Shoot Down of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752
On Wednesday the 8th of January 2020, Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, a scheduled passenger flight from Tehran to Kiev, suffered a catastrophic failure directly after take-off.
The aircraft was a Boeing 737-800 registration UR-PSR with 167 passengers and nine crew members on board.
The aircraft departed Imam Khomeini International Airport on runway 29R at 06:13 and began to climb to its approved cruising altitude of 26,000 feet. At 06:18, five minutes after departure, the aircraft crashed at the outskirts of Tehran. There were no survivors.
The Aircraft Accident Investigation Board of Iran released a preliminary report the day after the accident.
Initially, the aircraft climbed to an altitude of 8’000 feet and turned to the right, when it disappeared off the approach radar scope, and by losing height, it impacted the ground and disintegrated. No radio communication indicating the unusual conditions was received from the pilot.
According to witnesses (people on ground as well as the crew of the passing
flights in higher altitudes observing and reporting the event), a fire appeared on the aircraft which was intensifying, then impacted the ground causing an explosion.
The crash site track indicates that the aircraft was first approaching west to exit the airport boundary, but turned right following a technical problem, and had a track showing returning to the airport.
As per ICAO Annex 13, Ukraine, NTSB of the US, Sweden’s SHK, Canada’s TSB and Afghanistan’s CAO were contacted. A representative from Ukraine had arrived at the site before the preliminary report was released.
It wasn’t long before the Iranian version of events came under fire. The US cited evidence that the flight had been shot down by an Iranian Tor missile, which the Iranians initially claimed was an American lie and “an attempt to prevent Boeing stock from a free fall”. British defence officials and Canada’s prime minister weighed in, agreeing that based on the evidence they had seen, the aircraft did not suffer a technical fault but instead was shot down.
On the 11th of January, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps admitted that the aircraft had been shot down after a controller mistakenly identified it as a US cruise missile.
This security footage video posted on Tuesday the 14th shows two missiles hitting the aircraft, thirty seconds apart. The New York Times says they have verified the footage.
The date visible on the footage does not match but the New York Times state they believe that it is because the camera system is using a Persian calendar rather than a Gregorian one.
January 8 converts to the 18th of Dey, the 10th month in the Persian calendar. Digitally that would display as 2019-10-18 in the video. One theory is that the discrepancy of one day can be explained by a difference between Persian and Gregorian leap years or months.
On the same day, CNN reported that Iran’s judiciary announced that an investigation into the crash had started and that several arrests had been made. One of them was a person who filmed the scene of the missile hitting the aircraft.
One issue that I’d like to dismiss is the fuss that the Iranian Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau refused to hand the “black boxes” (sorry Rudy) to Boeing for analysis. I’ve seen this all over the popular press and I have no idea where the idea started that this was an issue or part of a cover-up.
Boeing have been invited to participate in the investigation, as one would expect. There’s no reason why they should be handed primary evidence from the wreckage and indeed, I can think of a number of reasons why they absolutely should not. There is no obligation to hand the recorders to the US authorities and again, given the current political situation, I hardly find it surprising that Iran would not want to trust US authorities. There are all kinds of irregularities in this case, but this is not one of them.
The Ukrainian authorities have asked for access to the flight recorders and to have their experts decrypt them but as of the 15th had not received a clear answer.
I had originally guessed that Iran would ask the French BEA to download and analyse the recorder data but it may be that the Canadian TSB will be invited to handle this aspect of the investigation.
Since learning of the accident, the [Canadian] TSB has been in direct contact with the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Given the high number of Canadian fatalities, the TSB has confirmed its role as an expert and accepted Iran’s invitation to attend the accident site as entitled in Annex 13 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation. Two TSB air accident investigators left Canada on Friday evening and, over the weekend, met up with members of the Canadian consular team in Turkey. They have since obtained visas to travel to Iran and have departed for Tehran, along with members of Canada’s Consular team. Additionally, the TSB will also deploy a second team of investigators with expertise in aircraft recorder download and analysis, once the time and place that this activity will take place is confirmed.
Note the use of the term expert as opposed to accredited representative. This language is clearly described in ICAS Annex 13. The Canadian TSB is invited because of the fatalities of Canadian citizens. This gives them the right to visit the scene of the accident and have access to relevant factual information as approved by the Iranian TSB and a copy of the final report.
