on the ice of the frozen Korpiyarvi lake in Karelian ASSR, located approximately 140 kilometres (87 mi) from the Finnish border. According to the diary of a passenger on board Flight 902, an account supported by other passengers, an hour and 40 minutes elapsed before the landing. About two hours after the crash landing, Soviet troops reached the plane to begin the rescue effort, by which time Japanese passenger Yoshitako Sugano had died.
Finnish sources stated that Soviet air defense did not have any information on the plane’s whereabouts after it disappeared from the radar. However, Tsarkov stated that another Soviet pilot, Anatoly Kerefov, had located Flight 902 and led it to the Afrikanda air base. Tsarkov went on to say that Kim fell behind and landed on the lake. Kerefov said he practically forced the plane to land on the ice of Korpiyarvi.
Rescue of survivors
Soviet helicopters rescued the survivors and transported them to the city of Kem in Karelia. The passengers were quartered in the garrison’s Officers’ Lodge.
On 22 April, the survivors, excepting the pilot and navigator, were transported via Aeroflot from Kem to Murmansk, then by Pan American World Airways to Helsinki, Finland, where a Korean Air Lines aircraft departed on 23 April for Seoul with the group of Flight 902 survivors and the bodies of those killed.
On 29 April, the pilot and navigator of Flight 902 were released. TASS, the official news agency of the Soviet Union, said that they had confessed to violating Soviet airspace and disregarding orders from the intercepting aircraft to land. According to TASS, the pair had appealed for clemency to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which pardoned and expelled them.
The Soviet Union invoiced South Korea US$100,000 ($375,200 today) for its caretaking of the passengers; the bill was never paid.
The Soviet Union refused to cooperate with international experts while they investigated the incident and did not provide any data mined from the plane’s black box. The airplane was dismantled and all equipment transferred by helicopter onto a barge in Kandalaksha Gulf. The deputy chief commanding officer of Soviet air defense, Yevgeniy Savitsky, personally inspected the pilot’s cockpit. The crew of Flight 902 blamed navigational error for the plane’s course—passengers said that Kim had told them upon landing that he had suspected the aircraft’s navigation equipment was in error but had followed it anyway; after being released from Soviet custody, navigator Lee said similarly that the navigational gyro had malfunctioned.
The incident was a major embarrassment to Soviet air defence because Flight 902 had already entered Soviet territory before it was intercepted. This led to a shift in command and contributed to the shooting down of another Korean Airlines flight, KAL 007, in 1983, which killed all aboard.
Korean Air continues to use the flight number 902 on its Paris-Seoul route, but it is now a nonstop eastbound route. The flight from Paris now departs from Charles de Gaulle Airport instead of Orly and arrives at the Incheon Airport in Seoul instead of Gimpo. Korean Air predominantly uses the Airbus A380 on this route.