Seaboard Flight 253, Down in the Kuriles

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Photo courtesy of Nancy Jacquier

On July 1, 1968, a Seaboard DC-8-63CF enroute from Seattle to Tokyo carrying 214 military passengers was intercepted by Russian MiG fighters and forced to land on Iturup Island in the Kuriles. The account below was prepared by Capt. Bill Eastwood who was dead-heading. He was assisted in the preparation by Capt. Hank Treger, Capt. Tom Reinke, Chief Flight Engineer Ed Acree, and Chief Navigator Bob Schipper.



SEABOARD FLIGHT 253,  DOWN IN THE KURILES

Time dims memory - more precisely, time dulls the recollection of details, yet the memory of the main event stays alive. Fortunately, over the years since 1968, I have kept alive my recollection of that day Seaboard World flight 253 strayed off course and ended up in Russian hands. Recently, I received valuable documents and anecdotal evidence that have helped me fill out this account.

The flight began on the last day in June, 1968, at McChord AFB. Captain Temple Robinson ferried N8631 from JFK to begin this flight to Tokyo. A fresh crew with Captain Ralph Neary as check pilot and Ed Acree as check engineer was to take the plane with 214 military passengers as far as Tokyo. There, after a crew change, the passengers were to continue to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. On this morning, after loading the passengers at McChord, a refueling stop was made at Seattle’s SEATAC airport, where the longer runways permitted maximum weight takeoff. This flight was also to be a proving run on the ability of the new DC8-63CF to fly nonstop from the U.S. West Coast to Japan.

While the plane was being made ready for departure that morning, an unusual incident occurred. The Seattle-Tokyo crew noted that a circuit breaker labeled Decca, or Dectra, (there is some confusion about this) was open and was red tagged, meaning do not use. This has led to much conjecture since then whenever this flight is discussed as to whether it was legally dispatched.

Note that in order to fly legally on the route that was planned, which was 100nm north of NOPAC 1, the aircraft had to be equipped with several options of equipment.  (Note: the planned route, 100nm north of NOPAC 1, was the most northern route available to civil aircraft, and the closest to Soviet airspace.) Flight 253 qualified to operate in that airspace by virtue of having a periscopic sextant, a Loran receiver, and a Doppler radar drift sensor unit. There was also weather radar with mapping capability. I have recently learned that although the Doppler radar was in fact part of the required equipment used on this flight and was in operating condition, it had not received a type certificate from the FAA. This may be the technicality that the FAA used to censure Seaboard World. Incidentally, on September 5, 1968, two months later, the FAA issued new, more stringent requirements for flight north of NOPAC 1.

A question has come up in the past as to whether the required Decca Doppler radar sensor was operating, in view of the open circuit breaker. I have recently confirmed from Hank Treger, who was the first officer on the flight, that the Decca Doppler was operative and was giving a usable return until two hours out of the Kuriles, when it went into memory mode. Memory mode, of course, does not mean that the unit has failed; it sometimes goes into memory mode when the plane is over calm seas where no radar return is possible. Treger said the weather radar (mapping function) gave up just as we passed Shemya in the Aleutians.

I was a check captain in uniform on this flight, deadheading to Tokyo where I was to check the next-stage crew to Vietnam and return to Tokyo. Aircraft 631 was the latest addition to Seaboard’s fleet, a DC8-63CF, or the "stretched" version in the DC8 series. A route check for each pilot was required because of two new features. The longer fuselage called for a special two-stage rotation on takeoff to avoid striking the tail, and the older flight director had been replaced by the newer Collins model. My mission was to certify that each pilot I rode with was proficient in the takeoff technique and understood and could use the new Collins flight director. Captain Neary, who was also Seaboard’s Director of Flight, was checking Captain Joe Tosolini and First Officer Henry (Hank) Treger on these points on this first leg. At the same time he was checking Tosolini on his upgrade to DC8 captain.