It does not give them the right to have full access to the evidence or to participate in the investigation or even to examine the wreckage. Although they state above that they plan to deploy investigators with expertise in aircraft recorder download and analysis, it is completely up to the Iranian AAIB to invite them to participate in that part of the investigation. The lack of response to the Ukrainian authorities regarding the plans for the data recorders makes this point a worrying one.
This opinion piece by RAF pilot Paul Kennard gives a quick rundown as to the sequence of events that brought us to this point. It’s slightly out of date but is still, I think, well written and with good detail.
The past couple of weeks have played out like some macabre adaption of the Bard’s greatest works. The opening scene was the attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad by Iranian backed militias recruited, trained and directed by Major General Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Those who can read Russian might be interested in this article, in which a Radar development engineer argues that such a mistake would be impossible to make.
My Ukrainian friend Leo has translated the passages for us:
Самолет взлетел с гражданского аэродрома и пошел по стандартной трассе. Пассажирский самолет не может лететь абы как, он идет по выделенному коридору. Командир экипажа ЗРК должен видеть, что цель идет в коридоре, выделенном под пассажирские самолеты. Уже это одно должно ему показать: перед ним не какой-то американский беспилотник, а гражданский лайнер.
The airplane took off from a civilian airfield, on a standard route. A passenger plane cannot fly just anywhere; it follows a dedicated corridor. The air defense commander should see that the target follows a corridor allocated for passenger aircraft. This alone should show him: this is not some American drone but a civilian airliner.
— Перепутать пассажирский самолет с крылатой ракетой не мог бы никто и ни при каких обстоятельствах. Разве что это была не просто «обезьяна с гранатой», а пьяная обезьяна с гранатой.
No one, under any circumstances, would have confused a passenger plane with a cruise missile. Only a monkey with a grenade could have done that–and not even that, but a drunk monkey with a grenade.
There’s one other potential spanner/wrench in the works. Is there any requirement for an investigation under Annex 13?
Dave Reid, whose photographs have often graced these pages, pointed out on PPRuNe that Annex 13 specifically excludes incidents involving injury or death inflicted by a third party.
I’m not sure this is stated explicitly but it is true that the point of an ICAO investigation is to prevent accidents and incidents and not to apportion blame, which a criminal investigation does not support.
Here’s an excerpt of the ICAO definition of an accident, paying special attention to the exception clause of point a.
An occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft which, in the case of a manned aircraft, takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight until such time as all such persons have disembarked, or in the case of an unmanned aircraft, takes place between the time the aircraft is ready to move with the purpose of flight until such time as it comes to rest at the end of the flight and the primary propulsion system is shut down, in which:
a) a person is fatally or seriously injured as a result of:
– being in the aircraft, or
– direct contact with any part of the aircraft, including parts which have become detached from the aircraft, or
– direct exposure to jet blast,
except when the injuries are from natural causes, self-inflicted or inflicted by other persons, or when the injuries are to stowaways hiding outside the areas normally available to the passengers and crew; or
b) the aircraft sustains damage or structural failure which:
– adversely affects the structural strength, performance or flight characteristics of the aircraft, and
– would normally require major repair or replacement
except for engine failure or damage, when the damage is limited to a single engine (including its cowlings or accessories), to propellers, wing tips, antennas, probes, vanes, tires, brakes, wheels, fairings, panels, landing gear doors, windscreens, the aircraft skin (such as small dents or puncture holes), or for minor damages to main rotor blades, tail rotor blades, landing gear, and those resulting from hail or bird strike (including holes in the radome); or
c) the aircraft is missing or completely inaccessible.
Now I presume that part of the point is that if someone dies or is murdered on an aircraft, then that does not trigger an investigation under Annex 13 to the ICAO convention. There’s an argument that clause b means that even though the fatalities were inflicted by other persons, an investigation is triggered. Certainly in the case of MH-17, the Ukraine asked the Netherlands TSB to investigate the case.
However, I should note that that is not always the case, most notably the crashes of American Airlines flight 11, United Airlines flight 175, American Airlines flight 77 and United Airlines flight 93 on the 11th of September in 2001 were not investigated by the NTSB but instead fell under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The NTSB did not open a docket or issue a report. A public report was released by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
So although it is not clear to me that this is the intent of the ICAO, it’s quite clear that there is precedent which would allow for a criminal act to negate the need for an an investigation under Annex 13.
Whatever else might be said from now, this is a terrible tragedy and should never have happened. My heart is with the survivors of the victims.