KAL 085 – A Window into the Air Threat Conference

Korean Airlines pre-9/11

For decades, Korean Airlines had a reputation of being one of the most unsecure airlines world-wide. The reason for this reputation was a series of crashes and incidents since the 1970s, many of them related to pilot errors.
The situation escalated in the late 90s. On August 6th, 1997, Korean Air Flight 801 went down in Guam (USA). 228 persons died. NTSB investigation discovered that mistakes from the pilot and the crew related to in-flight communications were one of the probable causes of the crash (p. 175). On December 22nd, 1999, Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509 crashed in Hatflied Forest (UK). The 4 people on board died. The English Department for Transport also determined pilot mistakes to be one reason for the crash (p. 84).
The series of incidents led to restrictions for Korean Airlines in international flight traffic. In 2001, the airline was short of losing the entire U.S. market after FAA downrated its security and prohibited Korean Airlines from expanding inside the US. To save the airline, Korean Airlines managers hired David Greenberg, a former vice-president of Delta Airlines. The hiring of a foreigner was no coincidence, as many problems with Korean Airlines pilots were about language and communication.
Greenbergs first measure was testing the language abilities of the KAL pilots, with streaky results (Gladwell, Outliers, p. 216):

„Some of them were fine, and some of them weren´t“, he [Greenberg] remembers. „So we set up a programm to assist and approve the efficiency of aviation English.”

After that, Greenberg introduced English as the main language to be spoken at KAL training and education programms (Gladwell, Outliers, p. 216).

Greenberg’s rationale was that English was the language of the aviation world. When the pilots sat in the cockpit and worked their way through the written checklists that flight crews follow on every significant point of procedure, those checklists were in English. When they talked to Air Traffic Control anywhere in the world, those conversations would be in English.

Numerous other reforms followed, many of them related to pilot issues. In March 2002, the reform programm for KAL was finished. The airline began to recover and reconquer the U.S. market.
In the middle of the reform process, on 9/11, an incident happened which flared tempers one last time.


In the night from 9/10 to 9/11 (EDT), Korean Air 085, a Boeing 747, registered HL7460, with more than 200 passengers on board, departed from Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Corea, its destination airport being JFK International, New York, approximately 7000 miles away.
From 09:45 EDT on, the U.S.-wide Ground Stop was in full swing. All planes flying were ordered to land as soon as possible. KAL 085 pilots informed their airline at 08:08 PST (11:08 EDT) via ACARS about the attacks in the U.S. This was the starting point of a series of events and escalations which almost lead to a shoot-down decision.
The series starts with ARINC, the company who developed ACARS.

Problems began shortly after the attacks, in a Maryland office park. There, ARINC, a company that airlines pay to transmit text messages to and from their jets, began a search for more hijacked flights.
Scanning every communication it transmitted that day, it found something suspicious sent by the Korean jet. The Seoul-to-New York flight was headed for a refueling stop in Anchorage. In a message sent at 11:08 a.m. ET to Korean Air’s base, the pilots included the letters “HJK” — a code for hijacked.

In the overall panic and angst after the attacks in NYC and Washington, ARINC plays safe. Gary Gambarani, director of ARINC, calls FAA HQ at 09:49 PST (12:49 EDT), to report the possible hijacking, according to the ADA-30 Log at FAA Washington HQ:

ARINC/Gary Gambarani – HIJACK acft Korean KE0085, type unkn, inb to ANC (tail #HL7404) ETA [Estimated Time of Arrival] unkn.

Several areas and senior people in FAA HQ are briefed in the next minutes. Although not noted in the log, around this time FAA HQ also informs FAA Anchorage ARTCC (ZAN), the FAA ATCSCC Herndon and NORAD about the flight.
At 10:12 PST (13:12 EDT), the log tells, ARINC sends a copy of the ARINC message to FAA HQ.

Received copy of ARINC msg on Korean Hijack acft, copies given to ACC [Aviation Command Center] and Computer room.

At this time, KAL 085 is still flying hundreds of miles away above the North Pacific near the Aleutian Islands, straightly heading to Anchorage, Alaska, for a refueling stop, according to its flight plan. This is the standard flight plan for the Seoul-NYC route until today, by the way.