THE FLIGHT

We took off at 8:15 local time (1515Z) from Seattle, destination Yokota AFB in Tokyo. Heading west, we were following the sun. Reporter J. Campbell Bruce of the San Francisco Chronicle began his story of the Seaboard plane going down in Soviet territory in the July 6 edition this way: "It was about 8:30 in the morning of a cloudless day high over the far Pacific, and a drowsy quiet hung over the crowded cabin of the big jet." That describes the atmosphere in the cabin perfectly. The passengers were relaxed or dozing. Just prior to the time he mentions, I went forward to the cockpit to speak with the crew. The cockpit was crowded. In addition to the pilots being checked, Ed Acree, Seaboard’s chief flight engineer, was giving a check on the new plane to Engineer Earl Scott. Larry Guernon, the navigator, was the only officer not being checked. When Tosolini saw me enter the cockpit he asked me to take his seat while he stretched his legs in the cabin. As I sat down in the captain’s seat, I saw that the mapping radar was inoperative. Treger told me it had been out for some time. We tried to get it working again, tilting it up and down, off and on, checking the circuit breakers, but we couldn’t get it to function.

When Tosolini came back up front, I returned to my seat in the cabin, just behind the cockpit on the left side of the plane, in the emergency evacuation row. Pat Parlette, one of our stewardesses, was in the window seat and I was on the aisle. Almost immediately, out the window, we saw a MiG 15 or 17, with a red star on its tail, flying close formation with us. Pat quickly grabbed her camera and took shots out the window. The pilot was signaling to the cockpit crew. We made a fairly steep left turn toward the MiG. Apparently Tosolini realized we were inside the Soviet territory and hoped to get into safe airspace to the south. As the turn started, I heard cannon fire from the MiG and then our plane leveled out. A passenger shouted that there was another MiG of the right side. We started to descend. Our intercept position must have been close to the airport because our descent took us overhead the airport as if we had been making a normal approach to land there. Hank Treger later told me that they descended straight ahead along their track, and when they got below the clouds they spotted the airdrome off to their right.

Tosolini was concerned about the landing strip, since he could see that only a portion of it was concrete and the remainder on each end was pierced-steel matting, and he made a 360 degree overhead approach to look it over. This action upset the MiG pilots who flew in front of us to prevent our escape. Hank told me, "I’ll never forget looking up the tailpipe of one of them. Talk about close!" After we landed, the plane rolled out to a parking cul-de-sac at the end of the runway. The crew shut down the engines. We were on the ground at Burevestnik Air Base on Iturup Island in the Kuriles.


THE RECEPTION

Looking through the airplane window, I could see the mobile airport control and several small buildings. Military figures with rifles appeared below the plane. Soon, the front passenger door opened and several officers and a woman came aboard. Talking and gesturing, the officers entered the cockpit and, after a time, escorted Neary, Tosolini, Treger and Guernon off the plane. Apparently, their quick inspection of the cockpit assured them that this was not a spy plane. The woman, who was the local school teacher, began speaking in a limited way with the stewardesses, and soon a large samovar was brought aboard and set up in the galley, followed shortly by a case of butter and loaves of bread. Later, cigarettes were passed out and arrangements were made for the men to leave the plane two at a time to use the latrine. Young soldiers, who looked to be in their teens, stood guard below to escort the men. We were ordered to draw the window shades and our passports and IDs were taken.

A few hours later, a Dakota (lend-lease from WW II and still in camouflage paint) came in from Vladivostok bringing an officer of the rank of general and an interpreter. Serious negotiations with the Russians for our release began at this time. I later learned that the flight crew was shown a radar plot of our track over Soviet airspace and were forced to sign two documents, one acknowledging the violation of Russian airspace, and one attesting that a takeoff could be made safely if we were released.There was a token guard present during the negotiations and the crew got to meet the fighter pilots who had intercepted them.

During all this time, the military passengers were quiet and orderly. There were several master sergeants in the group, but only one officer, a first lieutenant dentist in the medical corps. The men appeared to be setting up some sort of informal command structure.

