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Lt Col Gennadij Nikolaevich Osipovich is no longer in the air force. He was forced into the reserves after an unfortunate parachute incident. Now he lives in a small town in southern Russia. He received a small plot of land nearby, where he raises strawberries... It wasn't easy to finding him. But after we met him and asked him a talk about those long ago events, he (and this was unexpected) said that he was ready. But he warned us that he would discuss only those things to which he himself was a witness.
"1983 was a difficult year for us", said Osipovich beginning his story. "The Americans increased their reconnaissance in our area. And so we were forced to to respond. We particularly hated the RC-135 electronic reconnaissance aircraft. I read the report in December's Izvestia "Seven Years After the Tragedy." Your publication quoted an opinion by James Oberg, the American researcher of Soviet catastrophes. I, an expert, considered his opinion laughable. For example, he says, Soviet pilots completely mistook the South Korean aircraft for an RC-135. If this were so, then this is evidence only of our incompetence. He says, that a KAL-007 moves much faster on a radar screen than a normal RC-135. In addition to this, it was flying in a straight line instead of the figure eight that an RC-135 usually flies. Let's see if we are really such terrible pilots, hicks, that we don't know about this figure eight. Check it out! I have seen a lot of things in the skies over Sakhalin and I can tell you - the RC-135 flies parallel to our border and is capable of collecting our radar signals or intercepting the radio transmissions of our ground stations. But during peace time, all of our radars are not active. What do the Americans do in this case? They resort to tricks. They fly those figure eights, that Oberg mentions. Then they do something like this. The reconnaissance plane heads straight for our border and crosses it, forcing us to turn on our radars... Then it turns back. The familiar figure eights reappear.
There was a constant war of nerves. During my 10 years of service in the Far East, I took off on thousands of intercepts. We knew the tail numbers of the intruders. And they ours. One of the officers in my regiment, after returning from leave, took off on an intercept flight. When suddenly he heard, "Hello, Nikolaev. Where did you go on your vacation?..."
Then, in April 1983, something happened. By taking advantage of the "vynos" - that's when the fog rolls in from the sea, then later is burnt off by the sun - the Americans violated our air space and circled over the island of Zelenyj for 15 minutes.
After this, a commission arrived and chewed us out. They poured it on! After the commission left, the regimental commander summed everything up and told us, if there should be any air combat over the Kuriles, you won't be able to make it home. Therefore, we will direct you to the nearest dry land so you can make a parachute landing.
Of course stress increased after this. For several weeks, we loaded our weapons racks and waited. It was June before the tension began to ease. The regimental doctor began insisting that I take leave. The load was beginning to have an effect on me. Every day I either flew an intercept mission or directed other flight, since I was the Deputy Commander of the regiment.
On 16 August, I returned from leave to Sakhalin to the village of Sokol, where our unit was deployed.
(Permit me a slight editorial digression. Foreign experts, investigating the story of the "Boeing", have made repeated references to the airfield located there. Its existence is classified today only for those military censors, who crossed out the word "Sokol" in our first, the December publication. But circumstances have already declassified this site, since several years ago, while the civil airport of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was undergoing repairs, the military very kindly granted Aehroflot permission to use "Sokol." And thousands of passengers, your correspondent included, arrived and departed Sakhalin from the very runway, along side of which stood military craft, in hard stands or simply out in the open. By the way, the types of aircraft have not been a secret for a long time also.
"At that time", continues Osipovich, "the regiment was switching over to the MiG-23 and the MiG-31. The pilots were being retrained. One squadron had left (for training). And there were not many people left in the regiment. I had several days leave remaining, but the commander asked me to return early.
After four shifts, I was back in the swing of things and requested night duty. It was better for me to work nights. The more so, since I had received an invitation for 1 September to the school, where my son was in his first year and my daughter was in her eighth. I was supposed to give a speech on peace.
On the 31st of August, I went on duty as usual. I was the senior person and assigned myself to readiness three. (Readiness) one is when the pilot must sit in the plane. Two - he must be dressed in flight uniform. But three - you do not have to be dressed, just able to get into your plane within 10 minutes in case anything happens.
I assumed my post and reported to my superiors. Then I had supper. I was watching the television and dozed off. About 4:30, I woke up to check the guard. I had just gotten dressed, when the phone rang. Lt Astakhov answered the phone, listened to the other end, then mumbled something or other to me. Finally I understood. He was saying, "You are to go to readiness one."
I set off for the plane, and while walking, wondered, "Why was I assigned readiness one? They know that a junior pilot is already at readiness one."
Nevertheless I quickly climbed into the cockpit and reported in.
They confirmed my orders - be prepared.
I waited, but there were no new orders. Suddenly I see that they are uncovering another plane. What is going on? The Americans don't usually begin stirring until after 11:00. This is too early for them...
At 6:00 (local time of course) they finally gave me a command, "Take off." I started my engine, switched on the lights since the runway was not lit up yet and began taxing out.
They gave me a course toward the sea. I quickly climbed to my assigned altitude of 8,500 meters and then it hit me. For some reason, I was convinced that they had sent up a practice target to check our procedures. This was a training mission. And I was selected as the most experienced.
Eight minutes flight time passed. Suddenly the ground controller transmits, "The target is in front of you! An aircraft intruder in violation of flight rules. You are on a head on course."
