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 this 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 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 incident, 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 confirmed Communist who lives in the Caucasus region, Osipovich insists that the jetliner was on a spy mission and that there were no civilian passengers aboard. He even considers himself fortunate to have achieved a measure of celebrity by having destroyed Flight 007.
One of his few complaints is that the Soviet authorities paid him a smaller bonus for shooting down the plane than he had hoped: 200 rubles minus a small fee for postage.
The ground-based officer who first detected the plane on his radar scope received a 400-ruble bonus, he complained.
"Those who did not take part in this operation received double their monthly pay," he said. "At that time, monthly pay was 230 rubles. So I expected to be paid at least 400 rubles."
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 knew he had no doubts that he was dealing with a civilian plane and not an RC-135. Viewed through the prism of the cold war, the pilot treated the plane, not as a lost commercial airliner, but as part of a nefarious mission against the Soviet homeland.
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 on, which he says was an indication that it could be a transport plane.
Born in Siberia, Osipovich did not start out to be pilot. Originally, he wanted to be a sailor but switched to aviation after he joined a local flying club.
His brush with notoriety began when he was recalled from vacation in August 1983 and put on temporary duty.
For several days, he lived in a small house at the end of the runway at the secret Sokol, or Falcon, base. On Sept. 1, his unit received an urgent order to take to the air. An unknown aircraft had passed over the Kamchatka peninsula and was heading toward Sakhalin.
"For us, that is everything," he said, recalling the order. "It means that we just have to go up and kill someone."
Osipovich was directed toward the intruder and intercepted the plane about 95 miles from Soviet airspace. He soon maneuvered behind the plane and from a distance of 13 kilometers, nearly 8 miles, soon had him in his sights.
"It was huge," he said. "I saw everything, including the blinking lights on top and bottom."
His first thought was that it was a Soviet transport plane being used to test the readiness of the air defense forces.
"I thought it was some kind of inspection because never before had I seen foreign planes fly with those blinking lights," he said. While American intelligence planes commonly flew along the Soviet periphery, Western commercial airlines never came close to the heavily militarized Soviet region, flying their passenger routes hundreds of miles away.
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.
Zooming to his target, Osipovoich pulled his SU-15 jet alongside the lumbering 747 at an altitude of about 34,000 feet. The 747's double row of windows were visible, he said.
But the Soviet pilot could not see inside the cockpit of the Korean plane or see passengers through the windows. Some experts believe that many of the shades over the windows would have been pulled down at that time of night.
To try to force the plane down he fired his cannon three times, shooting off a total of 520 rounds. But the shells did not contain tracers and were not visible at night.
He said the Korean pilots still should have seen the flashes from his gun and also noticed when the SU-15 flashed his lights. That, he said, was a signal to follow the Soviet interceptor to his base or risk destruction.
"I would have landed him on our airfield, and I wanted it very much," he said. "Do you think I wanted to kill him? I would rather have shared a bottle with him."
But he did not try to use his radio to call, saying that there was no time and that the intruder would not have understood Russian.
"How can I talk with him?" he said. "You must know the language."
Osipovich says he used a standard procedure to insure that he was not shooting down a Soviet transport plane. His SU-15 fighter sent out electronic signals that would have brought a response from a Soviet plane identifying it as friendly.
Western commercial airplanes are not equipped to respond to Soviet military signals, and no "friendly" response was received.
At that point, the Soviets' big problem was no longer establishing the identify of the intruder, but rather time, he said. The intruder plane would soon have passed over Sakhalin Island and re-entered international airspace.
Worried that the intruder might get away, the Soviet pilot became concerned when it slowed down to 350 knots, causing Osipovich's jet to overshoot its quarry.
Osipovich viewed the slowdown as an indication the Korean jet had seen him and was trying to evade his pursuer. Some experts believe that the Korean plane was simply beginning a planned ascent in accordance with its flight plan.
But Osipovich insists that the 747 did not ascend or descend. In any event, he was ordered to shoot down the plane.
Making a maneuver Russian pilots called the "snake," he descended and pulled behind the intruder. He fired two missiles.
"Thank god, they hit," he recalled.
When KAL 007 was shot down, it was only 20 to 25 seconds from reaching neutral territory, he said, which would have prevented the shootdown.
For years, the pilot was precluded from talking to the press. He was made the navigator of a regiment and had another brush with danger when a engine failure force him to eject, hurting his back and making it difficult to fly. He left the military in 1986 with little fanfare.
Now 52, with a thick shock of white hair, Osipovich, like many former military men, relies on a small pension, some $150 a month, he said.
But with the government strapped for cash, he said he could not recall the last time he received his pension, and he depends on his small garden plot for food. Cucumbers are one of his staples.
He is still treated with respect. At a recent seminar in Moscow at the left-leaning newspaper Trud, which organized Osipovich's trip to Moscow, the former pilot was toasted at a reception.
Poor, and vilified in most of the Western world, he is proud of his fame, which still brings numerous interview requests.
Downing a glass of vodka, he told a visitor, "I am a lucky guy."
SNAKEDOC wrote: »
given that it happened two years before i was born i don't know much about it, but would the western agencies mainly the NSA or CIA really refit a 747 for recon duties on the fringes of the soviet union
SNAKEDOC wrote: »
the U2 capable
SNAKEDOC wrote: »
given that it happened two years before i was born i don't know much about it, but would the western agencies mainly the NSA or CIA really refit a 747 for recon duties on the fringes of the soviet union given that they had satellites and other aircraft such as the SR71 or the U2 capable of doing these tasks.