Soon, the remaining cockpit crew and I were allowed to leave and we were taken to what would have been the transient officer quarters on a U.S. base. The furnishings and toilet amenities were primitive, but it was a welcome relief to be off the plane. I was astonished to see how the Soviets maintained their military force at a fraction of what it would cost the U.S for the same effort. By this time, some of the stewardesses were permitted to go ashore to the rest quarters. They deserve a lot of credit for their performance during this long and tense period. Meanwhile, the pilots and navigator were in another area of the base undergoing interrogation. We met them in the mess hall which was reserved for us and tried to get some idea as to what was going on and when we might leave, but they only said negotiations were going on. The meals we were given were hearty but unexceptional, served on white plastic tablecloths pierced at the edges to resemble lace. Our hosts were obviously trying to make a good impression on us and we received their efforts with the polite acknowledgement of good guests. The women who waited on the tables were smiling and friendly and I thought they must be wives of the military personnel. I could see that they held us in awe and our visit was a big event for them, deprived as they were of contact with the outside world.


THE RELEASE

On the second morning, we were glad to learn that we would be allowed to leave. At this moment, we thanked Ed Acree for having insisted, when they were first ordered, that these new planes be equipped with a reserve air-start system. Some of the executives who oversaw the ordering of the planes had wanted to delete this system, but Ed held firm, and now, on the maiden flight, the system proved its worth. During our time on the ground, Ed had transferred fuel so that the center tanks were empty. The Soviets were concerned that we get away safely and didn’t want to do anything to further complicate the situation. They insisted on giving us their jet fuel and it was put in these center tanks where Ed, who was afraid of fuel contamination, had arranged that it wouldn’t be used in our engines except as a last resort.

The problem now was how to get the plane out of the cul-de-sac at the end of the runway. There wasn’t room to turn around and there was no tug available to move the big plane. Again, we thanked Ed who knew from past experience that if there were enough hands available, the plane could be pushed back and turned around. He assembled a group of the passengers at the main wheel struts, warning them not to push on the hydraulic lines, and they pushed and turned the plane right around. Meanwhile, we had checked the performance charts and determined that we could be airborne inside the concrete portion of the runway before we ran over the pierced-steel matting at the end, where we feared the tires might be damaged. Several disturbing questions remained. Did we have enough battery power for ignition when we started number 3 engine? Was there enough air pressure in the reserve start unit to provide rotation? Some pressure may have bled off. Ed wanted Earl Scott to start the engine as part of his upgrade check. Scott wasn’t too eager to show his skill at this crucial moment, but Ed insisted. Scott began the start procedure and despite our worry, number 3 spooled up and started easily and we all gave a sigh of relief. Scott cross-bled from number 3 and started the other engines. If it hadn’t been for Acree, I don’t think we would have gotten the plane out.

As we took off over the bay, we saw below a flotilla of small fishing boats waiting to pick up survivors in case we crashed in the water. Tosolini immediately gave the word to Tokyo Radio that we were free and we were on our way to Misawa AFB.


NAVIGATION

While I was waiting in the transient quarters at Burevestnik, I tried to figure out how the plane had gotten off course. I was convinced that we had been off course or the fighters wouldn’t have intercepted us and I also remembered that one of the passengers on the right side of the plane had said he had seen islands out his window before the fighters showed up. The islands are located well within the Soviet FIR. Although the weather and mapping radar were inoperative in the time before intercept, I could see no reason for being that far off course. At this time, strict rules were in effect regarding flight planning in this part of the North Pacific. The reason for these rules, obviously, was the proximity of the best-time track to airspace of an unfriendly nation.

Some of the records of this flight are missing due to the passage of time, but because of the requirements of the FDC bulletin, plus the fact that it was the best time-route and its speed was greater than mach .78, this flight is assumed to have been planned on the track 100nm north of NOPAC 1. Flight level not known, but above FL290.

At 2236Z, or 7hrs 15min into the flight, Soviet radar put the plane inside their airspace at 48-15N, 153-34E, and at 2253Z plotted it at 46-48N and 151E. The plane was intercepted and it landed at Iturup Island at 2343Z, 50 minutes after the second fix.

