Malaysia Airlines flight #MH17 (AMS to KUL) (Viewers May Find Some Content Disturbing)
Midday at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport, one of Europe's and the world's busiest - passengers line up at departure gate G53 to board the mid-day 12-13 hour non-stop Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur, with many of them booked on onward connections out of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The flight, designated as #MH17 is operated by a Boeing 777 Series jetliner is one of the airline's key European routes which it has operated since (freakishly) exactly 17 years ago i.e. the first flight designated as MH17 operated on 17 July 1997.
The captain of the flight, 50 year old Wan Amran Wan Hussin, commanding one of the world's most sophisticated and safest airplane's just another job in the office, no doubt the tragedy of #MH370 from only 4 months ago still haunting the minds of everyone on board especially the crew who are still coming to grips with the disappearance of their colleagues on 8 March 2014 when the Boeing 777 flying from KLIA to Beijing's Capital International Airport mysteriously vanished 2 hours into the flight and has still not been found.
As far as the pilot of MH17 was concerned, Captain Hussin was very keen on performing the Haj pilgrimage - one of the most significant spiritual journeys a Muslim makes during his/her lifetime so it is pretty evident that the crash wasn't a far-fetched case of pilot suicide.
And then, 3 hours into the flight and at roughly 14:15 Hrs UTC, at an altitude of 32-33,000 feet, the Boeing 777-200ER's shot down without any warning and comes crashing down in far eastern Ukraine (caught on film) over Donekst Oblast near the Black Sea coast. The world media, in disbelief begin sending out newsflashes across the globe and speculations immediately begin about the integrity of Malaysia Airlines including the maintenance records of their planes however it soon emerges that it was no doubt shot down by a Surface to Air missile - the finger squarely being pointed at Pro-Russian separatists who're known to be in possession of the 'Buk' SAM (Surface to Air MIssile).
298 Passengers (including 15 Crew members) are killed and the passenger manifest includes 193 Dutch Nationals (including Pioneer HIV Scientist Dr Joep Lange, Amnesty International Human Rights worker Tessa Van der Sande, who was just 27 years old and another one with dual Dutch-US Citizenship), 28 Australians while the rest of the passengers being 43 Malaysian Nationals (that included 15 Crew members) and citizens of other countries - 1 Canadian and New Zealander, 4 Belgians and Germans, 12 Indonesians, 10 Britons (including one with South African-UK dual Nationality) and 3 Philippinos.
Items including passports, money, toiletries and airplane seats are also found within the wreckage and questions are immediately asked about why was the plane flying over such a volatile airspace over the Crimean peninsula in the first place.
MH 17 in Pictures - WARNING - Extremely Graphic clips!
Phone Call Intercept between a Pro-Russian Rebel Comander and a Russian Intelligence Official after the Rebels realize their Apparent Mistake
Ukraine's Political Tensions
As an aviation enthusiast myself, me along with many other analysts, governments and observers did wonder why MH17 decided to fly into the jaws of one of the most unstable commercial airspace in the world when it was on record that other airlines had already begun avoiding the area for more northern routes that bypass Ukraine's territorial airspace altogether.
This year, Ukraine's been under the grip of a civil-war, triggered by ongoing conflicts between pro-Russian separatists (focused around the eastern part of the country in Crimea) and the rest of the nation who want the country to remain in tact (the way it has been since the collapse of the USSR in 1991). The most prominent player within the ranks of the pro-Russian militant rebels, Igor Strelkov, known by his nom de guerre Igor Girgin seems to be the prime suspect in this tragedy as he claims many pilots including Ukrainian defence forces were warned that they will shoot down planes if they strayed into Crimean airspace - only a few days ago, they successfully took down a Ukrainian Sukhoi SU-25 fighter jet and an Antonov AN-25 transport plane and it appears that the downing of MH17 was a mistake on the part of the perpetrators.
Nevertheless, this tragedy has highlighted the already troubled circumstances bleeding Ukraine and no amount of justification is going to console the families of the victims involved.
