The Information So Far: Malaysia Airlines flight 17

18 Jul 14 4 Comments

Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was a passenger jet en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The aircraft was a B777-200ER, registration 9M-MRD, manufactured in July 1997 and with a total of 75,322 hours. In a sad coincidence, the first flight of the aircraft was 17 July 1997.

There were 283 passengers (including three infants) and fifteen Malaysian crew members.

MH17 departed normally from Amsterdam at 10:14 UTC (just past noon local time) and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 22:00 UTC. The expected flight time was 11 hours 45 minutes.

The planned route for the flight took the aircraft directly over the Ukraine and Russia. The flight plan requested a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet but when MH17 entered Ukrainian airspace, they were given an altitude of 33,000 feet.

At 14:15 UTC, four hours into the flight, Ukrainian Air Traffic Control lost contact with the flight. At the moment of lost contact, the Boeing 777 was 30 km (20 miles) from the TAMAK waypoint, which is about 50 km (30 miles) from the Russian-Ukraine border. There was no distress call.

The aircraft wreckage was scattered over a two kilometre area at the village of Hrabove near the Russian border. The state of the wreckage made it clear that it had broken up before impact with the ground. The news was quickly released: the commercial aircraft full of civilians had been shot down.

Two key questions arose very quickly: Why was an aircraft flying over a war zone and who shot it down?

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has become focused on the question of the Ukraine entering trade agreements with the EU rather than maintaining closer ties with Russia. In November 2013 the then-president of the Ukraine rejected a much anticipated EU economic proposal which was criticised as setting up Ukraine for long-term economic disaster by taking away the Russian export market whilst tying it to markets from which it can only import. Instead, the then-president accepted a new deal from Russia offering $15 billion in aid and other economic benefits. The conflict reached a crisis point in February when Ukraine ousted their pro-Russian president and the new government refocused on a closer relationship with the European Union. Russia argued that a relatively small group of anti-Russian extremists in Ukraine had staged the coup and that they were a threat to the Russian-speaking people who live in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

In March, the Russians took control of Crimea. However, Ukrainian government continues to claim Crimea as a part of Ukraine. As a result, airline operators and aircraft were recommended to avoid the area over Crimea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Asov. This was, however, not because of fears that civilian aircraft would be shot down but because there were two different services (Russian and Ukrainian) both managing the airspace at the same time.

Europe safety agency urges airlines to avoid Crimean airspace | Reuters

“It is unsafe if more than one Air Traffic Service provider is in charge of one single Flight Information Region (FIR); no compromise can be made with the safety of the flying passengers,” Patrick Ky, executive director at EASA, said.

Eurocontrol, the European air traffic management agency, said it strongly advised carriers against flying through the region, known as Simferopol FIR, and published a map of alternative routes.

The US and the UK both released a Notice To AirMen (NOTAM) advising that this area be avoided, but the area specified was south of the crash site.

In the aftermath, many airlines announced that they had previously taken the decision to reroute to avoid flying over the conflict zone. FlightRadar24, however, have pointed out that their logs show that some of these airlines were in fact still routing over Ukraine in the days previous. Many airlines certainly continued to route over the 32,000 foot no-fly zone. The most frequent flyers over Donetsk last week were Aeroflot (86 flights), Singapore Airlines (75), Ukraine International Airlines (62), Lufthansa (56) and Malaysia Airlines (48).

On the 14th of July, a new NOTAM was issued which covered the Dnipropetrovsk region. This NOTAM did include the airspace over Eastern Ukraine but only up to FL320, that is to say, the airspace up to a flight level of 32,000 feet. This was apparently in response to a Ukrainian cargo plane which was shot down at 21,000 feet.

The airspace over 33,000 feet was not controlled and was not closed. Malaysia Airlines have come under fire for routing over a war zone but have countered that the flight plan was approved by Eurcontrol, who are responsible for determining civil aircraft flight paths over European airspace.

In April, the International Civil Aviation Organization identified an area over the Crimean peninsula as risky. At no point did MH17 fly into, or request to fly into, this area. At all times, MH17 was in airspace approved by the ICAO.