Countless AFBs are at battle stations at this time, among them the 3rd Wing from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. Two F-15s from this AFB scramble in reaction to the ARINC alert and do position themselves behind KAL 085.
The decision to scramble was made by Lt. General Norton A. Schwartz, then-Commander of NORAD Alaska Region ANR.

[W]e had two birds in trail about a mile, shadowing the aircraft so that it was not known to the crew or the passengers that there were two fighter aircraft in close proximity. (Senate Hearing Schwartz, Nov. 2001)

At this point, the story of KAL 085 is a somewhat typical 9/11 story. A random data point becomes misinterpreted in a nervous surrounding. David Greenberg, the former DAL- and now KAL-Manager, later said the ACARS message was not designed to be a signal of a hijacking onboard KAL 085, but just a signal of the pilot´s awareness of the 9/11 hjackings.

Korean Air’s operations chief, David Greenberg, said in an interview that the message was innocent, part of a routine discussion on where to divert the flight after airspace in the United States had been closed. The pilots had used the abbreviation to refer to the hijackings that day, he said.

As the events unfolded, however, there was no time to sort out incorrect assumptions. KAL 085 was one of many flights on this day being watched by interceptors, among them the several flights CAPed above NYC and Washington, D.C. from 09:25 and 10:00 EDT on.
The story could have been solved in moments. It took a serious turn instead, which is reflected in the primary data of the day, notably the Air Threat Conference Call (ATCC) between national military and civilian leaders. The story of KAL 085 proves to be a window into the decision-making process of U.S. leaders on 9/11.

Code 7500

The short messaging system ACARS is mainly used as communication tool between pilot and airline. The protocols in place on 9/11 do not include ACARS as a tool for pilots to communicate a hijacking to the people on the ground. According to the rules, a hijacking has to be confirmed verbally or by squawking transponder code 7500 (details). Therefore, from the FAA/NORAD perspective, it is unclear if KAL 085 is really a hijack.

At this point there was still some questions of whether he was being unlawfully interfered with. And that … I thought we had already gone through that. But there were fighters still tagging along with him, so there was still some suspicion.
(Rick Wilder, Controller in Anchorage ARTCC (ZAN), Interview min3:00)

So the first step for ZAN personnel is determining whether they deal with a hijacked aircraft or not. When KAL 085 reaches the Northern Coast of Bristol Bay (Alasca) and becomes reachable via radio, air traffic control establishes radio contact at 09:21 PST. The contact is routine, and the pilots respond. Good sign.
Now code 7500 comes into play. As to the rules, so much is clear: A controller would never assign code 7500 to a flight, unless the pilot indicated the flight to be hijacked.

Code 7500 will never be assigned by ATC without prior notification from the pilot that the aircraft is being subjected to unlawful interference. (FAA Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), July 2001 (the pilot manual))

Code 7500 is only assigned upon notification from the pilot that his/her aircraft is being subjected to unlawful interference. (FAA Order 7110.65M Air Traffic Control, Juli 2001 (the ATC manual))

Do the pilots onboard KAL 85 indicate a hijacking? The ACARS message was somewhat dubious. It wasn´t unequivocal a sign of a hijack. But it was not cleared as harmless, either. So ground personnel asks the pilot  to confirm squawking 7500, which he disregardes. The pilot then is directly asked to squawk 7500.
The decision to request code 7500, according to participants, was controversially discussed within ZAN (see ATC Rick Wilder interview and ATC Dave Connett interview) and lead to headlines even 10 years later, when local journalist Max Fraser questioned it.
The request, however, had a pretty mundane reason. The FAA protocols in place on 9/11 ruled that, whenever a flight was asked to squawk hijack, the pilot should simply refuse the request, if not being hijacked.

The pilot should refuse the assignment of Code 7500 in any other situation and inform the controller accordingly. Code 7500 will trigger the special emergency indicator in all radar ATC facilities. (FAA Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), July 2001)

Therefore, pilots have been requested to refuse the assignment of Code 7500 in any other situation and to inform the controller accordingly. (FAA Order 7110.65M Air Traffic Control, July 2001)

By not squawking 7500, the pilot would signal that no hijacking is under way.

