The Dutch-led investigation into the MH17 atrocity has found a late-model warhead compatible with the Russian-built BUK missile system destroyed the Malaysia Airlines plane. The report also found Russia had issued a warning of much tighter airspace restrictions the day before the fateful flight, but it was unable to determine whether Malaysia Airlines had been aware of that warning, due to Malaysia’s refusal to co-operate with authorities.

The media presentation of the detailed report heard scathing analysis of the conduct of the airlines that continued to use the disputed airspace in which at least 16 military flights, including some helicopters, had been shot down in the month before the jet was destroyed.

The investigation could not determine if Malaysia Airlines had been aware of a Russian warning of airspace restrictions that came into effect on July 17, 2014 — the same day as the MH17 crash — that were significantly higher (53,000 feet for civilian flights) than those imposed by Ukraine, which had said it was safe to fly above 32,000 feet.

This casts an entirely new and serious light on the discharge of safety responsibilities by the airlines that continued to fly through the airspace. The report names all of the airlines concerned, which include Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Thai International and Air India, which fly routes with connections to Europe from Australia, as well as commonly used connecting carriers Air France, Lufthansa, Swiss, Flydubai and Virgin Atlantic.

The Russian Federation advisory, issued on July 16, 2014, said the airspace it controlled was unsafe for any airliner, since 53,000 feet is at least 20,000 feet higher than the maximum sustainable cruise altitude of all passenger jets in service world wide.

The lack of full co-operation by Malaysian government officials is highlighted numerous times in the report.

After stating that it is the legal responsibility of any airline operating a flight (including for a code share partner) to determine it was safe, the report deals with the overall legality of the carriers using airspace over eastern Ukraine.

The Dutch Safety Board also raised the other flight planning requirement to plan for a cabin depressurisation or engine failure that would force a jet to descend to a lower altitude, well below the 32,000 feet limit on the Ukraine side of the border.

The Dutch Safety Board acknowledged that the default setting of airlines when it came to route and operational planning was to fly, reflecting a pressure to fly that proved deadly when it failed to recognise the risks evident in the east Ukraine situation.

 

This is how the report summarised its finding about the continued use of east Ukraine airspace, which it also said should have been closed by Ukraine because of the manifest risks in the skies above the combat zone.

Having dealt with the physical and operational factors that caused or contributed to the MH17 disaster, the Dutch Safety Board’s work is done. It’s now over to the ongoing criminal probe being conducted by the Dutch public prosecutor with a view to issuing findings in the middle to later part of next year and with little doubt, lawyers seeking damages on behalf of the next of kin of the victims.

Tjibbe Joustra, the chairman of the Dutch Safety Board, said fragments of metal alloys unique to a recent production warhead compatible with the Russian BUK ground-to-air missile system were found in the bodies of the three pilots who died instantly when it detonated in a one-cubic-metre space close to the left side of their cockpit.

Three simulations of the trajectory that would have been followed by the ascending missile placed the launch site within 320 square kilometres of eastern Ukraine. Joustra said further refinement of the modelling and analysis as to the more precise location of the missile launch location was potentially a matter for the criminal inquiry being pursued by the Netherlands’ public prosecutor.

The investigation found that 61 airlines flew through the airspace over the disputed areas of eastern Ukraine on the day MH17 was shot down. Between them they sent 160 airliners into harm’s way on July 17, 2014, until the airspace was closed immediately after the MH17 shoot-down.

Joustra said: “We asked, ‘Why did these airlines continue to do this’ and the answer was straightforward, and disquieting. Every single one of those airlines thought that it was safe. No one considered the possibility that civil aviation was at risk.”

Joustra said the month before MH17 was shot down targets flying at more than 32,000 feet had been destroyed.

The Dutch Safety Board has made a set of safety recommendations that airlines consider the risks of flying through airspace above war zones in which known armed combat has included the use of missiles to destroy aircraft.

Peter Fray

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