The grieving families of the 298 passengers and crew murdered aboard flight MH17 can draw little comfort from the final report into the tragedy.
The Dutch Safety Board has confirmed what most had suspected: that the Boeing 777 was shot down by a Russian-built Buk surface-to-air missile launched from eastern Ukraine. But the 279-page report does not address who fired the weapon, nor who ordered the destruction of so many innocent people aboard a routine Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
At a Dutch airbase, investigators pieced together fragments of the cockpit and cabin, which were ripped apart by the explosion. They concluded that the warhead had been travelling at over 1,500mph when it exploded inches in front of the nose of the aircraft, just 10 feet left of the cockpit and 13 feet above it. Their evidence includes analysis of the microphones on the flight deck, which showed a tiny difference in when the noise of the explosion reached each of the instruments.
The investigators have also created a computer-generated reconstruction showing the effects of the blast.
The shape of the fragments of shrapnel found in the wreckage and in the bodies of some of those on board gives certainty, say the investigators, that: “The aircraft was struck by a 9N315M warhead as carried on a 9M38-series missile and launched by a Buk surface-to-air missile system.”
Because of the proximity of the warhead to the flight deck, the report concludes that the two pilots on duty - together with the purser, who was in the cockpit at the time - died instantly.
But it is not possible to determine how or when exactly the passengers and other crew died. The impact itself could have rendered many unconscious, with factors such as extreme cold and decrease in oxygen levels causing “reduced awareness” in others.
“It is likely the occupants were barely able to comprehend the situation in which they found themselves,” says the Dutch Safety Board. “The majority of the occupants seated in the cabin suffered multiple fractures consistent with the in-flight disintegration of the aeroplane and ground impact.”
Most of the passengers were Dutch; 10 were British. The relatives of the victims were given details of the report a few hours ahead of the world’s media. They learned that their loved ones were aboard just one of 160 flights that crossed the airspace over the Ukrainian village of Hrabove on 17 July 2014.
The report identifies the fatal series of errors that led to the shooting down. The first is that the airspace was open. “Why was the aeroplane flying over an area where there was an on-going armed conflict?”, it asks.
Three days before the attack, the Ukrainian authorities had briefed Western diplomats about the shooting down of a military transport aircraft over the conflict zone.
Investigators found that Ukraine then raised the minimum “safe” altitude a few days before the attack, to 32,000 feet - one thousand feet below the level of MH17. The report does not account for why the change was made, nor why the authorities failed to close the air-traffic sector completely.
Airlines make their own decisions about flight paths. At the time of the shooting-down some carriers had decided to avoid eastern Ukraine, even though on the busy air routes between Europe and South East Asia it meant longer journeys and higher fuel consumption.
It appears that if the aviation community had been aware of what the Western intelligence services knew at the time about the weaponry on the ground, no civilian aircraft would have flown in the area.
The report criticises the Ukrainian authorities for failing to close the airspace over the conflict zone between Russian separatists and government forces, and says airlines should not assume that unrestricted airspace over areas where is safe. It says Malaysia Airlines did not conduct any additional risk assessment, nor discuss the possible dangers with its “code-share” partner, KLM:
“This was despite the fact that the conflict was expanding into the air, and that, according to the Ukrainian authorities, weapons systems were being used that could reach civil aeroplanes at cruising altitude.
At the start of its report the board makes clear that it would not apportion blame: “It is the task of the criminal investigation to provide that answer.”
Circumstantial evidence and sightings on the ground overwhelmingly point to a Russian Buk system arriving near Snezhnoe the day MH17 was brought down.
The Dutch Safety Board announced four months ago that it would release the final report on 13 October, and the Russian government made sure its retaliation preceded the release of the official response.
Investigation demands urgent changes to aviation practice
A vein of incredulity runs through the extremely thorough report. It shows that 298 people died because of failures of communication between governments and intelligence officials, who were aware of the risks, and airlines who took the view that if airspace was open it must by definition be safe.
The report demands urgent action from the aviation community:
- Authorities must inform airlines and foreign governments “as quickly as possible in the event of an armed conflict with possible risks for civil aviation.”
- Incentives, possibly financial, should be offered to nations that close airspace because of the risk from conflicts taking place on their territory.
- Governments must share “relevant information about threats within a foreign airspace” with each other and with airlines.
- Authorities should make it mandatory for airlines to carry out their own risk assessment of countries that they overfly.
- Airlines should publish clear information to potential passengers about flight routes over conflict zones, and provide public accountability about their choices at least annually.
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