Ordinarily – typically, for those of you who are airmen you know that there is a manner in which air traffic control will attempt to confirm whether or not an ambiguous indication of hijack is, in fact, true. That is exactly what air traffic control did. They called the crew and they said, confirm squawking xxxx – the four digit code for hijacking, and to us who are most familiar with the FAA procedures, they would have come back and said, negative, negative, I am not squawking that number and it would have been clear that the ambiguous indications were a mistake. (Gen. Schwartz Testimony, Nov. 2001)

Connett says he’s also a pilot and had never before given such a command. He says the order to tell the plane to squawk 7500 – meaning it had been hijacked – surprised him. But he looked later and it was in the FAA manual. He says when those regulations were written, it was presumed that a hijacker would be someone bursting into a cockpit with a weapon. Connett says.
“And one of those would be, a scenario that if a hijacker is standing in the cockpit and he’s telling a pilot what to do, and the controller tells him to do something, like squawk 7500, the hijacker normally wouldn’t know what that means. So if the pilot did it it would confirm that he is being hijacked. But if he wasn’t being hijacked it is incumbent upon the pilot to say, to know the code and to say, no I’m not being hijacked.” (ATC Dave Connett (FAA ZAN), Interview)

But here, the KAL 085 crew gets into the match. At 10:24 PST, KAL 085 follows the request and starts squawking 7500.


Basically, squawking 7500 was the only mistake the pilots onboard flight KAL 085 made on 9/11. It was, however, a serious mistake, as they thereby indicated to be hijacked.
There is no conclusive answer to be made as to why they followed the request from ZAN. The pilots were interrogated by Canadian police after landing. After interrogation and release, a communication problem became the official explanation. This fits with the notorious communication problems with KAL pilots. The underlying reasons given by participants range between more cultural and more linguistic ones.

I think if it was an American carrier, they wouldn’t have  done it. I wouldn’t have done it, as a commercial pilot when I was flying, I would have never done that. I would have thought that’s the most ridiculous thing in the world. I’ll do anything but I won’t do that because if my aircraft isn’t being interfered with, that’s just somewhere you don’t want to go. I think if any other carrier had been asked other than an Asian based air craft, probably wouldn’t have done it. But the Korean culture, or I should say maybe just the Asian culture, it’s a little different. They would do things we’d ask them to do without a lot of questioning. You’d just sort of laugh at it, you’d tell an American pilot, Delta, American, United, and they would just kind of laugh and say, we’re not doing that. Whereas these guys would just say roger and will do it, even if it meant flying in less than optimal conditions, they wouldn’t put their aircraft in danger, but they would do things if they had the ability to do it. So I knew he would do it, just the Asian culture, the way they are, he’s going to do it, so when he had that question in his voice, I felt pretty sick because I know he’s going to do it instead of just denying it. (ATC Rick Wilder (FAA ZAN), Interview)

But what the Korean crew did – they understood that communication to be guidance and they understood it to be, squawk xxxx, at which time they did. So now, you have the FAA with two indications of a possible hijack. (Gen. Schwartz Testimony, Nov. 2001)

Korean Air administrator Michael Lim said last September that the pilot typed in the 7500 signal following instructions from air-traffic controllers. The first HJK signal? Possibly a question rather than a warning. ARINC staff say pilots can’t type in question marks on the teletypes.
The confusion of the day made everything hard, Crowley said. Language problems with foreign pilots made things even harder.
The Korean Air incident wasn’t the only one Elmendorf fighter pilots scrambled for that day. They also followed an Asiana cargo jet bound for Anchorage when the pilot refused to turn the plane as directed because he didn’t understand controllers’ instructions, he said.
All involved said the Korean Air pilot cooperated with controllers every step of the way.
„If it had been an American pilot, he probably would have said, ‘Center, why are you doing this? Everything’s fine here,’“ Crowley said.
But he didn’t — or couldn’t. (ATC Tim Crowley (FAA ZAN), Interview)

This is no aspect to be answered conclusively from the distance. But so much is clear: The pilots made a bad decision.

