The Air Force destroyed the tape showing at least part of the radar track of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which was shot down over the Soviet Union's Sakhalin Island in 1983 with the loss of 269 lives, it was learned yesterday.
How the Air Force came to destroy the information soon after the disaster has erupted as an issue in a lawsuit brought against the U.S. government and other parties by the victims' families.
According to testimony given in U.S. District Court here last week, the Air Force Regional Operations Command Center at Anchorage tracked Flight 007 by radar after it took off from Alaska, tape-recording at least part of its flight path before the jet was downed by a Soviet fighter on the night of Sept. 1, 1983.
The Air Force, which customarily impounds any information relating to an aviation disaster, did not save the radar tape.
Jan K. Von Flatern, a Justice Department trial attorney, told the court that "the radar data being referred to was just Air Force data -- air defense data, which is recycled every 15 days. The tape on which it is kept is recycled every 15 days. After some specific effort to preserve, Mr.[Donald] Madole [an attorney for the family members who filed the suit] and everyone else was told that such preservation had not taken place because within 15 days of this incident, the Air Force, the Regional Operations Control Center, had no idea that it was going to be involved or that that data would be useful in the litigation at any point."
Von Flatern added that officials at the center have said they did not see anything unusual on their scopes when the airliner was shot down and were not responsible for keeping track of such outbound civilian aircraft. Attorneys for the families insist that the full story of the tape's destruction has not been told, and they want to talk to more Air Force officials.
Later in the court hearing, Von Flatern said the Air Force keeps its tapes for 30 hours, not 15 days as he stated earlier. This prompted Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. to say: "In any event, we do not have them, and we have not had them since shortly after the accident."
"That is correct," Von Flatern replied.
A spokesman for the Air Force said last night that it would have no comment on the destroyed tapes until it had further investigated the matter.
The Air Force's handling of tapes and pictures has led to controversy in two other recent court cases. In one, the Air Force erased part of the videotape of the fatal crashes of four of its Thunderbirds during a practice formation flight near Las Vegas in January 1982. NBC had filed suit in an attempt to obtain the tape.
In the other case, the U.S. District Court here found last March that the Air Force had "intentionally destroyed" pictures "along with other voluminous evidence" relating to the crash of a Lockheed C5 attempting to carry infants and others out of Saigon in April 1975.