One of the dispersed MH17 crash sites

Where is the MH17 atrocity three years on from the destruction of the Malaysian Airlines 777-200ER with 298 people on board by a Russian made BUK missile while it flew over disputed territory above eastern Ukraine on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur?

As reported in the Crikey Insider yesterday, it has for the general public largely been a cynical political exercise aimed at leveraging the terrible loss of life into an anti-Russia narrative with little reference to the facts as determined in 2015 by a Dutch Safety board investigation.

Not that Russian involvement in the act that launched the BUK missile that destroyed MH17, on July 17, 2014, four months after the unrelated disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, is in any serious doubt.

The Dutch set up two inquiries into the loss of MH17. They were the technical crash inquiry that was conducted under ICAO or International Civil Aviation Organisation rules and reported its findings in 2015, and the criminal investigation, which continues and seeks to identify and prosecute the perpetrators.

As reported in Crikey earlier, this criminal probe is unlikely to get anywhere, apart from generating much huffing and puffing and posturing by politicians and ideologues. The ICAO compliant crash probe has however left a number of very important insights into his tragedy that ought to have been front of mind had the media not fallen for a misleading presentation of its findings and, like governments that would have been well aware of those findings, not chosen to sing along to the Russians- are-evil song sheet sans the issues of potential airline culpability in putting all on board MH17 in harm’s way.

Those findings were dealt with in this post in 2015 in Plane Talking.

The strangest finding was that of the Russian NOTAM or notice to airmen that was issued the day before the shoot down closing its airspace immediately adjacent to the Ukraine airspace in question for traffic below 53,000 feet. (NOTAMS are posted in imperial measure.)

Some BUK anti-aircraft missiles are capable of sprinting to their targets at more than three times speed of sound and making kills at more than 70,000 feet. That’s an altitude where targets could include high capability spy-planes. If this Russian altitude edict reflected an intent to kill something at a great height, the question has to be about ‘what’ and ‘whose’. It’s also a speculative question that didn’t get any hour of fame in the immediate post MH17 media coverage, unless we draw a very long bow to include US reports that America had surveillance over the disputed area, and would therefore hold critical data (but which it has never publicly released) covering the interception of what turned out to be a civilian airliner.

Malaysian authorities refused to co-operate with the DSB inquiry as to what they knew about that NOTAM.

However Ukraine, which clearly did not have control over the skies across which it was selling overflight rights to airlines including Malaysia Airlines had also issued a NOTAM which was acknowledged by the carrier and prohibited use of the air corridor in Ukraine in question below 32,000 feet.

This meant that carriers like Malaysia Airlines were cleared to fly over a war zone in which 16 aircraft had been destroyed by missiles or other hostilities in the month preceding MH17 being shot down at more than 32,000 feet, but when or if their flight continued out of east Ukraine into Russian controlled airspace, they might not in places be cleared to fly at less than 53,000 feet.

This was an altitude that no airliner in scheduled service could in any event, sustain while cruising, even if it was briefly technically attainable when near to empty. (Some corporate jets can cruise for a while at more than 50,000 feet.)

It should also be kept in mind that on the day Ukraine shifted MH17 and other traffic deeper into hostile skies to avoid thunderstorms. But they were skies that Ukraine clearly hadn’t been able to control for months.

We also know that responsible airlines with a strong and proactive safety culture do flight plans that take into account the reduced altitude capabilities of twin engined airlines that lose power in one engine, an event which although infrequent would have seen a Boeing 7777-200ER descend through 32,000 feet and establish itself at a new lower cruising altitude.

In the event of a cabin depressurization any jet airliner would be taken under standard operating procedures to an altitude of less than 15,000 feet and preferably around 7000 feet to prevent death or serious injury from a lack of oxygen. Neither scenario appears to have been considered as unacceptably risky by the airlines that continued to fly over disputed parts of Ukraine.

There are a number of unresolved issues arising from this and other parts of the DSB report into the physical cause of the shoot down. A reasonable interpretation of the air traffic advisory situation would be that Russia was telling airlines not to even think about flying into its adjacent airspace if crossing that part of eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

That interpretation could be built on by further assuming that it was a team of operatives that were specifically tasked with using a high performance BUK anti-aircraft missile that locked onto a civilian jet by accident and destroyed it.

Like the unrelated disappearance of MH370 earlier in 2014, building scenarios based on layers of assumptions, is fraught with peril. We don’t know what happened to MH370, despite some very interesting clues, and we don’t know with any certainty why a missile was launched against MH17, even though we know the terrible consequences.

If we feel compelled to compare the two disasters what they have in common is that they brought no obvious benefit to any party. No one benefited from the disappearance of MH370. The destruction of MH17 didn’t serve any political cause for Russia, Ukraine or specifically, the pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine. It did destroy a large part of the hundreds of millions of dollars Ukraine gets from selling overflight permissions and their management by its air traffic control system to airlines yet that seems trivial in terms of the bigger Ukraine-Russia situation. MH17 didn’t change the situation in east Ukraine.

Even three years on, nothing we know about the brutal and terrible shooting down of MH17 makes any sense. All we can say of MH17 is that evil was done, to no apparent purpose at all.

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