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The Cold War Air Tragedy That Gave the World GPS

The Cold War Air Tragedy That Gave the World GPS
Jeff Edwards

Global Positioning System or GPS was originally conceived with solely military applications in mind, but that all changed after a Soviet military jet shot down a Korean Air Boeing 747 which had strayed into U.S.S.R. airspace in route from Alaska to South Korea. Following the tragedy, then President Ronald Reagan ordered that the guidance system be made available to civil aviation on a limited basis.

In 1983, President Reagan signed an executive order allowing civilians to use the U.S. Military’s Global Positioning System (GPS).The history-changing move came in response to the downing of Korean Air Flight 007 which had mistakenly veered into Soviet airspace while flying from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Seoul Gimpo International Airport (SEL) via what is now Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC).

Although the GPS we know today would not be declared fully operational until 1995, the executive order signed at the height of the Cold War led directly to the modern reliance on GPS technology for everything from commercial aircraft navigation to the interactive maps on our mobile phones. Unfortunately, it took a brush with war for these conveniences of the future to become household items.

In September of 1983, Soviet jets were scrambled to intercept the Boeing 747 carrying 269 passengers, including a U.S. congressman, after the aircraft mistakenly entered restricted airspace while flying on autopilot. What followed was a combination of Cold War hostilities, miscommunication, technological failures and bad luck which resulted in unspeakable tragedy.

“I could see two rows of windows, which were lit up,” Soviet pilot Col. Gennadi Osipovitch said in a 1998 interview with CNN.  “I wondered if it was a civilian aircraft. Military cargo planes don’t have such windows. I wondered what kind of plane it was, but I had no time to think. I had a job to do. I started to signal to [the pilot] in international code. I informed him that he had violated our airspace. He did not respond.”

At the time the commercial flight was shot down in restricted airspace, plans already called for the U.S. military to selectively allow civilians to eventually use GPS. The executive order signed in the wake of an international incident, however, not only sped up the process by decades, but also ensured that GPS would be offered for non-military use at no cost. In 2000, then President Clinton removed the last of the selective restrictions on civilian access to GPS and the rest is, as they say, history.

View Comments (3)


  1. Bowgie

    August 22, 2019 at 9:44 pm

    I have an Amex Surpass, which I thinking of dropping along with Hilton until Hilton fixes their problems:
    1. Usually over-priced relative to IHG competition
    2. Rampant hacking of point balances via Amazon gift cards
    3. 4 points per one cent of redemption value
    4. Poor elite recognition at US properties.
    5. IT issues. It took Hilton months to recognize my Gold status from holding a Surpass card.

  2. alexmyboy

    August 23, 2019 at 6:04 am

    it was murder

  3. c1ue

    August 26, 2019 at 3:43 am

    I would suggest watching this video: The Secret History of Silicon Valley:
    In particular, at 41:14 – there is a list of 23 ELINT planes shot down by Russia. The US used to fly planes over Soviet borders, regularly, in order to get the Soviets to turn radar on so that they could map them out for attack planning purposes (or at least, what other possible purpose can be served by getting another nation to turn its self-defense radar on?)
    Korean Air 007 was a tragedy, but it is unclear if it was truly unprovoked.

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