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Not too long ago I took in the Clint Eastwood film “Letters from Iwo Jima” at a local theater. Although it had only been out for a short while I was surprised to see the tiny theater in which it had been relegated. This film, about some of the most courageous souls on Earth, clawing their way through the Pacific towards Japan, had competed with a number of pop culture movies out at the same time. No problem though, whether large or small, this theater on that evening afforded me with a closeness to undoubtedly one of our nation’s most coveted gifts, a member of the greatest generation.
We have all heard the numbers regarding the passing of some of the greatest generation. Each day, over 1000 WWII veterans die. A number that used to total 16 million vets is now estimated at 2.5 million according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Well, to a student of history and to one who reveres the selfless sacrifice of these great men and women as our most coveted gift of the 20th century, I am saddened by their passing. With each loss, we lose the opportunity to extract just what it was that made them so brave and so successful in America and thereby our hopes and aspirations of replicating them are severely dampened.
Their humility and unselfishness surely rank among their greatest qualities. These after all, seem to bind that generation together more than anything else. The movie was a stirring account of the adversity these men faced in the Pacific. This was but a microcosm of the peril our entire nation and way of life faced during the imperialism and totalitarianism of the 1940’s, however, they all rose to the occasion, without question.
I didn’t need a movie that night to appreciate the efforts of our brave men and women. On that evening, after our United States Marines raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi, and as the credits rolled down the small screen, I saw him. Across the aisle was an elderly gentleman staring intently at the screen. I instantly saw the message that was presented to me. While everyone else quickly piled out of the theater’s exits, this man was honoring the men and women of his own generation.
I stared at him with immense pride. What was he thinking about as the names of our heroes filled the screen in front of us? Had he fought in WWII? Was he searching for the names of his fallen brothers? How many names would he recognize on that screen? Or, perhaps his eyes were closed as he relived the precious moments he shared on Earth with the heroes of that time.
I was also embarrassed as my generation saw fit to scramble for the exits instead of reading the human scroll of sacrifice before us. To most of my generation, it may have just been another war movie. After all, it were these fallen heroes of WWII that enabled us to enjoy things as American as apple pie and going to movies in the first place. None the less, I could only take responsibility for myself, so I sat there beaming with pride and hoping that the gentleman would catch a glimpse of me with my reverence towards him. Thank you for your service, I thought to myself.
This man reminded me of my late Uncle as well. Sgt Thomas Mallon served in the Big Red One outfit in the European theater of WWII. He was shot twice, each time being afforded not only the opportunity to heal those wounds but to get right back into our fight for freedom. What’s odd is that with my quest for knowledge about all things war, and his late death, I know absolutely nothing else about his service in WWII. I had to read the history books and watch film to learn about the story of the Big Red One and their heroic efforts. This spoke to the embodiment of that generation’s humility and their humility is surely what lends to their greatness.
So on that night, I was reminded of just how powerful a generation’s call to duty can be. I am also cognizant of the fact that the greatest generation is quietly calling on my generation to lift the mantle of freedom above our shoulders and further its place in this world. On that night, one man represented millions and held his rightful place, in front of us all.
On September 1st, 1983, a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 was shot out of the skies over the Soviet Union’s Eastern port area of Vladivostok near the Kamchatka Peninsula. The airliner purportedly drifted west of their intended flight path from Anchorage to Seoul, South Korea and violated the airspace of the Soviet Union. This event occurred during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War had many isolated casualties, but this indiscriminate killing of 269 people fueled the tensions even greater.
In the early 1980’s while the world’s militaries spent enormous amount of money on weapons systems and technologies such as Global Positioning Systems or GPS, civilian aviation still relied on relatively archaic methods of air navigation. Inertial Reference Systems and ground based radio beacons served the needs for decades, but not on that evening. The inattentiveness of KAL 007’s crew and the imprecision of their Boeing 747’s on board navigation systems contributed to their demise, but the 2 missiles fired from a Soviet Su 15 fighter jet did them in.
The Soviet Union naturally denied any knowledge or responsibility for the lost airliner but subsequent American and Korean investigations soon revealed otherwise. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that the Russian Federation eventually released evidence to support what the world already knew for nearly a decade.
One of Ronald Reagan’s responses to the tragedy was to avail the highly accurate global positioning system to the public at large. The satellite based navigation system was so accurate it could be used to pinpoint a spot on the earth and then subsequently demolish it with any number of weapons systems. This of course was why until the unforeseen tragedy of KAL 007, GPS was kept in our military repertoire only.
26 years later, civilian aviation navigates so precisely over the airways in the sky that we now have a collision hazard. As aircraft span the globe, they are often on organized route systems or flight paths defined by these highly accurate GPS signals from space. We now see civilian aircraft riding the wake turbulence from the aircraft in front of them due to their precision in flying the centerline of these airways. This was likely a contributing factor to a recent accident of the Amazon Jungle in Brazil. A GOL Airliner and an Embraer Legacy corporate jet collided. All aboard the airliner perished while the Legacy jet hobbled their aircraft in for an emergency landing.
Aviation authorities have actually instituted a degree of non-precision back into our repertoire. Aptly named, SLOP for strategic lateral offset procedure, it authorizes pilots to fly the centerline of their airway or deviate 1 or 2 nautical miles to the right of that centerline. This allows pilots to steer their aircraft away from areas of wake turbulence they may be experiencing as well as provides for a greater separation between other aircraft that may have deviated from their flight path in error. How ironic it is that we have gone back to some of the imprecision which in a different way and for different reasons brought down KAL 007.
I recently had the opportunity to pilot my aircraft on a similar route that the KAL flight had taken. On that night, I found myself peering out my cockpit windows watching for those same Su interceptors. What was even more ironic is that one of our emergency alternate airfields, Petropavlovsk, was the actual site where those Su 15s launched from in 1983. Yes, our world’s come a long way in 26 years.
As a side note, but not without its due reverence, one of the passengers of KAL Flight 007 was a sitting Congressman, Lawrence Patton McDonald from Georgia. He is recorded as the only sitting member of Congress killed during our 45 year Cold War.
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