A question may be raised as to whether these fixes were legitimate, or in fact were fabricated by the Soviets for political or other reasons, especially since Capt. Tosolini so strongly denied that the plane was off course. However, if the flight was outside the FIR as Tosolini claimed, it seems unlikely, considering the many flights using that route, that the Russians would arbitrarily pick one flight and say it was off course. Why create an international incident? Further, as mentioned, a passenger did claim he saw the islands below even before the MiGs intercepted the flight.

Why wasn’t the pilot warned by radar stations that he was off course? R. W. Johnson in Shootdown, Flight 007 and the American Connection claims, in writing of this incident, that both the Japanese radar at Wakkanai and Shemya radar witnessed the intrusion and that Wakkanai "radioed a warning directly to the DC8." It may be true that this warning was relayed by Tokyo Control on HF frequencies, but by that time the crew was using the International Distress VHF frequency 121.5 to relay details of the intercept to a nearby Flying Tigers plane.

There was little Tosolini could do but follow the orders of the pilot in the MiG.

When the charts and navigation logs for the flight returned to New York a team of four examiners was formed to examine them to see if an error had occurred. Two members were from the FAA and two were from Seaboard World. The Seaboard members were Bob Schipper, Chief Navigator, and Tom Reinke, a company navigator. They soon found the answer: The navigator had made an error plotting a sun line. Without getting into the details of the error it is sufficient to say that it took the flight off course and into Soviet airspace.


DISCUSSION

We were at the midpoint of the Vietnam War when this incident occurred in 1968. The Tet Offensive had begun in January. The intelligence ship Pueblo had been captured by North Korea six months earlier and was still being held. The seizure of our flight had the makings of an international incident. We who were on the flight had no idea how long we might be held. We knew China was militarily supporting the North Vietnamese and China and Russia were allies. Would the position of the Russians be swayed by this connection? Another factor, however, of which we weren’t aware, was that the United States and the Soviet Union had just concluded negotiations on a reduction in strategic offensive and defensive missiles. On the same day the plane was forced down, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was signed by President Johnson in Washington, Prime Minister Kosygin in Moscow and Premier Harold Wilson in Britain. Since the United States admitted that the plane was off course due to a navigation error and had issued an apology, in the spirit of good will prevailing Kosygin ordered the plane released.

We who were on that flight can be thankful that we passed close to Iturup in broad daylight. Fifteen years later KAL 007 was shot down by Soviet fighters in the dark of night at Sakhalin Island after flying past the Kuriles. 269 passengers lost their lives. We can also be thankful that a period of relaxed tensions existed at the time of our incident. In other periods of Soviet-U.S. history we could have been held for a very long time as the great powers bargained over our release.

A note on the island Iturup, or Etorofu, since both names are used. Iturup is the Russian name; Etorofu is the Japanese name. These Kurile Islands, which contain the world’s third most productive fishing grounds, were the territory of Japan until the end of WW II when they were awarded to Russia by agreement between Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta. Japan today is still pressing for their return.

Etorofu is the location of Tankan Bay, where Vice Admiral Nagumo assembled the fleet that sailed through the North Pacific and attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Most of the inhabitants, other than military troops, are fishermen and their families. They were very friendly toward us. I wish I had been more observant when I was there. If I had only sneaked a camera with me when they let me off the plane!



Cockpit crew

Ralph Neary, Captain and SWA Director of Flight, acting as check pilot
Joseph Tosolini, Captain
Henry Treger, First Officer
Laurence Guernon, Navigator
Ed Acree, Chief Flight Engineer, acting as check engineer
Earl Scott, Engineer

Stewardesses

Terry Carr
Liberty Chang
Patricia O'Dell
Nancy Cuddy
Margaret Nelson
Nancy Jacquier
Nancy Gorman

Deadheads

Bill Eastwood, check captain
Patricia Parlette, senior stewardess
Craig Randall, maintenance official
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