Cold War History: The Kuril Incident – Seaboard Flight 253

3 02 2012

This morning I received the always-interesting weekly post from FlightAware, which had an article about an American military charter airliner full of U.S. military personnel flying to Vietnam in 1968, which strayed into Russian airspace and was forced to land on a small island near Japan by two Soviet MiGs.

Seaboard World Airlines Flight 253A left McChord Air Force Base near Seattle on July 1, 1968 to fly to an American air base in Japan, and then on to South Vietnam (Cam Ranh Bay).  It was a Douglas DC-8 that had been chartered as “a proving run on the ability of the new DC8-63CF to fly nonstop from the U.S. West Coast to Japan” as well as serving the practical logistical purpose of troop transportation.

However, along the way they unknowingly drifted off course – to the north, and into the forbidden Russian airspace.  In the atmosphere that existed at that moment in time, in July of ’68, things were still heating up in Vietnam (and going badly).  As Captain Bill Eastwood puts it in this fine account he wrote about it:

“We were at the midpoint of the Vietnam War when this incident occurred in 1968. The Tet Offensive had begun in January. The intelligence ship Pueblo had been captured by North Korea six months earlier and was still being held.”

At the same time, the two adversaries were making progress in the form of a nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

According to Eastwood, the MiGs fired their cannons as a warning and final instruction to the airliner to immediately follow them to a landing strip on one of the Russian-held Kuril Islands northwest of Japan.

The Kurils are an interesting part of the world, with indigenous populations of Eurasian ancestry.  They stretch from the northern end of Japan to the Kamchatka Peninsula of eastern Russia.  The map below shows how the islands transferred ownership between Japan and Russia over the modern era based on treaties and wars.

The Russians had (and still have, by the looks of it) a small air base on one of the islands closest to Japan, called Iturup.

Here’s some fun with Google maps:

I believe this is the old Soviet interceptor airfield where they landed:

You can see the parking apron referred to in Capt. Eastwood’s account in the upper middle here:

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