Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash: everything we know about the downing of an airliner

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Seven years after the tragic crash of a Malaysia Airlines commercial flight, here’s all we know.

What do we know?

On July 17, 2014, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur under flight number MH17 at an altitude of 33,000 feet.

It was one of 160 flights that crossed the airspace of eastern Ukraine that day. MH17 crashed near the Ukrainian village of Hrabove. All 298 passengers and crew on board died.

An exclusion zone prevailed at 32,000 feet due to the conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels.

Five countries – the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine – have formed the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) into the tragedy.

On May 24, 2018, JIT announced that the Buk missile installation that failed the flight was owned by the Russian military.

The missile, which can reach heights of 80,000 feet, was fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine – at a target that could have been mistakenly assumed to be a Ukrainian military aircraft.

Who is held responsible?

Investigators say three Russians – Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov – and a Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko, were “fully responsible” for the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane. Although they may not have fired the missile, they were responsible for its position.

Igor Girkin is a former colonel of the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, and is also known as “Strelkov”. He is also the former head of the militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a rebel group.

Sergei Dubinsky is a former member of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service who was accused of carrying out the Novichok attack in Salisbury in 2018.

Oleg Pulatov is a former soldier of the Spetsnaz GRU, the special forces of the service.

Leonid Kharchenko is a member of the “military intelligence” unit of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

The four men were tried in absentia in a 20-month criminal prosecution near Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

At the outset, the Dutch government said: “The deaths of 298 innocent people of 17 different nationalities cannot go unpunished.

In his closing remarks at the end of the trial, prosecutor Thijs Berger told the judges: “The four suspects together are fully responsible for the downing of flight MH17, which caused the death of the 298 people on board, and the murder. of those on board. “

Many of the victims came from the Netherlands and Australia. Nationals of Belgium, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Romania, South Africa, Vietnam , the United Kingdom and the United States also lost their lives.

What did the investigators find?

At a Dutch air base, investigators reconstructed fragments of the cockpit and cabin, which were torn apart by the explosion.

The Dutch Safety Board’s final report was published in October 2015.

The 279-page report does not specify who fired the gun, nor who ordered the destruction of so many innocent people aboard a routine Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Circumstantial evidence and observations on the ground indicate overwhelmingly that a Russian Buk system arrived nearby on the day MH17 was shot down.

They concluded that the warhead was moving at over 1,500 mph when it exploded a few inches from the nose of the aircraft, just 10 feet to the left of the cockpit and 13 feet above it. this.

Their evidence includes analysis of microphones on the flight deck, which showed a tiny difference in when the sound of the explosion reached each of the instruments.

Investigators also created a computer-generated reconstruction showing the effects of the explosion.

The shape of the shrapnel found in the wreckage and in the bodies of some on board provides certainty, investigators say, that: a Buk surface-to-air missile system.

He concluded that the two pilots and the flight attendant, who were seated in the cockpit, died instantly when the warhead exploded.

But that does not rule out the possibility that some occupants of the aircraft were aware for all or part of the time it took for the aircraft to touch down, up to 90 seconds after the missile exploded.

The impact itself could have left many people unconscious, with factors such as extreme cold and decreased oxygen levels causing “reduced consciousness” in others.

“It is likely that the occupants were barely able to understand the situation they found themselves in,” explains the Dutch Safety Board. “The majority of the occupants seated in the cabin sustained multiple fractures consistent with the aircraft’s in-flight disintegration and impact with the ground.”

What other explanations for the loss of MH17 have been proposed?

Many alternative theories, from air-to-air missiles to a meteor collision, continue to be advanced – as they were with Malaysia Airlines’ other Boeing 777 that was lost in 2014, flight MH370.

One account is that the passenger plane was shot down by one or more Ukrainian fighter jets. Eyewitness Natasha Voronina said she saw two planes flying in different directions.

The Dutch Security Council concluded that this could be explained by the fact that the front part of the plane was blown away by the rest of the plane by the force of the explosion. He said no other aircraft were displayed on radar screens.

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A satellite photograph broadcast on Russian television purporting to show a jet approaching the Malaysia Airlines plane has been discredited as fake.

Another theory claims that the missile was fired by the Ukrainian army. But no credible evidence has been presented to support this.

An in-flight fire has been suggested, due to the burn marks on the bodies of some of the victims and the fire damage to the wreckage. But investigators concluded, “There was no in-flight fire prior to the in-flight breakdown.

“Fires broke out at two wreckage sites after the accident.”

A mechanical failure in flight was also taken into account, but again the final report concludes: “There was no known technical malfunction that could affect the safety of the flight. “

A meteor has been proposed as an alternative explanation. But the final report says that no ultrasonic sound wave that accompanies the descent of a meteor has been recorded. He also notes that the chances of a meteor hitting a plane have been calculated to be at most one case in 59,000 years.

A falling satellite could not have caused the crash either: during the week of the crash, no space debris was recorded as re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

The Dutch Safety Board rules out the possibility of any other cause, stating: “No other scenario can explain this combination of factors.”

Why was the plane in an area where there was an armed conflict?

This is exactly the question investigators are asking. Three days before the attack, Ukrainian authorities informed Western diplomats of the downing of a military transport plane over the conflict zone.

Ukraine then raised the minimum “safe” altitude to 32,000 feet, or one thousand feet below the level of MH17. Airlines make their own decisions about flight paths. At the time of the slaughter, some carriers had decided to avoid eastern Ukraine, although on the busy air routes between Europe and Southeast Asia this meant longer journeys and higher fuel consumption.

If the aviation community had known what Western intelligence services knew at the time about weapons on the ground, no civilian aircraft would have flown over the area.

“According to Ukrainian authorities, weapons systems were being used that could reach civilian planes at cruising altitude. Says the report.

What is Moscow’s point of view?

Russia has always denied any involvement in the destruction of MH17. When the charges were announced, the Kremlin reiterated that it had no involvement in the Malaysian airliner crash and accused the JIT investigation of being “one-sided and politically motivated” .

Tass, the official Russian news agency, said: “Russian officials have repeatedly expressed distrust of the findings of the JIT, which has conducted a criminal investigation into the MH17 case and has emphasized the lack of basis for the arguments presented by the prosecution and reluctance to use Moscow’s arguments. conclusions in the conduct of the investigation.

It is highly unlikely that the accused will ever be seen outside Russia again.

What do investigators recommend for future operations?

Airlines should publish clear information to potential passengers on flight routes over conflict zones and report to the public on their choices at least once a year.

Civil aviation authorities should require airlines to conduct their own risk assessment of the countries they fly over. They must inform airlines and foreign governments “as quickly as possible in the event of an armed conflict with possible risks to civil aviation”.

Governments must share “relevant information on threats in foreign airspace” with each other and with airlines.

Incentives – possibly financial – should be offered to nations that close airspace due to the risk of conflicts taking place within their territory.


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