Boeing 747 similar to the involved aircraft
|Date||September 11, 2001|
|Summary||Suspected hijack, false alarm|
|Site||Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada|
|Aircraft type||Boeing 747-4B5|
|Flight origin||Incheon International Airport, Incheon, South Korea|
|Stopover||Anchorage International Airport, Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.|
|Destination||John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City, New York, U.S.|
On September 11, 2001, Korean Air Flight 85 was on route to Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska, when information about the September 11 attacks was relayed to the crew. The pilot in command's ACARS message reply included the letters "HJK", a prompt interpreted as a distress signal indicating that the flight had been hijacked. When ordered to squawk 7500 (a "hijack" code), the pilot complied, despite miscommunication that implied he would disregard the instruction.
Flight 85 was ordered to divert to Whitehorse International Airport in Canada's Yukon territory. U.S. officials and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien authorized the aircraft to be shot down if it did not cooperate. The airliner pilots complied and the 747 landed safely in Whitehorse, with U.S. F-15 military jets escorting it.
After the September 11 attacks, a call went out for all international planes to return to their airports of origin (or if they did not have enough fuel, to land in Canadian territory). While discussing the day's events with the Korean Air office, the pilot of Flight 85 included the letters "HJK" (the code for "hijacked") in an airline message. When the pilot sent his message, the text messaging service company, Aeronautical Radio, Incorporated (ARINC) noticed the "HJK" code. ARINC officials, worried that the South Korean pilots might be sending a coded message for help, notified North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Taking no chances, NORAD scrambled F-15 jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage to intercept the 747, with Alaska air traffic control (ATC) asking the pilots coded questions.
ATC instructed the flight to change its transponder code to 7500, the universal signal for hijack, expecting that, if they had not been hijacked, the pilots would respond to that effect. Instead, they simply complied with the instruction, which ATC took as confirmation that the flight had indeed been hijacked. Worried that a possible hijacked plane might strike a target in Alaska, Governor Tony Knowles ordered the evacuation of large hotels and government buildings in Anchorage. At nearby Valdez, Alaska, the U.S. Coast Guard ordered all tankers filling up with oil to head out to sea. Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, who was in charge of the NORAD planes that scrambled to shadow Flight 85, told reporters in 2001 that he was prepared to order the South Korean airplane to be shot down before it could attack a target in Alaska.
With NORAD telling Anchorage ATC that it would shoot down the airliner if it came near any potential targets, these controllers informed Flight 85 to avoid all population centers and head out of the U.S. to Whitehorse, Canada. NORAD promptly called Canadian authorities seeking the go-ahead to shoot the plane down over Canada:
I said, 'Yes, if you think they are terrorists, you call me again but be ready to shoot them down.' So I authorized it in principle, It's kind of scary that ... [there is] this plane with hundreds of people and you have to call a decision like that. ... But you prepare yourself for that. I thought about it – you know that you will have to make decisions at times that will [be] upsetting you for the rest of your life.
Ninety minutes after the South Korean pilots changed their transponder signal to the 7500 hijacked code, the plane landed safely in Whitehorse. Canadian officials evacuated all schools and large buildings before the plane landed. On the tarmac, Flight 85 was greeted by armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers, who, after interrogating the pilots, learned the whole ordeal was caused by a translation error. The South Korean pilot stated that he had been ordered by Air Traffic Control to change the transponder signal and Air Traffic Control confirmed having done so. A second Korean Air 747, a cargo plane, was also diverted to Whitehorse that day.
Korean Air still uses Flight 85 on its Seoul-Incheon to New York-JFK route. However, the flight no longer stops in Anchorage and its normal equipment is now the Airbus A380.
Operation Yellow Ribbon was the operation that Transport Canada created to handle the diversion of civilian airline flights following the September 11 attacks in 2001. The operation started after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded all aircraft across the United States and re-routed incoming international flights to airports in Canada. During the operation, departing aircraft, with the exception of police, military, and humanitarian flights, were canceled, marking the first time that Canada shut down its airspace. As a result of Operation Yellow Ribbon, 255 aircraft were diverted to 17 different airports across the country.