Korean Air Lines pilot Chun Byung In, 45, was, by all accounts, compulsively orderly. Immaculately dressed in his freshly pressed blue uniform, two neatly ironed handkerchiefs folded in his pockets, the onetime Korean air force stunt pilot cut an imposing figure on the international civilian flights he had commanded flawlessly for 11 years. “You never saw such a methodical man as my husband,” says his widow, Kim Ok Hee. “Just about everything had to be precisely at its proper place.”
But something, somehow, slipped tragically out of place for Chun on the night of Aug. 31. In a stunning predawn catastrophe, Chun’s KAL Flight 007 from Anchorage to Seoul was blasted from the sky by two Soviet missiles after the Boeing 747 strayed more than 200 miles inside that country’s airspace. The 269 people on board, including 61 Americans, were killed. The lethal attack, grudgingly admitted by the Soviet Union only after days of denials and obfuscation, etched on the world’s consciousness an indelible image of Soviet brutality and paranoia.
But the question persisted: How had the jetliner wandered so far off course? The U.S. and South Korea have steadfastly denied that Flight 007 was spying on the Soviets, pointing out that advanced satellite technology would have made such a mission unnecessary. Similarly unfounded, apparently, is KAL’s charge that the Soviets had interfered with the jumbo jet’s Inertial Navigation Systems by means of a remote-control radio beacon. On another front, flamboyant San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli, 76, has alleged, in a lawsuit filed against KAL by relatives of more than 50 crash victims, that, according to his sources, the airline routinely offered pilots bonuses to take fuel-saving shortcuts through Soviet airspace. “[Pilot Chun] was so frightened of flying over Russia that he was going to quit,” says Belli. The pilot’s widow denied these charges totally, and the International Civil Aviation Organization, which has been investigating the “facts and technical aspects” of the flight, has reported no evidence that Korean Air Lines ever took shortcuts to save fuel or for any other reason.
Most aviation experts theorize that Chun and his crew made a one-digit mistake in registering their takeoff point on the liner’s computers. An error in locating Anchorage at 139°59.6′ West longitude instead of the correct 149°59.6′ would have caused the plane’s independently powered navigational systems to steer the jet on the fatal path the Russians have claimed it followed.
Yet Chun’s fellow KAL pilots find it hard to reconcile their knowledge of the man with this assumption of critical negligence. “He was the most careful man I’ve ever known,” says Ahn Sang Jeon, who flew precisely synchronized formations with him during Chun’s salad days as a hot-shot flier on the Korean air force’s aerobatics team. Chun was so respected, in fact, that he had served as a backup captain on three of President Chun Doo Hwan’s state visits and, ironically, was to have flown the presidential jet to Burma last October—the flight that took 16 top Korean officials to their deaths in a terrorist bomb explosion in Rangoon. Today, in a grassy park on the southern edges of Seoul, Chun Byung In’s captain’s uniform and a pair of carefully ironed handkerchiefs lie in an otherwise unoccupied tomb—buried there by his widow as a testament to a man of impeccable reputation and habits.