KAL 007: The Korea Airlines Flight Everyone Is Thinking About Today

The apparent missile shootdown of a Malaysian Airlines jet over Ukraine this morning will likely go down as one of the worst—and, if initial reports are true, most avoidable—disasters in air-travel history. But it's not unprecedented. A similar infamous incident happened 30 years ago, also involving Russian military might and territoriality.

On September 1, 1983, Korea Airlines Flight 007 was on a scheduled run from New York to Seoul with a stop in Anchorage, Alaska. It carried 269 souls, including a U.S. congressman. It never landed in South Korea.

Soviet fighter jets, tracking the big 747 into what they claimed was U.S.S.R. airspace, fired two air-to-air missiles into the commercial airliner's fuselage, sending it down into the Sea of Japan.

Tensions had been high at the time between Soviet and U.S. air forces in the region. American reconnaissance aircraft had trolled the Soviets by flying over the Kurile Islands, a disputed stretch between the U.S.S.R and Japan. Consequently, the Soviets had begun to assert a broader swath of airspace as belonging to them.

So when KAL 007 traveled over the Kamchatka Peninsula—possibly 13 nautical miles north of the jet's original flight plan, due to minor issues with the autopilot system and the terrestrial navigational programs that guided it—the Soviets treated it as a threat in prohibited airspace.

''I saw two rows of windows and knew that this was a Boeing,'' the fighter pilot who shot down 007 unrepentantly told the New York Times in 1996. ''I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use.''

Despite the pilot's sense that he'd done nothing wrong, the Soviets stymied multiple investigations.

The U.S.S.R. is not alone in having used its military might to kill commercial air passengers. Five years later, during a tense standoff over control of oil-tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf, an American guided missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, mistook Iran Air Flight 655 for an inbound Iranian attack aircraft. The cruiser fired two Standard Missiles into the Airbus A-300, sending it in a wreck to the sea and killing all 290 of its passengers. The evening news showed dozens of bodies floating in the blue-green Gulf waters.

Much is still unclear about the crash today. The missile that officials say brought it down may have come from Ukrainian forces, or Russian ones, or pro-Russian freelancers operating in the area. There's still a vanishing chance it may not have been a missile at all.

But the high tensions between Ukraine and Russia in recent months have been much higher this week for air defense forces along the border; just hours before the report of the 777's crash, Ukraine lost at least one fighter jet to pro-Russian missiles.

Update: My colleague Tyler Rogoway, who runs the Foxtrot Alpha aviation Kinja, has a sober rundown on what's known and what's more or less likely behind today's events. It's worth a serious look.