Back to Code 7500

By squawking 7500, the pilots activate a potentially fatal chain of alarms throughout the U.S. homeland defense system. Remember that since 10:30 EDT NORAD was authorized to shoot down any hijacked plane above CONUS (details).
The official DoD transcript from the Air Threat Conference (ATCC) is not time-stamped, and heavily redacted, especially when it comes to shoot-down issues. Apart from this, however, it contains the whole KAL 085 story from the point of view of the military and civilian leadership. The main players are the DDO (Defense Department), the FAA, and NORAD. The ATCC transcript reads:

DDO: NORAD, we have a Korean airliner squawking hijack code heading toward Anchorage, Alaska. You confirm?
NORAD: Stand by. There is a Korean airliner – stand by. Stand by for your update.

Participants are aware of the fighter presence on the tail of KAL 085 (ATCC).

DDO: Reference to that KAL Korean airliner, need to find out whether it was diverted also, determine whether the aircraft interceptors are, in fact, on its tail.
NORAD: Roger, sir. I can confirm that we do have fighters in trail. We do have fighters in trail. My understanding is that we have not been able to make radar contact to this point. We’re still attempting to get contact with the aircraft.

Were the fighters prepared to shoot down KAL 085? After the events, Canadian premier minister Jean Chrétien claimed to have authorized a shoot-down of the flight:

“I said, ‘Yes, if you think they are terrorists, you call me again but be ready to shoot them down.’ So I authorized it in principle,” he said.

The order would also have to go through the NORAD commander handling the situation, Col. Schwartz, who equally reported to have been ready to order a shoot-down.

I did believe that this was a real possibility and I had begun to try to steel myself on the possibility that I would have to authorize the shootdown of a passenger-carrying aircraft.

Schwartz joins the ATCC, but his comments in this timeframe are redacted. The transcript, however, shows how NORAD and DDO were seeking confirmation, while KAL 085 flew over over rural Alaska.

Re-routing the plane

While Alaska´s gouvernour Tony Knowles orders the evacuation of Anchorage´s federal buildings and big hotels on the ground, NORAD tries to get the situation under control and asks the FAA to turn the flight away from Anchorage and re-route it. ZAN relays this to KAL 085. The crew reacts by turning away from Anchorage, as requested. After the successful routine communication, this its another indication that not only are the real pilots flying the plane, but also the plane might not be a suicide hijack at all.

The one thing that made the difference in this particular instance was that the crew adhered to our instructions. We told them to turn left, they turned left. We told them to turn right, they turned right.(Gen. Schwartz Testimony, Nov. 2001)

The first idea is to re-route the flight to Yakuta, Alaska. Within a few minutes, however, ANR decides, partly because of the bad weather in Yakuta, to instead lead KAL 085 to Whitehorse, Canada. Around this time, several flights are forced to land in Whitehorse due to the Ground Stop, which not exactly makes Whitehorse a number one destination for a possibly hijacked aircraft. But a further problem has emerged which demands a quick solution. The pilot just told ground control that the plane´s fuel will suffice for a maximum of 70 further minutes. This reduces the number of options available.
The information about the re-routing to Canada quickly reaches the national level (ATCC).

DDO: Understand Korean airliner 85 is being diverted to Canada. [Redacted] FAA stand by to provide. We can’t confirm that. NORAD, this is the DDO can you confirm the divert of KAL 85?
NORAD: Roger, this is NORAD. We’re attempting to confirm that.

DDO is handling KAL 085 in alarm modus at this time (ATCC).

DDO: We’ve given you [NORAD] quite a few missions. Let me just prioritize. The number one priority is let us know what’s going on with KAL 85.

But meanwhile, discussions emerge inside ZAN around the choice of the destination airport. The re-direction to Whitehorse is met by skepticism on the controllers side, as this leaves KAL 085 with only around 15 minutes of fuel reseve during the airport approach.

