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By Doug Herlihy
For the Sentinel 

The felling of Flight 17

 

Dutch Safety Board Animation

URDER IN THE SKY: According to increasingly mounting evidence, Malaysia Flight 17 was downed by a Russian rocket that exploded near the plane, shredding the cockpit and forward fuselage with shrapnel.

Editor's note: Longtime aviator and Goldendale resident Doug Herlihy is renowned globally for his expertise in dealing with aircraft crashes. He was in Europe recently examining information related to the downing of Malaysia Flight 17.

Investigator's comment: Examining the facts, flight circumstances, wreckage parts, communications, and human contributions in any aviation tragedy is always a scientific exercise to solve a puzzle and find cause. Finding the cause of an accident leads to making recommendations to keep the accident from happening again. In the current age of better airplanes, realistic simulator human training, GPS-supported air traffic control (ATC), and both on-board and ground-based warning systems, modern solutions have made air commerce today the safest way to travel. Hour for hour, mile for mile, air travel is, hands-down, the safest mode of travel. As to international travel, there is no doubt that the advances in global telecom capability, satellite tracking, and cross-border cooperation between air traffic control facilities make air safety a reality. Simply put, it is safer to travel by air than on highways.Yet.

In recent years, investigators are facing a new phenomenon: terrible tragedies of intentional destruction with high loss of life confound the efforts to resolve these events. The new factor that we face is understood to be murder in the skies. That term may seem too harsh and rude to be associated with flight safety analysis, but the phenomenon has reared its ugly head time after time in recent years. While the number of these tragedies is very low considering the huge number of safe flights that crisscross the globe, the isolated events wherein airliners are intentionally destroyed and people murdered still confound our efforts to keep them from happening. The history of intentional airliner destruction dates even before World War II, and as airliners carry more passengers, this diabolical trend for political or ideological objectives is nearly incomprehensible for investigators and safety officials; but the forensic reconstruction that follows consistently reveals the irrefutable evidence of the criminal act.

The intentional destruction of airliners is not new. In 1983, Soviet jets shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 near the Siberian coast as it flew from Anchorage to Seoul. That same year, Libyan operatives planted a bomb which brought down PanAm 103 near Lockerbee, Scotland. Those intentional acts killed 539 persons. In 1989, terrorists brought down a French (ATA flight 772) over Niger, Africa, with the loss of 170 passengers and crew. Also in 1989, Avianca flight 203, a Boeing 727, was blown up by the Medellin drug cartel over Colombia with the loss of 107 lives. In 1999, Egypt Air flight 990 with 217 passengers and crew aboard was intentionally crashed into the ocean off of Nantucket Island, by relief copilot Gameel Al Batouti. The 21st century began with the greatest tragedy in aviation. The use of four airliners to kill more than 3,000 on Sept. 11, 2001 was unfathomable in the history of aviation disasters by Saudi Arabian citizen Mohamed Atta and eighteen others. As recently as 2015 a Metrojet flight 9268 (AirBus 320 flying Russian tourists) from Egypt, was destroyed by an ISIS bomb over the Sinai, killing all 224 aboard. Likewise, in 2015, German Wings copilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed an Airbus 320 into the French Alps, after locking the captain out of the cockpit, resulting in the death of 150 passengers and crew.

In 2014, news captivated the entire world to following the disappearance and search in the south Indian Ocean for the missing Malaysia Air flight 370, (3 March 2014) a Boeing 777-200ER. All available evidence today points to an intentional destruction by pilot(s) Zaharie Ahmed Shah and/or Fariq Abdul Hamid, diving it into the sea in the far reaches of the south Indian Ocean. Off radar screens and in silence for over five hours the passenger airplane flew deep into ocean airspace without a clue to its location. Despite a highly technical search effort for over a year, mapping thousands of miles of ocean bottom, the wreckage location remains a mystery. Not a single sign of any of the 239 people aboard the airplane has been found.

Regularly, to our disbelief, these horrible acts are state-sponsored,

The deliberate shoot down of Boeing 777, Malaysia Air 17, July 17, 2014

The following account from European investigative reports details yet another senseless destruction of an innocent airliner. A complex investigation by several independent bodies have very recently completed their preliminary work. The Dutch Safety Board (OVV), the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) comprised of Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, Netherlands, and Ukraine, employing 200 investigators, examined thousands of wreckage parts, 500,000 videos and photographs, thousands of satellite images, (US and European Space Agency-ESA), interviewed more than 200 witnesses, reviewed 150,000 telephone calls, and 5 billion internet pages. They presented their findings to their governments on September 28, 2016. Additionally, independent research organizations such as UK-based Bellingcat and US-based STRATFOR, have reached similar and conclusive findings. The investigation is on-going, as the JIT investigators explore hundreds of additional witnesses, records of phone conversations, and videos that are emerging.

Timeline – Russian BUK missile intercepts MH17

On 17 July 2014 (just over four months after the unresolved loss of Malaysia Air 370), a sister ship, Malaysia Air 17 (MH17), also a Boeing 777-200ER, with 298 passengers and crew was intentionally targeted and destroyed by a supersonic ground to air missile. A Russian Federation BUK-M1 missile (known by NATO code name, "SA-11 Gadfly") destroyed the Boeing airliner as it flew innocently across eastern Ukraine, on an international airway (route-L980) at 33,000 feet. The scheduled flight MH17 departed Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, Holland, at 10:13AM UTC (universal time) on a non-stop flight, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The planned flight route would take it across Germany, Poland, Ukraine, then onto the southern region of the Russian Federation, the Caspian Sea, Iran, India, and to its destination in Malaysia. Three hours and seventeen minutes after takeoff from Amsterdam, over eastern Ukraine, its cockpit was penetrated by a deadly cloud of shrapnel.