Eurocontrol’s response is quite clear:

According to our information, the aircraft was flying at Flight Level 330 (approximately 10,000 metres/33,000 feet) when it disappeared from the radar. This route had been closed by the Ukrainian authorities from ground to flight level 320 but was open at the level at which the aircraft was flying.
Since the crash, the Ukrainian authorities have informed EUROCONTROL of the closure of routes from the ground to unlimited in Eastern Ukraine (Dnipropetrovsk Flight Information Region). All flight plans that are filed using these routes are now being rejected by EUROCONTROL. The routes will remain closed until further notice.

On that day, a number of commercial aircraft flew over the area, including Aeroflot, Air India, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic and of course, Malaysian Airlines MH17.
The New York Times reported that the missile was detected by military satellite.

Jetliner Explodes Over Ukraine; Struck by Missile, Officials Say – NYTimes.com

GRABOVO, Ukraine — A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with 298 people aboard exploded, crashed and burned on a flowered wheat field Thursday in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russia separatists, blown out of the sky at 33,000 feet by what Ukrainian and American officials described as a Russian-made antiaircraft missile.

Ukraine accused the separatists of carrying out what it called a terrorist attack. American intelligence and military officials said the plane had been destroyed by a Russian SA-series missile, based on surveillance satellite data that showed the final trajectory and impact of the missile but not its point of origin.

The Ukraine’s Interior Ministry specifically stated that MH17 was hit by a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM), specifically the SA-11 Buk missile system. The Soviet-designed Buk missile launcher has a maximum range of 13 nautical miles and can fire up to a ceiling of 39,400 feet, so the Malaysian Boeing 777 was easily in range of it — and still would have been if they’d been given their requested altitude of 35,000 feet. It has a radar guidance system and a 70 kilogram warhead. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have these high-end missile systems.

At this stage, it seems very likely that the aircraft was shot down by a power SAM but no one has taken responsibility for the shot. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko claim that the separatists carried out the attack with Russian support. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not make any statement on who shot the missile, focusing instead on the political aspect. “The state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”

Up until now, the pro-Russia separatists in the Ukraine were known to have portable surface-to-air missiles but there was not any hard information that they had access to high-end missile systems with that high of a range. However, on Twitter there was apparently a photograph posted by separatists, now deleted, showed a photograph of a Buk missile system. In addition, Associated Press journalists stated that they saw what looked like a Buk missile launcher in Snizhne, an eastern town which is held by the separatists. It is possible that they captured a Ukrainian Buk missile launcher or that they were supplied the technology by the Russians along with the training of how to use it.

There was also the question of a post on a social networking service by a military commander of the rebels, in which he ported that the rebels had shot down an aircraft at approximately the same time as MH17 disappeared, in the same area. The post was deleted shortly after the news of the MH17 crash was released, however it is still visible on the Wayback Machine (an Internet archive) and can be translated using online services such as Google Translate: Wall | VK. The poster appears to have believed that the aircraft was a Ukrainian military cargo plane and stated, “We did warn you – do not fly in our sky.”

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities released recordings of phone conversations which they claim are between the separatists and Russian military officedrs. The BBC has published the recordings of the three phone calls with translations.

BBC News – MH17 crash: Ukraine releases alleged intercepts

Malaysia Airlines appear to have learned a lot about crisis management this year and have released information as information has become confirmed but without the missteps seen after the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

As of this posting, the US has stated that the SAM missile was fired from an area controlled by the Russian-separatists in eastern Ukraine. The US and UK aviation authorities are deploying teams to Ukraine to assist in the investigation. I’m sure more news will be released over the next few days.

The tragic human loss can get side-lined in such a crash, especially with the political issues and the question of blame. I am heartsick but glad to see that the BBC has made an effort to tell the stories of some of those who were lost on the flight.

