war on the rocks

(W)Archives: “Attention Emergency Descent” – From KAL 007 to MH 17?

July 18, 2014

Yesterday’s tragic and appalling shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed some 290 people, reminds all of us of KAL 007.

On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 strayed off course into Soviet air space, and Soviet air defense forces shot it down west of Sakhalin Island, killing all 269 people aboard.  It took the Soviet Union eight days to conduct a press conference on the subject and the explanation given by Chief of the General Staff Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov was that they had thought it was an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane.  On top of this, Ogarkov added the “she was asking for it” defense saying that in any event the airliner had it coming because it was on a “deliberate, thoroughly planned intelligence mission.”  To add insult to injury, the Soviets secretly recovered the plane’s black box and hid it.

This was one of the lowest points of the Cold War.  However, the fall of the Soviet Union and the advent of Boris Yeltsin’s Russia heralded a much more cooperative relationship.  The George [H.W.] Bush Presidential Library and Museum holds the declassified notes of a phone conversation between President Yeltsin and President Bush of September 10, 1992 that illustrates this.  The conversation is very friendly.  Yeltsin says that he’s happy to hear the voice of his friend “George” and expresses concern about Bush’s tough reelection fight.  Then he gets down to business:

We have found new material on KAL 007.  I know that sixty percent of the passengers were American.  I am prepared to give you all the materials we have found.  Perhaps one possibility is if some family members could come over and meet with me and discuss this.  They could bring the materials back to you, including the black box.

Within a few months, the black box was indeed returned and not only could lingering questions about the flight be resolved, but the final moments of Flight 007 could be heard.  The transcript of those harrowing moments from the cockpit voice recorder can be read today at the Aviation Safety Network website.  It is chilling reading.  “Attention emergency descent…Altitude is going up…This is not working.  This is not working….Manually….Cannot do manually….Attention emergency descent.”  One minute and four seconds more of similar dialogue ensues, and then silence.

Presumably the black box from the Malaysian airliner, flight MH17, also contains important information.  The Russian media is reporting that the black box is already in Moscow.  The question is, will Russian President Vladimir Putin follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, the man who brought him to Moscow and set him on his path to the top by allowing outsiders access to it?  Or will he take a cue from Konstantin Chernenko, the hard line Communist leader of the Soviet Union at the time of the KAL 007 shootdown, and bury it?  Will he be build a little bit of goodwill by being cooperative and forthcoming at this tragic time, or will he continue reminding us of the bad old days of the Cold War?

 

Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.