Cockpit shattered without warning at 13:30PM over Donetsk, eastern Ukraine

Shortly after entering airspace above eastern Ukraine, an area of intense fighting between forces of Ukraine's military and Russian-backed eastern-Ukraine separatists, a BUK series 9M38 series rocket was intentionally launched from a mobile track vehicle and exploded a few meters in front of the MH17 airplane cruising at 33,000 feet. The investigation revealed, through videos and intercepted phone calls, the Russian BUK-TELAR missile launcher and support vehicles to have traveled from the Russian Federation border, along with support vehicles and crewmembers, and was specifically positioned on prominent high ground farmland near Pervomaiskyi, Ukraine. The track-driven launcher was photographed as it arrived from the Russian border on a Volvo flatbed truck, then driven by its crew to be strategically placed in farmland under the international civilian airway. The next day, the launcher's radar locked onto the southeast-bound target (MH17), and a BUK 9M38 missile was launched from a rack of four and flew at three times the speed of sound (mach-3) to intercept the airliner. That model of Russian missile is capable of destroying an aircraft at up to 80,000 feet, unlike "shoulder-launched" surface-to-air missiles capable of targeting aircraft under a 10,000 feet altitude. The high energy explosion of the BUK missile at 33,000 feet, a few meters in front of the cockpit, was recorded for a millisecond on the airplane's cockpit voice recorder (CVR). A deadly cloud of hardened steel projectiles penetrated the cockpit, instantly killing the flight crew. The cockpit was ripped from the fuselage, and within seconds the passenger compartment began to disintegrate. The airplane's hull was torn apart. Wreckage, luggage, passports, and bodies fell into farmland and houses in and around Pervomaiskyi, eastern Ukraine, spread over a 19-square mile area. Post-crash fires of the main wreckage consumed much of what was left. There were no survivors. The JIT investigation indicated that the BUK-TELAR missile launcher, minus a missile, subsequently traveled back across the Russian Federation border, along with its operators. Evidence cited by the investigators includes hundreds of civilian videos and photos, multiple intercepted phone calls, and "multimedia" phone and images. The Russian and other combatant participants were identified by numerous sources, including photographs and voice recognition.

Forensic and intelligence reconstruction

Immediate efforts to investigate the event were blocked. The crash site in eastern Ukraine was under the control of pro-Russian fighters which prevented investigative teams from the Ukraine government from reaching the scene. Moreover, the area southeast of Donetsk was a scene of heavy fighting between Ukraine government troops and pro-Russian fighters. Access to the wreckage was denied by pro-Russian forces for months. During that period, the wreckage and its contents were pillaged, much of it never recovered. Nevertheless, the process of collecting radar, telephone and video data began the very day after the loss of MH17. (18 July 2014). As with any aviation accident investigation, analysis begins with the gathering of facts and the development of hypotheses that must be proved or disproved. This investigation was no different. Both the Dutch Safety Board and the Joint Investigative Team (multinational), working independently, reached similar conclusions. The hypotheses that were advanced included loss of the aircraft by crew error, by technical aircraft failure, by air-to-air (another aircraft) destruction, or by the use of a ground-based missile system. The communications with MH17, as well as the radar recordings by air traffic control, ruled out the first three scenarios. As the investigation proceeded in the months following the event, evidence mounted which conclusively recorded the Russian BUK-TELAR launch vehicle with its rockets were brought into Eastern Ukraine from the territory of the Russian Federation a short time before 17 July 2014. Likewise, many similar sources confirmed the BUK-TELAR vehicle, minus its rocket, being brought back across the Russian frontier in the days following the crash.

Forensically, months later when investigators were allowed to enter the scene (under the watchful eyes of pro-Russian fighters), the shattered cockpit and the remains of the crew provided concrete evidence of the effect of the burst from a Russian BUK 9M38 missile warhead. The remains of passengers and crew that were carried to the Netherlands for identification by pathology revealed conclusive evidence linking the explosion to the specific BUK model as well. The perforations and penetrations both in recovered fragments and the velocities through the aluminum airplane skin as well as occupants were forensically linked to a BUK 9M38 series warhead. The JIT compared an unfired exemplar 9M38 missile and matched its parts conclusively to fragments found in the airplane and crew remains. These fragments of "bowtie" and "cube" design were uniquely 9M38 warhead fragments. Additional evidence of the rocket's flight fins was found in the airplane's debris. Many more factors, such as soil analysis from the rocket launch site, satellite imagery, and radar analysis added to the JIT conclusions.

As with any complex investigation, the gathering of facts and analysis is not over. World court(s) will yet be asked to bring to justice those specific individuals and entities identified by the JIT investigators. There remains much to do in this terrible event.

Primary sources for this article: Dutch Safety Board Report dated 13 October 2015; the Dutch Safety Board Report may be found at: https://www.onderzoeksraad.nl/en

Joint Intelligence Team (JIT) Preliminary Results of Criminal Investigation MH17.

 

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