September began with a dark tale that might seem unimaginable today, but one to chill the bones of any frequent flyer… of a Boeing that slipped over the dateline and into doomed hell.
The shooting down of Korean Airline’s Flight 007 by a Russian SU-15 interceptor claimed 269 lives – all on board – and all because an autopilot error had led the plane to drift into prohibited Soviet airspace. Why were the Russians so trigger happy? At the time, intelligence was suggesting the strong likelihood of a stealth nuclear attack from the USA, so although the pilot established that the offending craft looked entirely plausible as a passenger airline, he was commanded to pull the trigger as it may well have been merely disguised as such.
The truth about Flight 007 wouldn’t surface until the Berlin Wall finally fell, but it remains as a stain on Russia’s recent military record.
Maybe the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Stannislav Petrov went some way to mitigate this international sin. It was he who, this same month, found himself staring at a screen which had indicated, via satellite technology, that the USA had launched a nuclear missile on his homeland.
Nah, he said, I reckon this is faulty technology, so I’m logging it as a false alarm and not pressing that big red button on my left. Good job he didn’t: the warning he was getting was indeed nothing more than a curious alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds. Petrov later said, incidentally, that he was neither commended nor punished for his actions (or the thankful lack of them) on that day.
The sole benefit to come from Flight 007’s fate was that, by September 16, Ronald Reagan announced that the Navstar Global Positioning System, developed by the Pentagon, would be available to non-military users. Reagan’s chief motivation was to ensure we’d avoid future aviation mishaps, but in the next few years the Navstar system would have 18 satellites orbiting 11,000 nautical miles over the earth. As the author Joe Moran points out in his excellent work “On Roads”, this was “enough detail to pinpoint a vehicle’s location on a road”.
Free data from the Pentagon ensured that civilian systems now took off, forming the backbone of the technology we now take for granted. Satnav made giant leaps in record time, but remember that in 1983 the most likely systems motoring journalists might test out could be comically primitive.
As Moran says, Honda had introduced the “Electro Gyrocator” as an option in the 1981 Accord. “Using a gyroscope and odometer, it worked out the car’s position and displayed it as a moving white dot on a cathode ray tube monitor, over which the driver would slot a transparent map of each area. Its relationship to modern satnav is rather like that of the primeval computer game, Pong, to the sumptuous virtual world d of Grand Theft Auto.”
On the social engineering front, Social Services Secretary Norman Fowler paved the way for privatisation of much of the NHS this month – cleaning, catering and laundering services could now be outsourced to private business, this paving the way for much of the malaise that characterises the dysfunctional service we endure today.
With such failure to find anything in the headlines to lift the soul (I’m not even mentioning the mass breakout of 38 IRA prisoners from the Maze, the biggest escape since WW2), what were we watching and listening to for spiritual balm?
ITV screened the first (pilot) episode of Killer, which would soon mutate into the cheery romp we all know as… Taggart, a series so successful that it continues and is now (with the Bill’s axing) history’s longest running crime drama. And that’s despite the fact that Taggart himself, both actor and character, died in 1995.
Meanwhile, the airwaves were dominated by number-one hit Karma Chameleon, from Culture Club. Was there anything in this song to decipher the truth of 1983?
Boy George explained it was about the danger of “trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren’t true, if you don’t act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that’s nature’s way of paying you back.”
And you just thought it was a nice ditty.