Can You Believe That The Shooting Down Of An Airline By The Soviets Brought Us Google Maps?

11:00 am 28 Aug, 2017


Do you know how Google Maps, which you now use and enjoy on your smartphone, came into existence? Here’s a brief history.

Google Maps app owes its existence in part to the over-zealousness of the Soviet Air Defense Forces during the Cold War.

On August 30, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, bound for Seoul with 269 crew and passengers aboard. The 747 airliner made a refueling stop at Anchorage, Alaska.


Google Maps

Representational Image. seanmunger


It was reported there that a radio navigation beacon had become non-functional,yet the flight continued on its path. But other technical errors related to navigation led the flight fly in a straight line over the Kamchatka peninsula, which served as a base for Russian nuclear forces.

The Soviets sent four MiG-23 interceptors to take down the flight because they thought it was a US spy plane. The US spy planes of the time slightly resembled the 747. Fortunately, Soviet fighters couldn’t locate the airliner.


The map showing the doomed flight path.

But the airliner wasn’t lucky. It continued flying in a straight line and again reentered Soviet airspace over Sakhalin Islands. This time, the Soviets sent three Su-15s and one MiG-23.


A Sukhoi Su-15. A fighter jet of this kind shot down the KAL 007. AviationForum

Eventually, the flight was shot down with a missile and it fell in the Sea of Japan killing all 269 on board. The date was September 1, 1983. In 1991, the pilot who shot down the plane would admit that he was almost certain it was a civilian plane but defended himself saying that at the time a civilian plane, too, could be converted into a military one.


The only available image of shoes of the passengers of KAL 007. These were found during a Soviet search operation and returned to the families. LIFE/SeanMunger

Though the Soviet Union never formally apologized for shooting down KAL 007 (since they called it a spy plane), both the USSR and the USA realized the need for a better navigational system.

The fact remains that had the navigational system on KAL 007 not gone kaput and the military radars were used for assisting civil aviation, the flight would have probably not strayed off course and got shot down. The Black Box of the flight revealed that the pilots were not even aware that they were flying off course.

It is exactly this incident which made Ronald Reagan, the then US President, to open the Global Positioning System technology for civilian use for free. The US had developed the GPS system but had till this point kept it a secret and reserved it for military use only.


US President Ronald Reagan was so moved by the tragedy that he opened the use of GPS to the public. Hulton Archives

Like any other technology, the GPS, too, could have eventually landed in public hands. But the flight tragedy actually moved the US authorities so much that they announced it almost immediately.

It took another 10 years for the GPS to fully land in public hands and another decade to reach the preciseness where it is currently. But all of this happened ‘quickly’, if you may call it that, because of Ronald Reagan’s decision triggered by that singular tragedy.

Thereafter, the GPS completely brought down air accidents due to navigational errors. And today that same GPS is in everyone’s smartphones.



The catastrophe also resulted in a number of new aviation protocols including use of military radars for managing civilian air traffic. And three years after the incident, Moscow and Washington established a joint air-traffic system.


Indeed, terrible tragedies often speed up inventions and innovations for a safer world!

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