At first glance, the preliminary report on the July 17 crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine is pretty thin gruel. It does, however, rule out most explanations except the one that involves a ground-to air-missile. At the same time, it ends hopes that flight data might somehow reveal who shot down the plane, killing its 283 passengers and 15 crew members.
The Dutch Safety Board’s dispassionate, technical report describes a perfectly ordinary flight. The Malaysian Boeing 777-200 was manned by a double crew, each of the captains boasting more than 10,000 hours of flight experience on similar aircraft. It had arrived uneventfully at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport from Kuala-Lumpur. One engine needed oil during the turnaround, but the Dutch service crew noted that oil consumption was normal. The Ukrainian government had restricted airspace access over the conflict zone to an altitude of 32,000 feet, but MH17 flew at 33,000 feet.
It was a rainy day over eastern Ukraine, with occasional flashes of lightning; Some 27 minutes before the crash, the air traffic controller in Dnipropetrovsk asked the pilots if they could go higher — to 35,000 feet — to avert a conflict with another plane. The pilots replied they would rather maintain altitude; the dispatcher got the other aircraft to ascend, and the chance that could have saved the MH17 was missed. Seven minutes later, the pilot asked if he could divert the plane 20 nautical miles (23 miles) to the left to avoid bad weather, and that wish was granted, setting up the Boeing’s meeting with what the report terms “a large number of high-energy objects” that would destroy it at 1:20 pm Amsterdam time.
Nothing untoward was happening to the plane. The cockpit voice recorder, found by the separatists and delivered to British experts at Farnborough, hadn’t been tampered with and contained nothing except normal conversation. The flight data recorder showed only normal operations. This should, once and for all, neutralize Russian suggestions that a Ukrainian fighter plane was near the Boeing at about the same altitude shortly before the crash. The pilots would have surely seen it — visibility was good above the clouds — and remarked upon it.
The “black boxes” gave no indication of what caused the crash. When the crew stopped answering, the Ukrainian traffic controllers got in touch with Russian colleagues in Rostov-on-Don to check if their radars still displayed MH17. The exchange, quoted in the Dutch report, shows no animosity:
“Ukrainian traffic controller: ‘Rostov, do you observe the Malaysian by… by the response?' Russian traffic controller: ‘No, it seems that its target started falling apart.’”
And then, all the Dutch investigators had to go on were photos from the crash site, taken by Ukrainian investigators. They, the report said, showed the plane had come apart in the air after being hit with those “high-energy objects.” The investigators avoid the word “missile,” which is professional of them; it couldn’t have been anything else.
Since the separatists had no aviation, the Ukrainian military had nothing airborne to shoot at. So the missile was likely fired by rebels who had got their hands on advanced anti-aircraft weaponry, or even by a Russian crew, as some reports have suggested. Apportioning blame, however, lies outside the scope of the Dutch technical investigation. Flight MH17 was collateral damage in the senseless, brutal, Russia-inspired conflict in eastern Ukraine which has already killed more than 3,000 people, according to the United Nations, and in which 36 noncombatants were dying every day before the current shaky cease-fire was established on Sept. 5.
The truce in the Donbass is holding, despite isolated incidents of shelling and gunfire. Prisoners have been exchanged. Hopefully no more innocent victims will suffer; the clearest lesson of the crash is that civilian aircraft should not fly over conflict zones, at any altitude, under any conditions.
Air France and Emirates stopped flying over Iraq in late July. Other airlines should have followed, but they only stopped when the U.S. banned its carriers from entering Iraq’s airspace. In fact, carriers should voluntarily change their routes to avoid all fighting zones, no matter what the cost, simply because they don’t know what kind of hardware is out there, in the hands of often badly-trained, angry people. As the Ukrainian restrictions showed, guessing about safe altitude limits can prove lethal.