Tailspin (Movie review)

Closeup of Boeing 747

Movies based on true stories are always tricky. Sometimes, the true story is used simply as a base, other times the entire movie corresponds to reality, but always, there are some slight modifications due to dramatic purposes. Tailspin: Behind the Korean Airliner Tragedy, also known as Coded Hostile, is one of the gems in the field of true air disaster movies, because it is not exactly a movie, it is a docudrama made for cable television. As you will see here, it delivers with high accuracy, the events leading to the shootdown of Korean Airlines flight 007, flying from New York to Seoul via Anchorage.

Before viewing the movie, I did my part of research too by reading Seymour M. Hersh’s excellent book “The Target Is Destroyed”, which is, like the movie, a very good recount of the events. The cover caption of the book reads: “What really happened to Flight 007 and what America knew about it”. If you don’t know already “what America knew about it”, you will figure it out below. Since the story is known worldwide, there is no use in “keeping the suspense” (or stopping where the action becomes interesting, asking the reader to view the movie for the ending!) as I usually do in my previous reviews.

This is a movie review. The plotline is judged “accurate” in terms of the general theory so far: that Korean Air Lines flight 007 was brought down by a Soviet air-to-air rocket in the vicinity of Sakhalin Island, with the loss of all aboard.

Plot summary

The movie begins with the military ground staff at Shemya Air Force Base, in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, preparing an RC-135 (military version of the Boeing 707) for departure, callsign Cobra Ball. We assist the take-off of this aircraft, which, as we later find out, could have been the real target of the ill-fated shootdown. It was on a reconnaissance mission, nearly 60 miles off the coast of USSR, to track increasing missile test activity.

Meanwhile, the personnel of the Misawa US Air Base in Japan is, as usual, listening to the most private conversations involving the USSR and China. Even unofficial conversations between Soviet sailors and their “women” are tracked. It is a highly restricted world, protected by a wide variety of security codes. The boredom of the conversations tracked on and on is suddenly interrupted when a staff member tracks a rather worrying transmission.

Personnel at Misawa US Air Base in Japan (actors)

An intruder aircraft has entered Soviet airspace and is coded 088, “hostile”. He can only read the positions, yet he is aware that, at 33,000 feet, the mystery plane is being followed by four Soviet fighters. Later on, the fighters are recalled and head back to their base. What happened? The personnel take no chance and sends CRITIC messages to the National Security Agency. They are sent back because of “insufficient data”. The NSA judges it is no use waking up President Reagan for such things. All of a sudden, a clue which indicates the possible identity of the chased plane. Japanese television announced that a Korean Air Lines 747 has been reported missing over the Pacific.

Another US AFB in Wakkanai, Japan, recorded the transmissions of the Soviet fighter pilot and immediately sends a plane to Misawa to ship the tapes. The translation is without doubt: the pilot fired, and acknowledged “the target is destroyed”. The question remains: was it Cobra Ball, which was flying on an “8” pattern in and out of the Soviet airspace… or the mysterious KAL 747 reported missing? It can’t be Cobra Ball, since the plane left at least 2 hours before the mystery plane was brought down.

In the meantime, the State Department staff is in an extraordinary reunion in the Operations Room. The main concern at the moment is that flight 007, from Anchorage to Seoul, had a number of congressmen and senators, including Larry P. McDonald, and that the ultra-nationalists will believe he and the other politicians were the target of a deliberate Soviet hostile action. On the other hand, they are stunned by the difference between the scheduled flight plan of flight 007 (far from the Soviet coastline), and where the mystery plane was destroyed. Suddenly, television come with relieving news. A press release from Korean Air Lines confirms that the lost 747 landed safely somewhere in Sakhalin Island, without any casualties.

Unfortunately, moments later, Japan denies the KAL press release and reveals the 747 was indeed the target.

Personnel in Washington, DC (actor)

In the Aviation Information Services of the NSA, there is a lot of discussion about the obvious difference between an RC-135 and a civilian 747… not only the size but the hump. However, it becomes more and more clear that in the darkness, and from behind and below (the position in which the planes are usually fired at), the difference is nearly impossible. Later on, in a briefing at the Pentagon, it is confirmed the Cobra Ball was out of the area two hours before the plane was shot down. Also, it is confirmed now: the 747 was brought down AND it was nothing more than a Soviet mistake.

Too bad that the politicians refuse to accept the truth. George P. Shultz, Secretary of States, appears on national television and is visibly disturbed about the events. His words do not correspond with what was heard in the movie for the last half-hour. In his speech, the Soviets had visual contact with the aircraft, and even the pilot. He concludes by saying: “We can see no excuse whatsoever for this appalling act”, yet still wants to meet Gronyko, the Soviet foreign affairs minister, in Madrid, to see what he has to say about it.