However he did not vector me to a frontal intercept. Soon they gave me a new command:
"We will vector you toward a rear hemisphere intercept."
There was nothing else to do. I turned onto a reverse course. And, after receiving corrections, went after the intruder. The weather was normal. Soon I caught sight of the intruder through the scattered clouds. What do I mean by 'caught sight of?' I could make out a speck flying in the distance about 2 or 3 centimeters long. Its lights were turned on.
What were you thinking at that moment?
I wasn't thinking about anything. I was excited. Later no matter how many times they asked me to reconstruct the events that occurred second by second, I could not remember the details.
What is a fighter pilot? He is something like a sheep dog, that they train to chase intruders. I was seeing directly ahead of me exactly that - an intruder. I am not a traffic cop, who can stop a traffic violator and demand his papers! I was behind that plane on an intercept mission. First I had to force him to land. And if he does not comply, then render him harmless at any cost. I simply could not afford to entertain thoughts of anything else. Everything else, that I heard later, was just a words. Nothing else.
So I closed in and locked on to him with my radar. The missile lock on lights came on.
The foreign aircraft was flying at about 1,000 kilometer per hour. I was going faster. I had to match speeds. At about 13 kilometers from him, I reported, "Locked onto the target. Maintaining course. What next?"
Then the aircraft controller suddenly began asking for the course and altitude of the target... It should have been the other way around! Later it was explained that we had a entered dead zone(1) that we had not known about.
"For a period of time, we couldn't see either you or him", the controller explained later on the ground.
Finally, we reached Sakhalin. And then the controller gave the order, "The target has violated the state border. Destroy the target..."
We are going to interrupt the pilot's story here and let our New York correspondent have a few words. He sent us a document, which has never been published in our country, although it was made public to the rest of the world almost seven years (!) ago. We are talking about the recording between the Soviet fighter pilots, sent to intercept the South Korean "Boeing". This recording, according to our information, was made by the Japanese defense forces. The transmissions between the three Su-15's, the MiG-23 and the airbase controllers were monitored and then transcribed into Russian and English. It's true, the commands, questions and instructions from the ground are missing from the recording for some reason. But, as Jean Kirkpatrick, the U.S. representative to the U.N. at that time, stated, nothing has been erased from the recording. This recording was made on voice activated equipment and therefore, contains only the periods when there was conversation.
But even if the commands from the ground were not audible, it's possible to get an idea what those commands were from the pilots' reactions.
I won't quote the complete transcript. There is too much that the reader would not understand. But in order to give an idea about the type of document before us, we will print a small sample beginning from the part recorded by the Japanese equipment at 17:56 Greenwich time, 31 August, a half hour before the aircraft was destroyed.
But first I will explain what a few words mean. "Migalka" - a flashing light used for identification during flight. "ANO" - conventional abbreviation for air navigation lights. "Z.G." instrument panel light, which shows fuel remainder. Three periods (...) indicates places where the missing transmissions from the ground should have appeared. Therefore, here are the fragments from the transcript.
- Switch on the special system?
- 163. He must drop his external fuel tanks.
- Yes, the target has turned.
- The target is to my left about 80 degrees.
- Roger. The target is flying with identification lights(migalka) on, lights flashing.
- The target's course is the same, 240 degrees.
- I am attempting to lock on.
- Target's course 240.
- Repeat the azimuth.
- 1001 from "KARNAVAL". Azimuth 45, distance 60?
- "Deputat" sees me. (on radar)
- "Deputat" is asking, do you see the target?
- Do you see it?
- Are you asking 805?
- Who is calling 805?
- I see it.
- "Karnaval" cannot see.
- ANO(air navigational lights) are on, identification lights are flashing.
- Roger. I am at 7,500 meters on course 230.
- I am closing on the target.
- There is not enough time.
- I am behind the target at a distance of 25. Do you see me?
- Damn, I am trying, I mean, my lock on light is already lit!
- Must get closer.
- Clicking in the lock on and closing on it.
Somewhere in these transmissions, instead of our three periods, Gennadij received the command - "Destroy the target."
By the way, after the UN Security Council Session, experts (including Americans) expressed doubts. How accurately was the tape recording interpreted and transcribed into Russian. Besides this, there was no consensus regarding the meaning of several of the terms in the transcript. The term "Migalka" was discussed first. What did our fighter pilot mean, when he said, that "the target is flying with flashing lights." After all the official Soviet version was that the "Boeing" was flying with no identification lights at all...
Of course, it would have been important to publish our own Soviet transcript of our own recording - and in particular what the ground controllers said. Publish it with a commentary, carefully explaining every word, every exclamation uttered by our pilots. But, alas...
Although, as a military person, who wished to remain anonymous explained to our reporter, the Soviet recording of the transmissions was cleaned up after the incident and subjected to some cosmetic work (it was rerecorded, supposedly with an electric razor running, which created the "necessary" static), and therefore could not be completely trusted. Nevertheless, even in this shape, it would be of great interest. Just like a transcript of the transmission between the "Boeing" pilots and the ground in America and Japan.
...Meanwhile in the sky over Sakhalin the jumbo Boeing-747 and the Su-15 continue their flight. Only minutes remain till the missile is launched.
(1) Dead zone - area invisible to radar. Possible due to intervening mountains, etc.
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