MH17's Flight Path on 17 July 2014
It seems to be more or less apparent that it indeed were pro-Russian rebels in Crimea who were behind the shooting down of MH17 over Donetsk but questions still remain as to why was the plane flying over there in the first place when there were prior warnings from intelligence agencies that there was a credible 'security risk' over the area.
It is understood that since recent weeks, other Asian airlines such as Asiana, Singapore Airlines and Korean Air had already re-routed their flight-paths across Eurasia to avoid eastern Ukraine amid rising political tensions and investigators are wondering why wasn't MH17 routed in a way that it would at least avoid Crimea.
Aviation corridors are split into paths called 'Airways' (similar to highways) which are plotted and tracked by Satellite-based GPS and on board flight management systems of aircraft. The particular airway which was used by MH17 was called 'L980', which offers a more or less great-circle route between Western Europe and Maritime Asia. Further investigation also suggests that the Boeing 777's cockpit crew actually requested a cruising altitude of 35,000 MSL throughout its journey over Ukraine (which is also the largest country by area on the European continent) but the request was rejected as the plane was ordered to fly at 32,000 feet MSL instead.
CNN's weather reports also suggest that the plane chose to fly along #L980 to avoid an area of turbulence which had affected the southern parts of Crimea (and in effect a more volatile part of Ukraine) but having said that there's wonderment as to how Eurocontrol (the main organization overseeing Air Traffic Control across the European continent didn't cordon L980 off as being off limits until the situation in Crimea calmed down a bit. According to the Malaysian government though, Eurocontrol have confirmed that there were at least 150 scheduled commercial air crossings on 17 July alone so they didn't see the need to ban an entire airway as there was no credible threat to any particular airliner despite the 'concerns' which had already previously surfaced.
The most plausible theory for now regarding MH17's flight path seems to be that the crew chose to fly a more southerly route as it was more economical - eastbound flights usually like to take advantage of the Earth's prevailing trade winds which assist in faster journey times thanks to tail winds which translates to less fuel costs and more money saved.
UK Couple 'Shaken' After Missing MH17 and realizing later it had been shot down
Narrow Escapes for Air India, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic
Further analysis of the airspace over Crimea and eyewitness reports have also revealed that an air India Boeing 787 Dreamliner operating as Air India flight AI113 (BHX-DEL-ATQ) between Birmingham and Delhi was only 25 Km behind MH17 when the latter was shot down. Reports from the Times of India and Daily Mail UK confirm that there were at least 3 other jets belonging to major airlines which were within minutes of each other at the time MH17 was shot down over Donetsk.
It is assumed that the Air India plane along with a few others were tuned into the same frequency as MH17 while flying over Crimea and under the control of Simferopol FIR-Center when the center reported that they had lost contact with MH17. The controller then requested Air India 113 to attempt making contact with MH17 and when the Air India Captain failed to do so, they had already realized that the worst had probably happened and a stunned silence ensued across the Air India and Singapore Airlines cockpits.
The Singapore Airlines flight, another Boeing 777-200 Series operating as SQ351 from Copenhagen to Singapore was also seconds behind MH17 and AI113 while a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330 operating as VS301 from Delhi to London-Heathrow was flying roughly 140 miles away.
All airlines have confirmed they broke no rules set down by ICAO in relation to which flight-paths they should have been using and have now confirmed they're avoiding Ukraine's airspace all together.
The Aftermath and Potential Consequences
Described by some as the 'biggest crime scene' in the world, major world leaders have been quick to blame the Russians for this tragedy as they believe that nobody can operate the sophisticated machinery of the SA17 BUK missile without proper guidance and expertise of a trained military official - the idea being that the pro-Russian rebels couldn't have known how to use the missile without direct help from Russia.
