McDonald was invited to South Korea to attend a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the United States–South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty with three fellow members of Congress, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Senator Steve Symms of Idaho, and Representative Carroll Hubbard of Kentucky. Due to bad weather on Sunday, August 28, 1983, McDonald’s flight from Atlanta was diverted to Baltimore and when he finally arrived at JFK Airport in New York, he had missed his connection to South Korea by two or three minutes.
McDonald could have boarded a Pan Am Boeing 747 flight to Seoul, but he preferred the lower fares of Korean Air Lines and chose to wait for the next KAL flight two days later. Simultaneously, Hubbard and Helms planned to meet with McDonald to discuss how to join McDonald on the KAL 007 flight. As the delays mounted, instead of joining McDonald, Hubbard at the last minute gave up on the trip, canceled his reservations, and accepted a Kentucky speaking engagement. Helms attempted to join McDonald but was also delayed.
McDonald occupied an aisle seat, 02B in the first class section, when KAL 007 took off on August 31 at 12:24 AM local time, on a 3,400 miles (5,500 km) trip to Anchorage, Alaska for a scheduled stopover seven hours later. The plane remained on the ground for an hour and a half during which it was refueled, reprovisioned, cleaned, and serviced. The passengers were given the option of leaving the aircraft but McDonald remained on the plane, catching up on his sleep. Helms meanwhile had managed to arrive and invited McDonald to move onto his flight, KAL 015, but McDonald did not wish to be disturbed.
With a fresh flight crew, KAL 007 took off at 4 AM local time for its scheduled non-stop flight over the Pacific to Seoul’s Kimpo International Airport, a nearly 4,500 miles (7,200 km) flight that would take approximately eight hours. On September 1, 1983, McDonald and the rest of the passengers and crew of KAL 007 were killed when Soviet fighters, under the command of Gen. Anatoly Kornukov, shot down KAL 007 near Moneron Island after the plane entered Soviet airspace.