The Flightpath to Hell: MH17 Wasn’t the Only Flight in Russia’s Sights

At least 160 other flights were over Ukraine on the day in July 2014 when MH17 fell victim to a deadly game of Russian roulette in the sky.

Piece by piece—pieces of the plane, pieces of evidence, pieces of phone conversation and cellphone records, pieces of the victims—Dutch prosecutors have put together evidence good enough to go to court. On Wednesday they announced that when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was blown out of the sky over Ukraine in 2014, the dirty work was done by a Russian ground-to-air missile. Importantly, they concluded it was brought into the war zone earlier that day, and the launcher was taken back into Russia that night.

The political and geopolitical consequences of these findings are likely to be with us for a long time as the victims’ families, prosecutors, and Western and Asian governments involved seek justice, and the Russians throw up clouds of denials and disinformation. But for the 298 people on board MH17 that day, of course, all that is moot.

One can only imagine what it was like flying peacefully on the way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the passengers and most of the crew, as well, oblivious to the war beneath. Most on board, we can guess, were unaware they were even over Ukraine as they drank their beverages and watched their movies. And then, for the lucky ones, oblivion. For the others, various reports suggest there were 90 horrific seconds between the moment the missile hit and the time they died.

So the question must be asked: What were they doing there in the first place?

It took the catastrophe of Flight MH17 to wake up the world’s airlines to the risks of flying over war zones. Dutch investigators into the crash found there were at least 160 other commercial flights flying over Ukraine that day when, in a grim version of Russian roulette, the Malaysian Boeing 777 was hit and bodies started raining from the sky.

In a report last October, Tjibbe Joustra, chairman of the Dutch Safety Board, said: “Not a single state or international organization explicitly warned of any risks to civil aviation, and not a single state prohibited its airliners from using the airspace… or imposed other restrictions.”

It turns out that assuming that the managers of airlines with long-haul routes would have a basic geopolitical intelligence system of their own and know to avoid hot spots was a dangerously false assumption. Some airlines did show that kind of foresight—British Airways, for one, had already diverted its airplanes to avoid Ukrainian air space—but most did not. (A Singapore Airlines flight was within 15 miles of MH17 at the time of the missile strike.)

Ukraine itself had issued a warning about flying over the eastern part of the country, but it only prohibited flights below 32,000 feet, based on another false assumption that the risk posed to airliners would come from shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, MANPADS, not from a missile like the one that brought down the Malaysian airliner, which can strike at heights higher than any commercial jet can fly.

MH17 had been directed by controllers to fly at 33,000 feet, even though the pilots had asked for 35,000 feet.

Three months earlier, the Federal Aviation Administration had prudently banned U.S. carriers from flying over the Crimean Peninsula and Black Sea because there were Russian military airplanes in action there, but mainland Ukraine was not included.

Malaysia Airlines said that when its airplane was cleared to take off from Amsterdam on that fateful morning, its route had been approved by Eurocontrol, the air-traffic center responsible for all flights over Europe.

After the disaster, the United Nations body responsible for the oversight of aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization, based in Montreal and not known for being proactive, did issue what it called a “conflict zone information depository.” It included Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Syria.

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One basic reason why airlines were reluctant to shift the flight paths of their long-haul flights (up to 7,000 miles) was money. Diversions used more fuel, and fuel is the greatest cost factor on these flights. The most efficient and direct routes took no account of what might be happening on the ground below.

MH17 introduced a whole new urgency to the task of judging whether air space was safe—not only a far more skilled appraisal of how to decide what is a war zone and what is not, but a more realistic understanding of anti-aircraft weaponry. MANPADS remain by far the most pervasive weapons; for example, the Islamic State terror group has used them successfully against Syrian and Russian airplanes flying at relatively low altitudes.

But the Ukraine catastrophe has shown that the mobility of long-range missile batteries makes their locations very difficult to anticipate.

A long-lasting result of MH17 is the creation of a densely flown new corridor for international flights between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. To avoid Ukraine, the jets are now flying over Greece and Cyprus, across the Mediterranean to Egypt, then south across the Red Sea and then either across Saudi Arabia to the Indian Ocean or via the world’s fastest growing international hub in Dubai.

Threading flights between hot spots like Syria, Iraq, the Egyptian Sinai, and Yemen leaves little room for error. But this is the dangerous new geography of international routes and nobody can take the risk of ignoring it.