Overall, the ICAO said pilot error contributed to the disaster, despite the fact that the crew brought respectable experience to the flight. KAL 007 pilot Chun Byung In reportedly had logged 11 years operating civilian airliners. Before that he'd reportedly served as a stunt pilot in South Korea's Air Force.
Author Asaf Degani, a former NASA expert on cockpit information systems, says KAL 007's autopilot was probably in "heading" mode. That setting tells the plane to follow a course according to the magnetic compass -- which can vary in accuracy up to 15 degrees at high latitudes.
It was this autopilot mode that is believed to have put the plane into Soviet airspace. If the autopilot had been flying under the plane's highly accurate, computerized "INS" (inertial navigation system) setting, the 747 would have flown a different path, keeping it very close to -- but still out of -- Soviet airspace. The pilots, Degani suspects, may have mistakenly thought they were flying in INS mode.
"Chances are much less that this kind of confusion would happen now," says Degani, "because, by the turn of the century most commercial airliners flying intercontinental routs had display systems that show which autopilot mode -- 'heading' or 'INS' -- is actually flying the airplane.
"Unfortunately," said Degani, "These design changes came too late to help the crew and passengers of Flight 007."
Tensions rise and fall
International military tensions have continued to rise and fall since 1983 -- putting civilian airline passengers at various levels of risk.
In the volatile Persian Gulf -- just five years after Flight 007 -- the USS Vincennes shot down an Iran Air Airbus A300 flying from Teheran to Dubai. The Navy mistakenly ID'd the airliner as an attacking fighter jet and fired on it, killing all 290 passengers and crew.
And although the Cold War is long over, tiffs between Washington and Moscow continue, even in 2013. "I think there's always been some tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship after the fall of the Soviet Union," Obama said August 9. "There's been cooperation in some areas; there's been competition in others."
As for Hans Ephraimson-Abt -- he and fellow family members have helped other families, nations and airlines form advocacy and support organizations after some of the worst plane crashes of the past 30 years. In 2000, many of these organizations around the world united under the international Air Crash Victims Families Group, which enjoys invited "observer" status at the ICAO, and stakeholder status at the European Union. And it all began as a handful of family members supporting each other during one of the scariest periods of the Nuclear Age.
Permanent memorials for KAL 007 include a small cemetery marker on Russia's Sakahlin Island, and a 90-foot tower in Wakkanai, Japan, where some remains and personal effects that washed ashore in 1983 are kept. The tower consists of 269 white stones and two black marble slabs inscribed with the names of passengers and crew.
Memorial services at Wakkanai will mark this weekend's anniversary. But Ephraimson-Abt won't be there.
Instead, he expects to remain at home in Ridgewood, chatting by phone with fellow KAL 007 family members who've supported each other through the years.
"We all know what we remember -- so not many words have to be said," he acknowledges. "We're beyond consoling each other. But we never forget that each year there is a date when we particularly remember our love ones."