Today GPS tracking is one of those “How did we live without it?” wonders of technology. Whether it’s in your car, on your phone or via a third-party web site, you probably make use of it every day in one form or another. Lost in this universal integration is the fact that we owe our convenient access to GPS to a terrible tragedy that spanned three nations.
The downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 is mostly a footnote now, but this horrific incident brought us closer to World War III than any event since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. On September 1, 1983, the airliner was shot down on its Anchorage-to-Seoul flight by a Russian fighter jet as it flew over Sakhalin Island. All 269 people onboard died, including U.S. Representative Lawrence McDonald.
At first the Soviets denied responsibility. When they eventually admitted the truth, they claimed the Russian pilot was attacking what they thought was a U.S. spy plane. Hours earlier, a Boeing RC-135 actually had been in the vicinity on a military training exercise. The Soviets interpreted this action as an intent to test them or even provoke a war.
On their part, the United States accused the Soviets of stonewalling the subsequent investigation. They did indeed suppress evidence requested by the International Civil Aviation Organization, including the flight data recorders or “black boxes”. The materials ultimately weren’t released until nine years after the Soviet Union dissolved.
Thanks to the recordings and transcripts, experts have determined the cause of the incident was a tragic error on the part of the KAL 007 crew. After departing Anchorage, the pilot put the airliner on autopilot but it began drifting until it reached 160 kilometers (almost 100 miles) off route, placing it on a direct course for the Soviet Union.
In the aftermath, the U.S. changed tracking procedures for flights departing from Alaska. More significantly, the Reagan administration allowed the military’s classified GNSS, or Global Navigation Satellite System, to be deployed worldwide. This was the forerunner of the program we now know as GPS.
While it came close to triggering an international war, the legacy of Flight 007 also includes an increased measure of safety for all travelers.