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Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine

July 18, 2014, Donetsk, Ukraine - The Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 catastrophe in Ukraine could have been a tragedy for another international carrier, aviation experts say, noting the doomed jet’s flight plan was the very route that was, until recently, used by several European airlines.


July 18, 2014
By CBC News


The European Cockpit Association, which represents 38,000 pilots,
said Thursday the path taken by the doomed Boeing 777 flying to Kuala
Lumpur from Amsterdam is the "the most common route for flights from
Europe to Southeast Asia."

MH17 ended up flying over a volatile region near eastern Ukraine.

 

A surface-to-air missile reportedly shot it down on Thursday after
the commercial airliner carrying 298 people was believed to have drifted
about 300 kilometres off its normal course to evade a thunderstorm.

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"The flight was diverted … into an area where the conflict was very active," said Ted Lennox, president of LPS AVA Consulting.

 

"It was mischance, in some respects."

 

Amid calls for an international investigation, airlines and aviation
authorities around the world ordered flight routes to circumvent the
region.

 

"It’s a mistake a lot of people were making, and until now, very few
were avoiding," said retired Air Canada and Canadian Air Force veteran
Russ Cooper.

 

"The only ones that were basically opting out [of flying over the region] were the Americans because of the FAA."

 

The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority warned American aircraft on April
25 to steer clear of the region near the Crimean peninsula, where
Ukraine’s military and pro-Russian separatists have clashed for months.

Air Canada released a statement Thursday confirming the carrier "has
been proactively avoiding airspace over the region for some time
already."

 

Before the disaster, there appeared to be little reason for concern
given MH17’s high altitude, noted Pierre Jeanniot, a former Air Canada
CEO who once negotiated flight routes over conflict areas.

 

The International Civil Aviation Organization had also deemed the route, known as L980, a safe corridor.

 

"I would think there are a lot of precedents around the world,"
Jeanniot said. "I mean, we flew over Afghanistan at those levels. We fly
over Syria, we fly over Iran and Iraq … and we fly over a lot of Middle
East points. We fly over Egypt, over a lot of potential problem areas,
and no incidents have taken place. No major events."

 

Earlier in the week, however, Ukraine claimed that a military transport plane was downed by a Russian missile.

 

That should have raised red flags among risk-reduction analysts, said Arthur Rosenberg, a New York aviation lawyer.

 

"I don’t think anyone can dispute the fact that this is a warzone and
no commercial airline should have been flying — in my view — in, near,
or around this area," he said.

 

Knowledge of open or closed airspace and "war exclusion zones" are
communicated through documents called "NOTAMs" (notice to airmen), which
would be reviewed by everyone from the airline to the pilot, air
traffic controllers and dispatchers.

 

Studying up on NOTAMs is part of routine flight planning, explained
John Maris, president of the Ontario aerospace research firm Marinvent.

 

"The NOTAM will give you whatever information you need to stay out of
trouble. So in Quebec we’ve got fireworks displays in the summer, and
they’ll establish a little zone above the fireworks display prohibiting
flight over that area, and give whatever altitude limit is required," he
said.

 

For a space shuttle launch, a NOTAM would inform pilots whether an
area has become "hot" or active, and indicate whether a patch of
airspace that is normally dormant should be avoided at any altitude.

 

The publicly accessible documents would also advise pilots about
whether an airport is closed, a taxi runway is congested, or whether
local air shows or military test sites are active in the area.

 

"If you're going to fly all the way across Europe, you'll get the
French NOTAMs, the German NOTAMs, Greek NOTAMS, all in one big dump, if
you will. It's up to you as a pilot to decide how you'll react to them,"
said Maris, who has conducted aviation accident investigation work.

 

The non-profit Nav Canada runs and lists national NOTAM data. Ukraine’s civil air navigation system publishes its own.

 

If carriers failed to follow Ukraine’s aeronautical advisories then, they’re much more likely to heed them now.

 

"I guarantee there’s not going to be a commercial airline within a
1,000 kilometres of that place now," said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based
airline security consultant and president of the Boyd Group.

 

While North American airliners exercised caution around Russia and
Ukraine, Boyd said, "you can make the argument legitimately that
Malaysia should have known better than to be there."

 

Yet it appears Malaysia flight never actually violated closed airspace near Dontesk in Ukraine’s east.

 

Eurocontrol, which co-ordinates European airspace, said its records
showed the Malaysian airliner was flying at a cruising altitude of
roughly 10,000 metres, or 305 metres above restricted airspace.

 

Although the airline company may have believed that to be a "safe"
distance from the reach of military ground fire, Boyd said that was a
deadly presumption to make.

 

"The argument would be that at that altitude, the airplane is not a
threat," he said. "Who’s going to shoot down an airplane at 35,000
feet?"

 

Cooper called that a grave "miscalculation."

 

The BUK missile launcher, also known as the SA-11, is sophisticated
radar-guided weaponry that can launch missiles with a range of up to
80,000 feet.

 

While flying in the Persian Gulf during his Air Force days, Cooper said,
he narrowly escaped a variant of the same missile fired at his fighter
jet by the Iraqi Republican Guard.

 

"My F18 at the time had pretty state-of-the-art (radar) jammers and I
had a lot of training with regard to how to avoid missiles, and I had
to use every trick in my book to avoid being taken down by one of those

SA-11s," he said. "There’s no way a civil airliner could come out of
this on the bright side."

 

But knowing that transport planes have already been taken down in the
region, why would any airline continue to take the risk in that
airspace?

 

Cooper, who was tapped after the 9/11 attacks to work as a member of
the Air Canada Pilot’s Association Security Committee, supposes the main
reason in many cases is companies don’t want to hurt their bottom line.

 

MH17's flight path was considered to be cheaper, busier and more direct.

 

"Airlines run on a real tight profit margin and one of the biggest
factors is fuel," Cooper said. "You go around things, you make your
travel longer, you burn more fuel, you lose more money, and sometimes,
saving money is the name of the game."