Moreover, it is reported by Ukrainian authorities that since Crimea is controlled by the rebel and the self-proclaimed head of 'government' in that region is Russian financier, they've already managed to take away the plane's black boxes (the Cockpit Data Recorder and the Voice Data Recorder) and shipped them off to Moscow. While Russia denies they have the black boxes, this theory marks eerie similarity to the crash of #Korean Air Flight 007 on 1 September 1983 when a Russian fighter shot it down after the Boeing 747 strayed into USSR airspace near Kamchatka during its flight between Anchorage and Seoul - the Soviets denied they had the black boxes only to reveal 13 years later that they did have the black boxes but never revealed that they did for political reasons.
It was also understood that the rebels are playing foul by not allowing the bodies of the dead to be fare-welled with dignity and respect as bodies of the victims have been taken to in a freezer on board a Ukrainian train but without a clue as to what's the train's destination. As of the afternoon of Tuesday, 22 July, the train has arrived at a town called Kharkiv, which is outside rebel-controlled areas of Ukraine. However, further reports by CNN and BBC initially reported that the train only arrived with 200 bodies rather than the 280+ which the rebels reportedly loaded on board its freezer when it left Donetsk but the Daily Telegraph, Australia has reported that all the bodies of the 282 passengers and 16 others have arrived at Kharkiv and forensic experts are already suggesting that those killed did not suffer after the crash.
The bodies are now in the Netherlands undergoing painstaking forensic examination to identify them while the black boxes are now being analyzed by investigators.
Investigators are also breathing a sign of relief as after difficult negotiations with rebels, they have finally been allowed to examine the crash-site and due to the fact the handover of data recorders to Malaysian authorities has been completed by the rebels as reported on BBC World News on 21/22 July 2014, beating speculations that the Cockpit data Recorder and Cockpit Voice recorder had been secretly shipped to Moscow.
This tragedy is not only huge in terms of global Geo-political concerns, but is also that of grave and unwarranted human loss, a crime and a terrorist attack, which has impacted ordinary and extra-ordinary citizens of the world who were simply wanting to go about their everyday lives.
It has also been reported that the rebels are still in complete control of how the investigation pans out as they're strongly regulating the movements of officials from Malaysia, the NTSB and journalists and repeated requests for freedom of movement around the crash-site are still going unanswered, thereby adding to the angst of the governments, airline and relatives impacted by this human tragedy.
Russia's already been on ice-cold relations with the west due to its handling (and direct involvement in) of the invasion of Crimea and speculators believe that this crash could lead to not only further sanctions against Russia but also make the world go bi-polar again if NATO decides to go on the military offensive in Ukraine to flush out the rebels unless the Russians are willing to handle this situation swiftly. Some conspiracy theorists even go to the extent of suggesting that this could after all be the work of western/ Israeli intelligence agencies to justify a war against Russia while Israel settles its own scores against Gaza without too many eyes watching over them - a theory which is plausible but a bit far fetched at this juncture.
World leaders have been nevertheless quick to condemn this act of terror and have made some strong statements from various corners of the world demanding that the Russians and Ukraine stop playing childish blame-games and get on with investigating this civilian tragedy.
Ukraine's Prime Minister calls on the world to put the 'Bastards Responsible for this Crime' to Justice
Australian PM Tony Abbott calls for an unbiased and full investigation into the crash of MH17
Barack Obama's reaction to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Vladimir Putin blaming Ukraine for the downing of MH17
Malaysian PM Najib Razak expresses Shock over the shooting down of MH17
We can only hope that the families of the victims of the terror attack on MH17 find the closure they're seeking i.e. find the bodies of their loved ones and farewell them with dignity and see the perpetrators of this crime being brought to justice.
Conspiracy theories aside, the major players at the center of this tragedy can either use this disaster to rectify an already out of control situation or use this as fuel for their fire.
In the interim, as is the case with any major tragedy, lets see what lessons airliners learn from this incident (especially Malaysia Airlines, who're already reeling from the massive impact MH370 has had on the company and the country) and whether they'll follow Israel's El-Al in installing anti missile flares/bursts in their fleet's hull.