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Jul 18, 2014

MH17: Three jets crossed that war zone, one didn't make it

It could have been a Singapore Airlines A380, or one of its Boeing 772s, that took the missile over eastern Ukraine, in a place no jet airliner should ever, under any circumstances,

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The FlightAware path of SQ333, an A380, that missed the missile yesterday

It could have been a Singapore Airlines A380, or one of its Boeing 772s, that took the missile over eastern Ukraine, in a place no jet airliner should ever, under any circumstances, have been flown.

Three large airliners set off from Amsterdam, Paris and Copenhagen for SE Asia yesterday afternoon European time, all destined to cross the airspace over eastern Ukraine where one them, the Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER , was to be destroyed by a ground launched missile fired by pro-Russian separatists.

All 298 people on board died. The Malaysia flight MH17 was at 33,000 feet in broad daylight and good visibility in a well travelled corridor deemed ‘safe’ by the air traffic control authorities in Europe and the Ukraine at heights above 32,000 feet on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The sad, truncated Flight Aware trace of MH17's short flight to mass murder

Some eleven minutes after MH17 had taken off for KL, a Singapore Airlines A380 took off from Paris, also destined to traverse the same airspace, en route to Singapore.

However at the moment MH17 was blown open to fall in flames leaving a nine kilometre long track of bodies and wreckage across separatist held territory, the Paris departure SQ333 was further north and well to the west of the Malaysian flight. It wouldn’t have seen its demise.

About 32 minutes after MH17 had left Amsterdam, another similar 777-200ER, operating SQ351 took off from Copenhagen bound for Singapore via the same skies above a war zone in which two other aircraft had been shot down earlier this week, one a Ukrainian military cargo plane and the other one of its jet fighters.

SQ351 was even further away when the Malaysian flight was butchered by what was almost certainly a Russian BUK surface to air or SAM missile.

As the two unharmed flights, and probably a number of others, safely continued on their journeys, the air traffic authorities in Europe and the Ukraine hastily closed the air routes they had used.

But with 298 people slaughtered this is far too late to head off the outrage being expressed over the fact that the air routes above 32,000 feet were declared safe, and that carriers like Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines had flown where carriers like Qantas and many others had refused to go for at least two months, as the obvious hazards of flying over a war zone where aircraft were already being shot down  had become apparent.

What logic, what lack of sensitivity, and what lack of basic decency influenced Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines and others to expose their passengers to these risks. Did-they-even-consider-them? If they did, why did they get it so wrong?

It is clear from the flight maps that for flights between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and similarly located hubs, less fuel is burned by continuing to use officially ‘safe’ but now suddenly closed as ‘unsafe’ air routes across the Ukraine.

But they burn more passengers.  What a terrible, ghastly and hideous failure of duty of care on the part of Malaysia Airlines.  And how lucky was Singapore Airlines, and no doubt others?

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.

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16 comments

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16 thoughts on “MH17: Three jets crossed that war zone, one didn’t make it

  1. AngMoh

    Ben, I think you are singling out too much on the lucky few who were there nearby but escaped the fate of MH17. There were probably many more – I am pretty sure literally 1000s of flights over the last 5 months took that route . KLM routed their AMS-SIN straight up till Wednesday over the Ukraine and only last night’s flight made a different route. Air France CDG-SIN missed the Ukraine consistently but considering KLM and AF are the same group it seems to be more luck than planning. Just last month I flew straight over the same area on TG going from LHR to BKK. At that time I was thinking “interesting place to fly” and went back to watch my movie.
    You can state that Qantas refused to fly there, but they stopped flying that route last year when they routed all their flights over Dubai so that seems more hot air and sheer luck than planning. From what I read it seems only US airlines and BA had a ban flying in that region and I assume that no US airline flies there anyway. Even then, the decision was probably more political than safety.
    Also, airlines do make these decisions not by themselves. There are companies making a good living of security advice whom these airlines rely on. Similarly the route was open and when after MH17 happened it was closed immediately. I don’t think it is a problem with individual airlines but a fundamental flaw in the system. If MH17 had not happened nobody, including you, would have written a single blog post on the risk of flying over the Ukraine.

  2. Bear

    AngMoh … US carriers do fly in the general area, to my knowledge both DL (AMS-BOM, as well as their flts ex JFK & ATL to the mid-east … DXB & TLV) and UA the same… from the USA to the Gulf & TLV.

    Any of these could conceiveably route via the region, depending on weather or other factors.

  3. Bear

    Sorry, my mistake … looking at the map you could eliminate TLV routes, but not flts to the Gulf

  4. Allan Moyes

    To think I was once able to fly from Tel Aviv to Teheran on Air France – the world has changed a lot since then. (January 1977 – and it did have to go the long way through Turkey)

  5. Achmad Osman

    Ben – to be fair – if the airlines knew that the Russians supplied high capacity Surface to Air missile systems to amateurs beforehand – they would have avoided the airspace like a plaque.
    Our condemnation should be directed at those that are providing such state of the art assets to callous individuals with limited training.

    From the news articles it appears that up to three 9K37 BUK self propelled missile carriers were handed over by Russia to the separatists. 15 Tanks were also handed over. So far 3 jets, including the 777 were shot down.

    The BUK can in theory take down a super high altitude stealth spy plane – a big fat 777 at 10 000 metres would be easy meat. The separatist originally claimed responsibility for shooting down an “Antonov”, later on, when it was realised that it was a foreign passenger jet, the social network comments mysteriously disappeared. (it was posted on a Russian social media site)

  6. BugSmasher

    I’ve flown on many different carriers between Europe and Asia and often wondered to myself how safe it was flying over Iraq and Afghanistan and even Pakistan whilst there were active wars and insurgencies going on below. I had similar misgivings flying over Sudan from Nairobi to London once. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but it would seem that airlines do this sort of thing all the time. Fair to say MH17 was very unlucky – and easy to question the sensibility in hindsight.