And when he was re-routed, I believe I asked him, is fuel on board and he said an hour and 10 minutes and I think he had 55 minute flight to Whitehorse and as a controller I might have gone whatever, but as a pilot I go, this is off the wall and I actually relayed that information again to the management that we were pretty much sealing someone’s fate in a bad way. I just couldn’t picture a plane wanting to go there with 15 minutes reserve. Whitehorse is an airport in the middle of nowhere we might say and weather or runway conditions could be uncertain. I don’t think the pilot wanted to go there, I think he understood but again it falls into that compliance. (FAA ZAN ATC Rick Wilder Interview Transcript)

A garbled version of the low-fuel discussions is also communicated on the national level, where – with the benefit of hindsight – a chaotic and almost comical dialogue occurs (ATCC).

NORAD: Roger, sir. I just received an update on KAL 85. They were instructed to divert to White Horse, Canada. They declared their intention to transfer to Yakutat which (indiscernible). They are not following their directions for divert. They are heading to Yakutat air base.
DDO: Help me out with directions. Is that away from us, the continental United States or?
NORAD: It’s in Alaska, sir.
DDO: Say again, it’s enroute?
NORAD: In Alaska, sir.
DDO: Roger. ETA [Estimated Time of Arrival]?
NORAD: I will check on that, sir. Don’t have an ETA at this point.
DDO: Roger. And, understand still heading towards Anchorage, Alaska .
NORAD: He was heading towards Yakutat, Alaska.
DDO: Yakutat, spell it please.
NORAD: Actually, sir, I don’t even know how to spell that.
DDO: Is that an (indiscernible) or is that the main – Do you know?
NORAD: I believe it’s within — just a second, sir, I’ve got it right here. I saw Y- a-k-u-t-a-t.
DDO: Roger. I had a another conversation going. Spell it again, please.
NORAD: Roger. Y-a-k-u-t-a-t.
DDO: Roger, and, is he just squawking the hijack code?
NORAD: That’s affirmative, sir.

The ATCC transcript also shows that, by this time, the USAF fighters have disclosed their presence to the pilots, and are in radio contact with KAL 085.

DDO: Roger. And, understand we have direct comms with that aircraft.
NORAD: The fighters in trail do have contact, yes, sir. They have passed the requested divert to White Horse, Canada and the aircraft has announced its intention to go to Yakutat instead.
DDO: Roger, we’re going to get back with you.
AIR FORCE: DDO, Air Force. DDO, Air Force.
NMCC, Air Force. Do we have an ETA on that aircraft heading out to Yakutat?
NORAD: This is NORAD. Negative at this point.
DDO: Roger. Keep us posted with with it when you get the update.
NORAD: Roger. National, this is NORAD. I’m being told the ETA is 30 to 40 minutes into Yakutat.

The situation is far from solved. On the one hand, the pilots are in contact with FAA (and USAF), and are following orders. On the other hand, they apparently refuse the request to divert to Whitehorse. And, of course, they are squawking 7500 after all. This is a 2:2 score on the hijack yes/no check list.
The hijack squawk is the next point DDO tries to get a hold of. Given that the pilots seem to freely talk, NORAD gets advised to ask the pilots about the reasons for squawking hijack (ATCC).

DDO: NORAD, DDO – what we want to know have we asked specifically why they’re squawking hijack?
NORAD: Sir, I am trying to get that information for you from Alaska. We are not having any luck on continuity of information.
DDO: Roger. Please have the team work that in. Specifically, ask that question that has not been asked.
NORAD: Roger.

During these minutes, the presence of fighters around KAL 085 is repeatedly emphasized in the conference.

KAL 085: Not a hijack

At the FAA ATCSCC Herndon, National Operations Manager Benedict Sliney calls ANR and tries to persuade Gen. Schwartz that KAL 085 is no hijack and should continue its flight to Anchorage. People from Sliney´s staff contacted Korean Airlines, who told them that the ACARS message does not indicate a hijacking (cf. Spencer, Touching History, p. 278).
Schwartz, however, because of the unclear nature of the threat, insists on re-routing the flight. The KAL 085 pilot acknowledges, and diverts the plane to Whitehorse. With this, handling of the arrival is given to Canadian authorities. Due to the ambivalent 2:2 score on the hijack check list, the responsible Yukon government receives conflicting information about the flight.

