View Full Version : Korean Air jet may have narrowly missed disaster

13th Aug 2002, 15:46


Korean Air jet may have narrowly missed disaster
Tue Aug 13, 7:10 AM ET
Alan Levin

A string of miscommunications Sept. 11 led to a jarring incident over Alaska that convinced controllers the military might shoot down a Korean Air jet.

Pilots on Korean Air Flight 85 mistakenly issued a hijack alert at 1:24 p.m. ET as they neared Alaska on the way to Anchorage. Military officials, who had ordered two F-15 fighters to tail the jet, told Anchorage air traffic controllers that they would shoot it down if it did not turn away from populated areas, several sources told USA TODAY.

During the next 90 minutes, officials on the ground launched evacuations in Anchorage, at the Trans Alaska Pipeline and in Whitehorse, the capitol of Canada's Yukon Territory. The jet, a Boeing 747 with 215 people aboard, eventually landed in Whitehorse.

The events illustrate how tensions and suspicions on Sept. 11 spawned misunderstandings that threatened to spin out of control.

Problems began shortly after the attacks, in a Maryland office park. There, ARINC, a company that airlines pay to transmit text messages to and from their jets, began a search for more hijacked flights.

Scanning every communication it transmitted that day, it found something suspicious sent by the Korean jet. The Seoul-to-New York flight was headed for a refueling stop in Anchorage. In a message sent at 11:08 a.m. ET to Korean Air's base, the pilots included the letters ''HJK'' -- a code for hijacked.

Korean Air's operations chief, David Greenberg, said in an interview that the message was innocent, part of a routine discussion on where to divert the flight after airspace in the United States had been closed. The pilots had used the abbreviation to refer to the hijackings that day, he said.

But ARINC officials feared the message was a coded plea for help. Shortly before noon, they passed that suspicion on to the Federal Aviation Administration ( news - web sites), which notified Anchorage controllers and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

At that point, Flight 85 was still hundreds of miles from mainland Alaska over the North Pacific. There had been no distress call or anything unusual about the flight except for the message that included ''HJK.'' But as it had done with at least a handful of flights that morning, NORAD sent fighter jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage to shadow it.

When the Korean jet reached Anchorage's airspace about 1 p.m., controllers radioed coded questions to the pilots to learn whether they had been hijacked. Controllers and pilots are trained how to respond to such messages, but something failed that day.

Instead of reassuring controllers, the Korean pilots declared themselves hijacked at 1:24 p.m. They set their transponder, which transmits information about the flight to radars, to the four-digit universal code for hijacked -- 7500.

Suddenly, more than an hour after the skies emptied over the lower 48 states, a routine flight became a potential new attacker.

To this day, no one is certain why the pilots issued the alert. Airline sources say that exchanges between pilots and controllers were tense that morning. Some pilots objected to orders to reroute their planes. The Korean pilots may have misinterpreted the controller's comments as an order to reset the transponder.

Whatever the reason, the Korean pilots' response set off a frenzy of activity. Within minutes, Alaska's governor launched an evacuation of large hotels and federal buildings in Anchorage. The U.S. Coast Guard ( news - web sites) ordered tankers out to sea at nearby Valdez, Alaska, where they had been loading oil from the Trans Alaska pipeline.

FAA officials refused to discuss what happened next, and the details remain murky. But USA TODAY pieced together these details:

The scene at the Anchorage air traffic control center was edgy and confused, several sources said. The military insisted to controllers that the jet must veer away from Anchorage and oil facilities at Valdez.

But FAA officials near Washington, D.C., advised the center's controllers over the phone not to turn the jet. In spite of the transponder code, it wasn't clear this jet had actually been hijacked.

With two F-15s tracking Flight 85, NORAD officers told officials at the Anchorage center that they would shoot down the airliner if it continued, the sources said. Air traffic officials ordered the jet to turn wide of Alaska's largest city.

NORAD officials have insisted in recent weeks they never threatened to shoot down the jet and that the event was handled smoothly. But Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, commander of the NORAD group that responded to the Korean jet, told reporters last year he was prepared to order the jet shot from the sky before it could attack a target in Alaska.

It's not clear whether NORAD officers ever sought approval to attack the 747. Under the rules of engagement in place on Sept. 11, the president or vice president would have had to approve an attack. Shortly after Sept. 11, President Bush ( news - web sites) granted such powers to a group of generals that included Schwartz.