    How many flights today traversed Afghan or Syrian airspace? Or Israeli for that matter?

  7. Socrates

    To me the thing that is disturbing about this case compared to previous deliberate airliner shoot-downs was the lack of any warning. In past examples like the Gulf incident, Nato or the USA, declared a no fly zone. Same with many military areas during the Cold War, such as the Soviet naval base the Korean airliner flew over. It was a navigational error to fly over it.

    This time nobody has been game to call this undeclared war a war. Same goes for any exclusion zone. All the relevant authorities said this route was permissible. They were wrong but, nobody said (to the world) “don’t go there or we will shoot you”. To me, accidental or not, this was a crime.

  8. ghostwhowalksnz

    Socrates, the US navy shoot-down in the Gulf had only a local no fly zone of 5 nmi and 2000 ft of the ship. The airliner was at 14000 ft and 20km away. While it can be considered ‘unintentional’, the circumstances indicate gross negligence and recklessness, such as we have here in Ukraine.
    As well certain US statements at the time were misleading, and to this day have not made a full and public apology or accept responsibilty.
    And the Pan Am flight 103 tragedy was mistakenly blamed on a Palestinian group who were it assumed were helped by Iran. The Libya connection was unrelated to Iran and was for US military action in the Med.

  9. Achmad Osman

    ghostwhowalksnz, not wanting to open up old wounds – the captain of the US warship was exonerated and actually promoted (for something else). None of the crew faced any sanction. Compensation was given to the families but without any acknowledgement of liability or apologies.

  10. Tango

    “Ben – to be fair – if the airlines knew that the Russians supplied high capacity Surface to Air missile systems to amateurs beforehand – they would have avoided the airspace like a plaque.
    Our condemnation should be directed at those that are providing such state of the art assets to callous individuals with limited training.”

    It was known those missiles were in insurgent hands.

    And I will continue to say that the Vincennes shoot down was intentional as the CIC info had it as a threat (and the use of airliners as a suicide weapon was well discussed and part of the Captains brief).

    Yes it was a terrible mistake in that the aircraft did not pose a threat.

    However, I have said it before and say it again, you do not route an aircraft thorugh an active combat zone.

    Iran wanted its commercial flights though that same zone while attacking shipping in the straight. They paid a terrible price.

    The Vincennes captain would not have order the shot if he had all the information. He did not.

    Agis was not intended to be ATC and combat and data was missing that was needed in the CIC for that type of decision and procedures were not in place as they were not thought needed for a combat system.

    Paying compensation was appropriate, being prosecuted was not.

  11. ghostwhowalksnz

    Tango, the computer tapes from the Vincennes contradicted the version of events from the Captain . None of the reasons he gave were backed up by actual data, or the nearby US naval vessels which all saw a civilian airliner climbing, on its normal course. Your new theory about suicide attack by civilian airliner is baseless, as the Captain said he identified a ‘F14 diving towards him.
    In this incident which mirrors the one in Ukriane, US has never admitted resposibility for an event caused by a direct arm of the military, not a loosely organised militia. Where were the sanctions against Reagan and US Banks ?

  12. Gigaboomer

    We (CX) stopped flying that route on the 1st March on the strong advice of our security department.

  13. Mike Marvel

    Dear Author,

    Please do a more thorough research before making accusations against MAS and SIA. From many indepedent sources, it is widely reported that most if not all major airlines fly over war zones all the time.

    Historically, the MH17 incident is almost unprecedented. Almost all airliners which were shot down were in non-war zones.

    Statistically, the incident is improbable. There are millions of flights every year, and this is the only one since 2007. Should every commercial entities plan for all unprecedented and improbable scenarios?

    If you have so much foresight, why didn’t you warn ICAO, MAS or SIA before this incident? It is always easy to say they should have seen it coming. But the truth is nobody, not even you had knew the risks.

  14. Ben Sandilands

    Captain Marvel,

    Suggest you read the later posts and come back to us with more wisdom.

    Hint: ICAO shouldn’t have been influenced by the commercial interests of the Ukraine ANSP, and the airlines you mention need to take a long hard look at themselves in relation to risk management and route planning.

  15. ghostwhowalksnz

    Mr Marvel should be looking to those airlines who did stop overflying the region for answers.
    ‘Because everyone else is doing it’, may ok for the school ground but not when you are a major airline

  16. Dan Dair

    At the moment I’m strongly disagreeing with the consensus here about MH’s culpability.
    I’m not defending them either, nor am I defending Eurocontrol or Ukraine ATC.

    I am though, massively confused by the ‘benefit-of-hindsight’ analysis of the MH17 atrocity where seemingly, all those contributors ‘knew’ Ukraine was an ‘accident waiting to happen’.
    Yet there are no similar calls from these same people for airliners not to overfly equally (if not more so) hot-spots of conflict (such as Palestine/Israel, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, etc, etc) without stating what one would imagine to be equally valid:
    ie. These places are just an aviation an ‘accident waiting to happen’.

    They all have hardware which might be used against an airliner (accidentally or on purpose) IF it fell into the wrong hands

    Was it ‘common knowledge’ that these BUK weapons were now ‘out in the field’ in Ukraine.?
    The lesser-capable SAM’s were well-known as a threat but the BUK’s…..?

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