On 20 April 1978, Korean Air Lines flight KE902 was a scheduled service from Paris to Seoul with a refueling stop in Anchorage. The 97 passengers and 12 crew on board the Boeing 707-321B would not make it to Korea that day. In fact, they ended up on Korpijärvi Lake in Soviet Karelia, near the Finnish border.

When you need to make an emergency landing, any piece of flat clear ground will do. In this case the lake served very well as a makeshift runway, but what caused this to happen?

KAL902 Strays Off Course

During the flight, the navigation system on the aircraft failed and the plane strayed into Soviet airspace. A Sukhoi Su-15TM interceptor was dispatched to find out what was going on.

The story of what happened next differs, with the Korean crew saying they tried to communicate with the military jet by radio, receiving no response. The Soviet pilot contends the airliner ignored him when he tried to get them to follow him to a landing.

Eventually a missile was fired, which struck the left wing, taking off the outer four metres of it. It also caused an explosive decompression and the deaths of two passengers, Bahng Tais Hwang, a salesman from Seoul, and Yoshitako Sugano, a coffee shop owner from Yokohama, both of whom were hit by shrapnel.

Landing On A Frozen Lake

After an emergency descent from 35,000 feet, Cap­tain Kim Chang Kyu searched for an appropriate place to land. Eventually he selected the lake as it had a village nearby and had enough surface for the aircraft to stop safely.

In a superb feat of airmanship, the pilot brought the airliner down successfully, ending up on the shore of the lake. Local townspeople arrived and eventually the military. Everyone was detained while arrangements were made for repatriation, with almost everyone released on 23 April and flown to Helsinki. The Captain and Navigator were released on 29 April, after admitting full responsibility for the incident.

Overall Thoughts

The story of KAL902 is pretty amazing when you think about it – it is just pure luck the aircraft managed to land successfully. There are more pictures and the story from the Soviet side here. In addition, you can see an American perspective in this interesting piece. Who has the real story? We may never know.

Five years later the occupants of another Korean Air Lines plane that strayed into Soviet airspace were not so lucky. Their Boeing 747 operating KAL007 was shot down and all 269 passengers and crew perished.

Did you know the story of this Korean Air Lines landing on the frozen lake? Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.

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Images via Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives.