Why Didn’t Malaysia Air Avoid Eastern Ukrainian Airspace?


Here is what we know. Let’s slow it down to 14 frames a second. Downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was in Ukrainian airspace used by airlines every day. Flight plans aren’t something you dream up on a cocktail napkin. It’s not map-in-hand exploration.

Singapore Airlines and Air India were just minutes away. Malaysia’s flight plan was OK’d by Eurocontrol, the agency responsible for civilian aircraft over European airspace.

There might have been an issue about flying below 31,000 feet. But MH17 wasn’t near that low. In fact, Ukraine air traffic control brought it down to 33,000 feet from 35,000 feet.

Just hours before a surface-to-air missile shot down the Boeing 777 with 298 people aboard, Russia closed flight paths below 32,000 feet near the Ukrainian border, including one that was a continuation of Flight 17’s route.

After the downing, regional air-traffic routed all planes away from the area and Malaysian authorities were forced to defend using a route that was open. They’re on trial for committing commercial aviation.

“Fifteen out of 16 airlines in the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines fly this route over Ukraine,” Malaysia’s transport minister Liow Tiong Lai told the press while wading into the swamp, mouth-deep. “European airlines also use the same route, and traverse the same airspace.”

This is where rules get slippery and elusive. Sometimes it’s every airline for itself.

Consider this. Nearly three months ago, the FAA put out an order “prohibiting American pilots, airlines, charter carriers, and everyone else over whom the FAA has direct jurisdiction, from flying over southern parts of Ukraine.”

It didn’t exactly cover the airspace where MH17 crashed. But an FAA Notice to airmen is taken seriously.

At best, it’s thin ice over eastern Ukraine. And tensions are heating up. Airpower is an advantage the government has over rebels. That makes it a target.

This week, for the first time Russian aircraft engaged Ukrainian forces fighting separatist rebels. A SU-25, built to carry out airstrikes, was downed over eastern Ukraine by a Russian fighter, according to Ukraine’s security council.

Also this week, rebel forces claimed responsibility for downing a AN-26 military transport aircraft with “a surface-to-air missile fired from the Russian side of the border,” reported The Telegraph.

They also report an increase in high-tech weaponry “in separatist hands in recent weeks, including tanks, Grad multiple rocked launchers, and at least one tracked Strela-10 surface-to-air missile launcher which rebels said was responsible for downing the AN-26.”

And then there’s YouTube video “purporting to show multiple rocket launchers firing across the Russian border into Ukraine.” None of it independently verified.

Some 200 to 300 of the daily flights over Ukraine had diverted elsewhere in recent months, leaving about 100 operating, representing the comings and goings of about 60 different carriers a week.

British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa are among the airlines that used the same route over eastern Ukraine just days before a missile struck MH17.

Australia’s Qantas stopped flying over Ukraine several months ago and swung its London-Dubai route 400 miles south. Korean Air rerouted flights in early March because of the situation over the Crimean peninsula. Asiana, Cathay and others also ran out of runway above Ukraine.

Why was Malaysia Airlines the last commercial flight over that war zone? One expert suggests “they chose the most direct and economic flight route possible.”

Tony Tyler, director general of commercial air industry trade organization IATA, disagrees. “No airline will risk the safety of their passengers, crew and aircraft for the sake of fuel savings. Airlines depend on governments and air traffic control authorities to advise which air space is available for flight, and they plan within those limits.”

The belief that weapons used by separatists and other guerrilla groups don’t have the range nor the accuracy to hit an airliner was also real, and probably works on the minds of pilots since the captain has the final say. But the default mode seems “all is well.”

Just days prior to the loss of MH17, the FAA in another notice expanded the no-fly area, but only between 26,000 feet and 32,000 feet.

The Tarmac’s View: You’d think the safety merits of a flight path is something we could all agree on, especially given that we’ll err on the side of safety, right? But who is in charge of regulating flights over war zones? The captain of the flight has final say. He can do more than set his tray table in the upright position. But where is the unity among regional and international regulators of airspace, which is where captains get trusted information? If any world lives in the information age, it’s got to be aviation.

The downing of MH17 was most likely a mistake. But mistakes happen. Better communication is the retort to mistakes. This is what we know.

[Photo: FlightAware.com]


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Comments (Showing 3 of 3)

  • Himeno at 9:32am July 19, 2014

    ” Qantas stopped flying over Ukraine several months ago and swung its London-Dubai route 400 miles south.”

    Qantas has not flown over the Ukraine mainland since they withdrew from their Asia-Europe routes.
    Their DXB-LHR route passed through the Crimean FIR and they rerouted that when the FAA NOTAM was issued.

  • GateHold at 4:19pm July 19, 2014

    Similarly, ASK THE PILOT looks at the protocols of flying over restricted and prohibited areas.

    An excerpt…

    “…Above restive areas, flights are restricted to particular routes, specific altitudes and airspace sectors. Large chunks of airspace are often totally off limits. Over certain countries — as was the case over Afghanistan for a while — commercial overflights might be prohibited outright. As situations on the ground change, these airspace limitations are adjusted.

    Look at the typical aviation chart, meanwhile, and you’ll see military operations areas and various restricted and prohibited zones scattered all over the place. This is true even over the United States.

    Compliance with these restrictions is important, but they are not difficult to follow. Thousands of flights deal with them every day. Crews don’t simply cross their fingers and hope for the best; while own below, air traffic controllers are fully aware of who will be passing over, and when.

    On the other hand, maybe greater precautions should be taken over particularly unstable areas — especially those where known anti-aircraft fire has been reported. As a reader notes in the comments section below: if a plane does get shot down, is that being “unlucky,” or is it the result of poor risk analysis? Maybe MH17′s flight path should never have been open, or allowed, in the first place. Russia or Ukraine might say its airspace is safe, but perhaps that’s for others to decide….”

    The full story is here…


  • Counsellor at 6:58pm July 20, 2014

    According to news reports, ICAO had certified the route as safe. and it had been used by 14 other flights that day.

    I can’t think that any responsible airline would use a dangerous route just to save money.

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