Soviet pilot knew that he downed civilian jet 13 years later, flier still insists Korean 747 was on spying mission


MOSCOW -- Gennadi Osipovich held up his thick hands to show how, 13 years ago, he maneuvered his SU-15 fighter to blast a Korean 747 airliner out of the sky.

It was the morning of Sept. 1, 1983, and Lt. Col. Gennadi Osipovich's unit had scrambled from its secret base on Sakhalin Island to intercept an intruder. After trailing the unidentified plane for more than 60 miles, the Soviet pilot zoomed alongside to get a look for himself.

"I was just next to him, on the same altitude, 150 meters to 200 meters away," he recalled in conversations with a reporter during the weekend.

From the flashing lights and the configuration of the windows, he recognized the aircraft as a civilian type of plane, he said.

"I saw two rows of windows and knew that this was a Boeing," he said. "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."

Minutes later, he fired two air-to-air missiles, sending Korean Air Lines Flight 007 crashing into the sea, killing 269 people and causing what President Boris N. Yeltsin has called the greatest tragedy of the Cold War.

Thirteen years after the downing of KAL 007, debate still rages over whether the Soviet air force showed a reckless disregard for human life and why the Korean plane was so far off course.

In his first interview with an American journalist, the retired pilot addressed some of the mysteries that still surround the disaster, although the central question of why the plane -- en route from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, South Korea -- was so far off course is still debated.

A Communist who lives in the Caucasus region, Osipovich insists that the jetliner was on a spy mission. One of his few complaints is that Soviet authorities paid him a smaller bonus for shooting down the plane than he had hoped: 200 rubles minus a small fee for postage.

For years, experts have debated whether the Soviet pilot was aware he was downing a civilian plane or had mistaken the 747 for an RC-135 American military reconnaissance plane.

But Osipovich says he had no doubts that he was dealing with a civilian plane.

Osipovich also revealed that in the pressure of the moment, he did not provide a full-description of the intruder to Soviet ground controllers.

"I did not tell the ground that it was a Boeing-type plane," he recalled. "They did not ask me."

He did, however, tell Soviet ground controllers that the plane had blinking lights, which he says was an indication that it could be a transport plane.

Disputing reports that he urged his superiors to be cautious, Osipovich said he was prepared to shoot the plane down as soon as it crossed the border and still regrets that he was not allowed to do so.

"I asked the ground what to do," he said. "They got scared and told me to force him to land, and this was our big mistake."

If the plane had crashed on Soviet territory, he said, the authorities would have recovered proof that it was on a spy mission.

Pub Date: 12/09/96

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad