The findings of the preliminary report of air accident investigators into the tragic crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine in mid-July hardly comes as a surprise. They add weight to what the world has believed since day one, that the big Boeing 777 with 298 people on board was downed by a sophisticated ground-to-air missile. It does not, however, provide definitive answers.
Whether the final report, not expected for about a year, can do that still remains questionable. The reason is simple. While the area of the crash zone remains at the centre of an armed conflict, restricting access to real-time, on-the-ground investigation, it will be next to impossible for air crash experts to gather the vital clues necessary to pinpoint the precise sequence of events and, just as importantly, who was responsible. It may already be too late, with a crash site already heavily contaminated forensically and parts of the aircraft having been removed, this is an investigator’s nightmare.
Doesn’t say ‘missile’
In its 34-page report, the Dutch Safety Board (OVV) doesn’t actually use the word “missile” but says the aircraft blew up in midair during its flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after being struck by “high-energy objects”.
The cockpit crew, with some 16,000 hours of flying experience between them, was cleared of any blame and no technical problems were found with the aircraft. The plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet at a constant heading, speed and altitude. Crew communication gave no indication that there was anything abnormal with the flight. No distress messages were received by air traffic control. The evidence suggests that the main damage zone, impact from a large number of fragments which would be consistent with a “proximity” warhead designed to explode in the air and hurl shrapnel at its target, was around the cockpit and the forward cabins of the aircraft. Suggestions by Russian authorities that the plane may have been shot down from the air by a Ukrainian fighter jet have also been dismissed. The report found no military aircraft in the vicinity.
The evidence suggests that the main damage zone, impact from a large number of fragments which would be consistent with a ‘proximity’ warhead designed to explode in the air and hurl shrapnel at its target, was around the cockpit and the forward cabins of the aircraft.
Under normal circumstances, the crash zone would have been quickly cordoned off and a lengthy examination of the area – in this case some 10km by 5km – would have been conducted, meticulously searching for evidence. The location of parts of the aircraft would have been carefully mapped before being removed to a sterile warehouse where each piece could be forensically studied by experts.
For obvious reasons, this process was impossible in this case … and still is. This is key because full access to the tattered remains of the aircraft would more than likely have produced real evidence of what downed the plane. If it was, as the report finds, struck by a large number of “high energy objects”, it would also be likely that some of this shrapnel would be found embedded in the wreckage. It would then be possible to identify this shrapnel as coming from a particular missile type, such as the Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile that Ukraine and its Western allies, including the United States, say was fired by separatists who probably hit the airliner by accident.
So far, most of the findings have been based on data retrieved from the cockpit voice recorder, the flight data recorder, satellite and other images, and radar information. One issue has been cleared up: While the aircraft’s black boxes were initially taken by unknown individuals before being handed over to Malaysian officials, after study by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch in Farnborough in the UK, it was found there was no evidence or indications of manipulation of the recorders.
More is required
A few parts of the plane were taken by Malaysian authorities and handed over to investigators for examination. But Tjibbe Joustra, head of the OVV, has left no one in doubt that while those elements have been of interest, more is required.
“The cockpit is very important because a lot of those objects penetrated the cockpit. Flight instruments also contain data not registered by the flight data recorders,” he said. The problem is that media coverage, including still and television film of the wreckage taken at the time of the accident, clearly shows that in the days after the crash, pieces of the cockpit were moved or disappeared altogether.
In the end, the OVV makes it clear its report is “an initial, provisional sequence of events” and that more research will be necessary to “determine the cause with greater precision”. Without full access to the site and critical parts of the wreckage, all the experts from the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Australia, Malaysia, the US, Ukraine and Russia – who are collaborating on the case – are unlikely to answer all the questions surrounding Flight MH17 and finding out who, ultimately, was responsible for its downing.
Tom Ballantyne is Chief Correspondent of the Hong Kong-published Orient Aviation magazine. He has 40 years experience in international journalism. He is a regular commentator on aviation issues on television and radio in Australia, Asia, the Middle East and the United Kingdom.