For John Lenczowski, minister of Soviet Affairs, it is a total shame for the United States. The shootdown of flight 007 is nothing more than a hostile premeditated act, and can almost be considered as a war declaration. He strongly suggests sanctions against USSR, as closure of embassies and consulates, or even more. In the reunion to write a speech for Ronald Reagan about the event, he reminds everyone that there were more United States nationals on the 747 than in the hostage crisis in Iran. Suggestions for an introduction to the speech go as far as calling the act a “cold-blooded murder”.

Ronald Reagan, in a first public declaration, says: “What can be said about Soviet credibility when they so flagrantly lie about such a heinous act? What can be the scope of legitimate mutual discourse with a state whose values permit such atrocities? And what are we to make up a regime which establishes one set of standards for itself, and another for the rest of humankind?”. This is followed by real images of the families of the victims, and heavy anti-Soviet riots, including a Soviet flag burning, and very diverse boards with messages like: “Russian murderer!”, “Stop trade with Russia”, “You killed my family”, and the worldwide known banner with the hand-drawn Korean 747, ripped in half by a very large missile saying “USSR”.

Personnel at Dalnyaya Base, USSR (actors)

The movie ends four years later, with two lawyers meeting, in Seoul, Capt. Park, the last person contacting Capt. Chun, in command of flight 007. Park was following Chun only a few minutes after him, on a sister flight, KAL 015, from Los Angeles to Seoul via Anchorage. According to Park, the most likely error is that the plane did not remain perfectly still for 20 minutes before departure, after the Flight Engineer entered the navigational data in the Flight Management System. In the re-enactment, the First Officer indicates a delay of 10 minutes in reaching the NEEVA waypoint, and that he can no longer reach Anchorage Center, when in fact he should have been in the communications range. Park says Chun probably noticed the navigational error, but did not turn back, otherwise he would have had to uselessly dump the equivalent of thousands of dollars in fuel over the North Pacific, for a lighter landing back to Anchorage. He would have been dishonored.

Park communicates with Chun by radio. Chun claims the delay is due to head winds. Park replies there is no such thing in the area they are flying in right now. The communication is then deliberately cut. Chun is no longer himself, about to blow the fuse, in Park’s opinion. This is when the flight is tracked by the Dal’nyaya Base in USSR, and four fighters are sent. The fighter with the callsign 805 is ordered to approach the aircraft and try to attract the pilot’s attention. But the crew of the Korean airliner never spot the fighter plane, as they contact Tokyo center to climb to flight level 350. After much arguing between the General and his staff, they proceed by the book, making the unfortunate decision of shooting down the plane… since the violation of air space cannot be stopped, and the aircraft would reach international waters within 90 seconds.

There is no graphic depiction of the total destruction of the aircraft. However, the sight of the burning left wing of the 747, falling from the sky, is already enough.

Appreciation

As I said in the introduction, this docudrama is highly accurate, and even though some parts or some actor play corresponds more to drama than reality, the viewer will find this very instructive yet concise. In 90 minutes, you have time to fully understand what is going on, and go beyond what the media said in 1983. The soundtrack, using solely a Mozart symphony, is wisely used. The use of real images (as George P. Shultz or Ronald Reagan on television, or the families of the victims) is excellent. The final re-enactment of the accident is highly interesting and offers fairly good special effects (FORTUNATELY, unlike Hollywood), just enough to leave you stunned. It is, however, the only “air disaster” portion of the movie, but worth the 80-minute wait.

I give Tailspin the well-deserved grade of 9.5 out of 10.
If you don’t have time to read the book, view the movie, although it would be quite hard to obtain.

Things to notice

The following two minor mistakes were noticed, and are the result of very high observation.

Radar closeup showing flight 007 is coded 088-hostile.

  • The scale model used for the air-to-air scenes of the Korean airliner is very well done and credible, but two small details were left behind: the South Korean flag right besides the Korean Air Lines title, and the “KAL” initials and logo, in Korean, right below the lower deck First Class windows. The registration on the tail is correct, though. HL7442, just like the real ill-fated 747.
  • The vertical speed indicator in Capt. Park’s 747 (flight 015) reads at least -3,000 or -4,000 feet per minute, when in fact he is supposed to be at cruising altitude.

The REAL aircraft

It is a Boeing 747-230B, registration HL7442, operated by Korean Air Lines, flight KE007, on the New York – Anchorage – Seoul route (JFK-ANC-SEL).

Movie links

Specifications

U.K./U.S.A. 1989. Produced by Granada and Home Box Office (HBO). Directed by David Darlow. Starring Michael Moriarty, Michael Murphy, Chris Sarandon, Harris Yulin, Gavan O’Herlihy, Ed O’Ross, Jay Patterson. Rated PG. Also known as Absence radar or Le vol KAL 007 ne répond plus (French), Todesflug KAL 007 (German).

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