BBC News – MH17 crash: Passengers on Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine

Cor Pan joked on Facebook about his plane disappearing shortly before it took off…

Yuli Hastini and John Paulisen and their two young children were on their way to pay their respects at Yuli’s mother’s grave…

Australian teacher Francesca Davison and her husband Liam were returning home from a holiday in Europe…

Glenn Thomas, a former journalist and WHO media relations coordinator, was travelling to the Aids conference…

Flight Attendant Nur Shazana Mohd Salleh was a happy person who had a feeling this month was special…

This, and the photographs of the luggage and personal items strewn on the fields, are heartbreaking. This is not just about politics and warfare, it’s about people.

4 Comments

  • This is another tragedy involving the same airline (Malaysian). And again, it is very possible that the true facts will never be revealed.
    This time, of course, the crash site is known.
    But we must face the real possibility that the investigation may face, if not active, at least passive obstruction. If we may believe press reports, already the site could have been contaminated.
    There is mention about looting and stealing of parts of the aircraft to be sold for scrap.
    The local authorities, be they the pro-Russian separatists or others, may welcome interference with the wreckage zone because it will make it difficult if not impossible to establish who is to be blamed for the atrocity.
    Another question to be asked is: what pre-flight briefing (NOTAM or other) did the pilots receive to make them decide that it would be OK to take the route they did.
    In the article here, mention is made of the fact that the flight went through uncontrolled airspace. Airlines in general tend to avoid uncontrolled airspace wherever possible. This would have been even more pressing where this situation was the direct result of an armed conflict.
    A sad and unnecessary tragedy, come so close to the still unsolved mystery of MH 370.
    My heart goes out to the relatives.

  • Hard not to feel sorry for Malaysia Airlines – it could have been any one of a number of different flights that day. They really are in dire straights now.

    One thing I forgot to mention: As per ICAO rules, in an international incident the jurisdiction for the official accident inquiry is based on the location of the crash. So this investigation belongs to the Ukrainians, officially. However, as the crash site is held by the separatists, I’m not sure there’s a lot they can do. The whole thing is a nightmare.

  • Sylvia,
    What you mentioned is just what made me write my angry comments.
    The jurisdiction over the crash site is vague because it is in a war zone. Officially it is in Ukraine. But it also is in an area controlled by the separatists, the very group of people who are presently the prime suspects.
    They have, supposing of course that my suspicions are correct, a vested interest in making sure that as much of the evidence will be destroyed or at least be made useless as they can get away with.
    And if ever it were to emerge that Russia is involved, God help us. There could be far-reaching international implications.
    Let’s hope that this will turn out to be unfounded.

  • And now it would seem that the Ukrainian government has “passed the buck” to the Netherlands. More than half the passengers were Dutch nationals and of course their unfortunate relatives are confronted with the thought that the remains of their loved ones are lying around in a field.
    By handing the hot potato to the Dutch, the Ukrainians have effectively washed their hands of the whole affair.
    And cooperation of the insurgents still is by no means guaranteed. They may agree to release the bodies, but there are vested interests in obscuring the true reasons behind this atrocity. With potentially far-reaching implications.
    We need Russia as an ally, not as our enemy but events are taking a course, inexorably, in the wrong direction.
    Mention has been made of the retrieval of the recorders.
    They are unlikely in the extreme to tell investigators anything they do not know already:
    the FDR will show an aircraft on a routine flight, all systems functioning normally until the recordings suddenly stop.
    The CVR, likewise, will reveal conversations between the crew members on a routine flight.
    Perhaps the last sound will be a “bang” and a “What the… ” before the tape stops.
    And in the meantime the site is being turned upside down. Of course, there was the legitimate purpose of retrieving remains but were the Dutch medical experts of were there trained crash investigators amongst them ?
    Have they been able to bring in experts from other nations like Malaysia and the USA ?
    If so, how much time were they allowed to look at the debris before a crane would pull them around to get at bodies ?
    They would have been lying around in a field in mid-summer for days so time was not on their side.
    No, I doubt that the crash site by now will be able to give many clues. What happened is known. Terrorists, insurgents, criminals, whatever you want to call them, shot the aircraft down.
    By whom, and why are the big questions.
    Spy satellites may have captured some of the events and I would place a hefty bet that all available and relevant images are being studied under microscopes.

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