After the jet turned away from Anchorage, new concerns arose over whether the jet had enough fuel to reach Whitehorse, more than 500 miles beyond its original destination.

Canadian air traffic officials agreed to let the jet land there, but its approach set off a new wave of evacuations.

Flight 85 landed safely in Whitehorse at 2:54 p.m. ET. Its transponder emitted the hijack code for the entire 90 minutes. Only after the co-pilot stepped off the jet at gunpoint and was interrogated did officials confirm that the jet had not been hijacked.

13th Aug 2002, 21:34
Old news. :rolleyes:

Lee-a-Roady Moor
13th Aug 2002, 21:54
Well Lewis, sarcasim never got anybody anywhere.

To some who may not have read the piece or been aware of the details, it is of interest and worth posting.

13th Aug 2002, 23:05
Classic Aviator,
But should you be talking about the various Hijack codes and things and letting anyone with access to the internet and PPRUNE know these, you don't know who is reading this site.

This story was published in USA Today - an national newspaper with over 2.3 million readers. (also on their website)

Super G
13th Aug 2002, 23:32
I too find it quite disturbing that the coded R/T and other clandestine methods available to pilots to communicate unlawful interference is readily available and apparently freely able to be published by media outlets. What chance do you guys have as pilots if a potential hi-jacker knows your moves if he ever gets in your cockpit.

As an ATC operative I am now extremely cautious about transmitting any kind of coded information to a pilot whom I thought may be subject to hijack for fear of putting you guys in the cockpit in an uncompromising position.

Maybe we need to start again with new codes and this time keep them secret.....sssshhhhhhhh. ;)

14th Aug 2002, 02:08
..Only in America.......

14th Aug 2002, 03:02
I think you'll find to day's hijackers to be entirely familiar with transponder codes and transponder control panels on the flight deck.

14th Aug 2002, 03:35
Id like to point out that the current commandant of NORAD is a Canadian, same guy that was in charge last year.

14th Aug 2002, 08:55
RAT, you might remember KAL 007 which was shot down by Soviet fighters flying a similar but reverse route back in '83.

On Sept 11 2001, I wouldn't have blamed anyone for being a little cautious.

(edited for typo)

14th Aug 2002, 09:30
well theres cautious and then there is stupidity. i can only say "nail clippers"

Freak On A Leash
15th Aug 2002, 10:43
So basically they flew into ANC airspace, the controllers suspected a hijack and sent the crew coded messages to confirm/deny their situation.The crew in turn probably understood this as "we believe you have been hijacked" and therefore put the hijack-code in their transponder.Seems like a bad case of miscommunication, and perhaps there should be a standardisation of the procedures regarding a suspected hijack and clarification of the matter.The code is one thing, but there are several other things you can do to notify ATC that you`re being hijacked...
And why the diversion to Whitehorse, Canada.That`s quite a long flight considering that they had already flown from Korea...
Maybe the crew was thinking "this ain`t good, let`s get outta here".Who knows...
And of course the question arises about the language barrier again...

Good that it all ended well though.

15th Aug 2002, 13:16
Classic Aviator,

Much of the historically correct procedures are invalid today. There was a suppostition of flight crews cooperating with them. Today, if they got access to the cockpit, there would be a fight to the death right then and there...because we know it means disaster one way or another. Therefore, there is no need for codes and words. I will speak in a deliberately clear manner on the radio and tell the controlling agency exactly what I know is happening in the back and exactly what my intentions are. The cabin crew has their objectives as well. Both the cockpit and cabin crews have already considered the consequences of this situation.

CLASSIC AVIATOR wrote: I for one had not heard this story, interesting read. Makes you think about things.

But should you be talking about the various Hijack codes and things and letting anyone with access to the internet and PPRUNE know these, you don't know who is reading this site.

Just a thought.


15th Aug 2002, 20:27
But should you be talking about the various Hijack codes and things and letting anyone with access to the internet and PPRUNE know these, you don't know who is reading this site.

The procedures are documented in the AIM, which is required reading for the PPL.


16th Aug 2002, 01:29
But should you be talking about the various Hijack codes and things and letting anyone with access to the internet and PPRUNE know these, you don't know who is reading this site.

Whether you talk about them codes here or on any other aviation site, or club, on USA Today (press/media), or 'what have you' out there, it is not the problem.

I'd say it is already too late if the hijacker is on your craft. What good is your code going to do you?

Best bet - F-16 or the likes will have at you...

Seems the buck stops on the ground.