As more information from national security agencies became available regarding the suspect 747, conflicts were found in this information. Transport Canada and the Department of National Defense maintained the Korean 747 was under hijack status, while NORAD said that it was not under hijack but rather a low fuel alert. NORAD later agreed that the aircraft in question might be hijacked.
Faced with conflicting reports from senior agencies, Whitehorse RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada´s national police force], acting in the interest of public safety, decided to err on the side of caution and considered the aircraft to be hijacked with a low fuel situation until investigations proved otherwise.
The other eight aircraft that were to be directed to Whitehorse were re-directed and accommodated at other Canadian airports.
(Whitehorse International Airport Emergency. Public Findings Report des Government of Yukon, Department of Community Servic, Nov. 2001)

At 11:08 PST, ZAN hands over the flight to Canadian ATC. Info about the successful diversion as well as the low-fuel alert gets simultanely passed to the DDO by FAA (ATCC).

FAA: I have information on this Korean 8085 landing at White Horse.
DDO: This is the DDO we’re looking for, send it.
FAA: He has declared an emergency, minimum fuel. He is squawking hijack. The ETA at White Horse is 1830 Zulu.
DDO: This is the DDO. Roger, understood. Reconfirm he is, in fact, heading to White Horse and not Yakutat, Alaska is that correct?
FAA: This is the FAA. The information we have through EC is he is going into White Horse.

This is a 1:3 on the score against a hijacking. But still, there is the 7500 code (ATCC).

DDO: Roger. One other question. Has Canadian ATC asked him to confirm his squawk?
FAA: He is squawking hijack.

During approach to Whitehorse, the pilots finally change the flight´s transponder code (ATCC).

FAA: This is the FAA. We are speaking with the chief manager at Edmonton Air Traffic Control Center and he advises that the Korean Air 850 – correction, 05, is not squawking hijack now.

This info, of course, gets positively absorbed on the national level (ATCC).

DDO: Roger. And, just reconfirm again. They are in fact directing them to White Horse and they are responding in kind.
FAA: They are. Yes , that is correct. He is landing at White Horse. [Redacted]
DDO: Roger. Understand. That’s good information. [Redacted]
FAA: We’re trying to find out that information but they advised us that they are not treating it as a threat at this time.

Gen. Schwartz from ANR joins the conference to brief DDO about the whole story (ATCC).

EA GEN. SCHWARTZ: DDO, EA Gen. Schwartz back in the conference.
DDO: Roger, thank you much. Gen. Schwartz, this is DDO. As we were trying to sort out KAL we were trying to find out whether you could help us there. But, we think we have good information now on that aircraft and ist destination.
EA GEN. SCHWARTZ: Okay, here’s what happened. Schwartz is on. The bird is now descending into White Horse. We had to redirect it to White Horse after it was clear that Yakutat was not an adequate place for them to put down.
GEN. SCHWARTZ: Here’s how it unfolded. Initially, the hijack team (indiscernible) not[ed] an overt squawk. Subsequently, ATC asked the aircraft to squawk and they did so. And, as anyone on the line is a rated pilot you understand the significance of that.

Around 11:43 PST (14:43 EDT), according to the Ykon Government Public Findings report, some minutes later, according to press reports, KAL 085 lands at Whitehorse airport. The flight is directed to the terminal apron, where RCMP troups take the pilots into custody. ANR relays info about the happy ending to DDO (ATCC):

DDO: I’m just trying to find out whether you have any information on KAL 85 status.
ANR: We have confirmation, sir, that the airplane is on the ground at White Horse with no confirmation of actual hijack at this time.

The FAA HQ log notes for 14:58 EDT:

The Korean acft was not Hijacked, miscommunication, acft landed White Horse.

Some seconds of relief. It won´t be too long before the next plane attracts attention (ATCC).

NORAD: NORAD had indications of another possible hijack in the U.S. Flight 937. Original flight plan from Madrid, Spain to Philadelphia. The current hijack is approximately 35 minutes outside of U.S. air space.


Gladwell, Malcom: Outliers. The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company 2009

Spencer, Lynn: Touching History. The Untold Drama that Unfolded in the Skies over America on 9/11. New York: Free Press 2008

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