Five and a half years ago, Soviet interceptors shot down an off-course South Korean airliner in an incident with eerie similarities to last week's apparent Soviet destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight 007.
Two people were killed and 10 injured on the night of April 20, 1978, when KAL Flight 902 wandered at least 1,000 miles from its intended route and blundered into sensitive Soviet airspace near the Arctic Ocean seaport of Murmansk while on a trans-polar flight from Paris to Seoul.
The fact that 108 survived was a tribute more to the skills of the pilot and the ruggedness of his Boeing 707 than to Soviet compassion.
As in Wednesday's tragedy, the earlier incident included Korean navigation deficiency, fierce Soviet response to aerial intrusion and Kremlin insistence that it committed no wrong. Moscow also attempted to charge, though not so strongly as this time, that Washington used the flight as a cover for espionage.
The Soviets never explained their actions fully, and the only reliable accounts, as now, came from western intelligence.
Finally, the 1978 and 1983 incidents occurred when the two superpowers, after months of coolness, were seeking to resume arms control negotiations. On April, 20, 1978, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance was in Moscow discussing arms control with Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko. His visit continued despite a world outcry against Moscow.
On Friday, Secretary of State George P. Shultz said he intends to meet Gromyko in Madrid Thursday, and the Reagan administration has said it will continue bilateral arms-control efforts.
The 1978 incident was duplicated almost step-by-step by Flight 007 Wednesday. KAL Fight 902 carrying 110 passengers and crew, was several hours into a flight over the North Pole when, instead of continuing east toward Anchorage, it veered south at 35,000 feet and passed over Franz Josef Land, where Soviet military radar detected it. The crewmen did not detect their error.
Moscow said later that ground stations called Flight 902 repeatedly, getting no answer. Pilot Kim Chang Kyu claimed his crew heard nothing. Western intelligence reports never cleared up this contradiction.
The plane continued south over Murmansk, port for the Soviets' Atlantic ballistic missile submarine fleet. SU15 fighters scrambled and flew alongside the liner for some minutes.
Moscow claimed the Koreans ignored signals for the liner to land. The Korean crew said they did not comprehend the signals. Then a fighter fired a burst of shells across the airliner's nose as a warning to land. When it continued flying south, Soviet ground controllers ordered the liner fired on. A burst of gunfire smashed into the passenger cabin; one man died instantly, another bled to death.
Pilot Kim made a miraculously safe crash landing on a frozen lake in the sparsely settled Kola peninsula south of Murmansk. Those aboard were interned for two days, then flown out of Murmansk aboard a Pan American Airways rescue plane. The pilot and navigator were detained for interrogation and freed a week later.
The Soviets have never released the flight recorder and cockpit voice recorder which would help explain what happened. Western intelligence sources say a number of senior Soviet air defense officers were sacked and perhaps shot for allowing the Korean jet to penetrate so far before it was downed.