Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 15, 2017

Back then

One of the things husband Art and I often speak about is how many things we grew up with are foreign to our girls. We went to a music program one evening about a year ago where the presenter mentioned pulling out a phonograph record from his moth-balled collection. His daughter asked him what it was. When he explained, she asked, “How do you play it?”

But the reverse is also true. Many gadgets and modern things have been introduced during our lives that youngsters now take for granted. When one of us mentioned to our then-young daughter Katie that our families didn’t have television when we were young, she stopped a moment and then replied, “I’m sure glad I wasn’t born back then.”

Tomorrow is an anniversary of sorts of something most of us have come to use, either directly or indirectly, that has made the lives of many people - including mine - much easier, safer and sometimes even fun. Sadly, that anniversary came as a result of a tragedy.

On Aug. 31, 1983, South Korean Airlines flight 007 left New York City’s JFK airport at about a half hour past midnight. The Boeing 747 was bound for Seoul, South Korea with a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. It left Anchorage about 4 a.m. There were 269 people aboard, nearly half of whom were South Korean. Almost a quarter were Americans. During the succeeding hours, the aircraft crossed the International Dateline ... it was then Sept. 1.

About five and a half hours after its Anchorage departure, the plane was struck by heat-seeking missiles fired by a Soviet fighter plane - although for some time the Soviet Union denied that its planes had been involved. All aboard the Korean craft died.

Immediately after learning of the manner in which the aircraft was lost, the American public’s outrage at the U.S.S.R. grew swiftly. People felt the Soviet actions were not just irresponsible, but unforgivable.

But those initial reactions were based on several assumptions that proved to be wrong. Principal among these was that the aircraft was on course over international waters. In reality, it was well off course and had not once, but twice, flown into Soviet airspace. From the radio communications with the plane and other evidence, it seems clear that the crew was unaware they were off the intended route.

Later studies showed the deviation had actually occurred while the plane was still in Alaskan airspace, allowing the initial small directional error to accumulate over the long flight. A combination of elements played a part in allowing this to go undiscovered. Perhaps the most important ones were that after leaving Alaska, there were few ground-based radars to monitor where they were and few communications stations to relay that information to the aircraft crew.

Two other factors probably played supporting roles in the tragedy. One was that President Ronald Reagan had been speaking harshly about the Soviet Union. Many of the “old guard” in the top ranks of the Soviet military were convinced that a pre-emptive strike was being planned by the United States. Actions by our military in the seas off the Soviet eastern coast seemed to legitimize those fears.

The second was the common use of planes like the Boeing 747 for military purposes. While the aircraft was clearly identified as a passenger craft, suspicion of U.S. actions caused the Soviet fighter pilot to conclude it well may have been a military plane in disguise.

The crucial problem was the aircraft was off course and there was nothing to prevent it happening again in other remote area. Something needed to be done. So President Reagan ordered that the signals from the military’s Global Positioning System be made available for civilian use.

Today, most smartphones have GPS receivers that allow users to never be lost. Most rental cars either come with a GPS receiver built in or one can be rented. Many new vehicles have them as standard equipment.

Art explained that the system relies on signals from satellites that are precisely timed. By measuring the delay between when it left the satellite and when it arrives at the receiver and knowing how fast signals move, the receiver can calculate how far it is from the satellite. By using at least three satellites in different positions, only one location can have a particular combination of delays.

For us, these inexpensive GPS receivers have revolutionized our travel. We no longer leave on a trip with a suitcase weighted with maps. Instead, they are displayed on Art's phone and the GPS receiver pinpoints where the phone is located on the map. Both Katie and her sister Mariya have extensively used their smartphones in this fashion as well.

The smartphone game “Pokémon Go” uses the GPS signals to guide players to various locations where the player appears to interact with Pokémon creatures.

Although I never use it directly, GPS has been a real benefit to me as well. When we first began traveling, I was the navigator - or was supposed to be. But soon, rather than watching the map, I would be looking out the window at something. The next thing I knew, I was totally lost. Art failed to find this amusing.

And I’m apparently not alone. Our friends David and Laurel were traveling in Great Britain a few years ago. After they returned, we asked how it went. David replied that they had a great time, but then added, “But someday I must write a book titled, ‘How GPS saved our marriage.’”

Sept. 16, 1983 was the day when President Reagan’s order took effect and the GPS system became available for civilian use. It’s another of those technological innovations that cause our kids to say they are glad they weren’t born "back then" before it was available.

Art and Katie, lower right, sit at the edge of Stanislas Square in Nancy, France, using their smartphones to plot our sight-seeing walking tour of the city. On his phone's map, Art always marks where we parked the car so we have no problems locating it in European cities where few streets are straight or follow a simple pattern.

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