by Roy Cochrun
Safe for Kids
Roy's Resources

Vadim Kondrabaev:  "Secret of the Empty Airplane"

The tragedy in the skies over the Black Sea unwillingly reminded one of the events that occurred on 1 September 1983 in the Far East, when a Soviet Su-15 fighter shot down a KAL airlines Boeing 747 airplane, which was flying the New York - Seoul trip,  that had intruded into the air space of the USSR with two air-to-air missiles.  The airplane, on board which according to official data were 269 passengers and crew, fell into the Tatar straits from an altitude of 11,000 meters.  The bodies of the dead, if one is to believe the official announcements of the Soviet side, never were found.

The deep sea diver Vadim Kondrabaev, who has kept quiet for 18 years,  was one of the first lowered to the destroyed Boeing, which was laying at a depth of 174 meters.  He arrived at a meeting with Itogi journalists with a small, black bag.  There were several curiosities in it:  things from the Boeing itself.  The diver proudly showed us forks and spoons with the KAL symbol, golf balls and the most important relics:  a large ancient Egyptian cross - a symbol of eternal life - and a small bible in English, which he found on the bottom in the pocket of a rain coat which was tangled in the airplanes wreckage.

- Did you understand what you were risking when you collected these "souvenirs" on the bottom?

- The desire to keep some kind of memory about our secret mission was stronger than fear of the KGB.  We well understood that we could be brought to trial for such escapades.  When  the tough times began, I wanted to sell my collection in Moscow.  Having gone around to opening days and markets and not finding any buyers, I decided to shrug it off.  By the way, I don't regret that some kind of memory remained.

- How did you turn up at the place of the Boeing's impact?

- On the night of 10 September 1983, when my colleagues and I were working on the diving and rescue craft "Sprut" in the Barents Sea, an aircraft  carrier approached us.  They reported from it that myself and 16 other divers were to fly immediately to Kaspiy.  However, instead of Kaspiy, we landed in Moscow at Chkalovskiy airport. 
Having been refueled, our military transport airplane once again took off and assumed a heading unknown to us.  We landed in Yuzho-Sakhalinsk.  From there by buses to Kholmsk - to the Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka diving base.   Then they literally forgot about us for several days and only at the end of September brought us to the drilling ship "Mikhail Mirchinko."  There was a diving complex there, which also became our home for a whole month.

- Didn't you know what you would be doing?

- Of course not.  No one had explained anything to us.  Only having started training in the pressure chamber did we find out that we would be diving to the destroyed South Korean Boeing.  They showed us an old, shabby pocket calendar with ((Korean)) characters, on which this very Boeing was rendered.

- Did you start the dives right away?

- At first they lowered a video camera from the Mirchinko to the bottom, and then they decided to use a diving bell. where one of the divers looked to the right, a second to the left, and a third and fourth below, directly beneath the bell.  On the third day of the dives we noticed a heap of wreckage on the bottom.  We were ordered to leave the bell and begin to collect all of this debris.  There were especially interested in radio parts, the remains of equipment, documents, in general, everything that was there.  Everything was placed into a basket, welded with metal bars and attached to the bell.

- Did you see the airplane with your own eyes?

- It is difficult to call this an airplane.  The largest wreckage was the size of not more than a square meter.  Despite the fact that on board, as they say, was a large number of passengers, we didn't find one body, with the exception only of one hand in a black glove that had been torn off from the arm.  The only fact testifying to the fact that there was a destroyed airplane laying on the bottom was the a landing gear strut.

We found very many things - ragged clothing, cosmetics, tape players, children's toys, spoons, forks, and rescue equipment with the KAL trade mark.  But were weren't able to explain some finds.  For example, a completely new powder box was found in a box, but with a cracked mirror, as if someone had broken it specially in advance.

- And did you find the "black boxes"?

- Somewhere on the fifth day of the search we discovered a recording tape.  We went along it and discovered that it was coming out of some kind of box.  We reported to above.  It really started!  The order came to immediately to lift this box.  Later they explained to us that we had found one of four of the recorders on board the airplane.  Incidentally, somewhere in the bowels of the special services undoubtedly is the film taken by us:  from the very beginning we were recording everything that was happening with a video camera,  which was concealed in a homemade sealed box.  However, someone squealed on us and one evening they called all the "cinematographers" into a special section on board the ship.  There a serious man in civilian clothes asked everything be given up to him at once and to take no more pictures.

- Are you sure that you were working on that very Boeing?

- It hs been difficult to believe up to now for the reason that, of the people who supposedly were on board, something should have remained.  We worked beneath the water almost a month for 5 hours a day and didn't find one suitcase, not even a handle from them.  After all there is baggage on any air trip. We either were able to work on the remains, which already had been filtered by the special services, or, what I also do not discount, there were no passengers at all on the airplane, and they stuffed the cabin with rubbish. 

- You don't rule out that special service divers were able to do thorough work on the bottom before you?

- It is quite possible that several mini submarines with military divers went down to the Boeing even before us and collected everything, and scattered the remaining parts of the destroyed liner about or left them there where they were needed, and afterwards called us as a smoke screen.   Then, you know, both the Japanese and the Americans were hunting for this airplane.  The latter even listened in on our conversations under water with the help of special radio buoys, which were dropped from helicopters and combat ships which were traveling back and forth not far away.  Therefore, the authorities always were repeating to us not to be chattering beneath the water.  It happened, we were working and here their acoustics via the radio buoy give such a squeak that the eardrums almost burst. Then the command followed to surface.  While we were resting, our military forced back the American ships, and one day they resorted to cunning.  They fashioned some sort of a similar "black box" and placed it at a depth of 600 meters several kilometers away from the "Mirchinko."  They sent combat boats and fishing trawlers into that region for show.  We hear on the radio - the Americans are screaming to the whole world that they have found the Boeing.  Helicopters began to arrive on their aircraft carrier with journalists and senators, and one helicopter even crashed in the water.

- So where might the bodies of the dead passengers be anyhow?

- I've also thought about this question.  You know, even if fishing trawlers were used to collect the remains from the Boeing, then after a month would be simply impossible to collect the bodies of all the dead.  True, at the end of the expedition one of the military personnel on the "Mirchinko," having noted that I am very curious and want nonetheless to find the answer to the question, just where are the corpses, said:  "The crabs ate them."  Perhaps it was this way - even before the first dive we noticed a huge number of crabs on the bottom.

- When did your mission end?

- On 29 October.  They paid us 200 - 250 rubles each for the work and asked us not to talk about it much.  It has come to the point of absurdity.  We fly to Moscow, and there aren't enough tickets for the trip to Murmansk.  It turns out some have to fly on various trips.  Here our group leader goes up to some airport head and says:  "Well, the guys were working on the Korean Boeing, we should send them all home together, else they will start drinking one at a time and start jabbering away."  The tickets were found immediately.

- Did they award you somehow for the work?

- In 1984 there was an order of  navy commander-in-chief Admiral GOrshkov issued, in which he expressed his personal gratitude to all our team.  They even entered this gratitude for me in my service record.

Stepan Krivosheev held the interview

Source:  00.10.01, Itogi