Disaster in disputed territory makes finding out the cause a much harder task
AS Ukraine and Russia trade accusations and attempt to implicate each other in the downing of a Malaysian Boeing 777 near the Ukrainian-Russian border yesterday, one thing is clear: flying has suddenly become a lot riskier.
Shooting down airliners belonging to belligerent countries is not unusual but the shooting down of Malaysian Flight MH17, an aircraft enjoying an innocent right of passage through Ukrainian skies – if that is what happened – is a new low.
The Ukrainian government has blamed pro-Russian separatist rebels for the disaster, and there have been reports that yesterday the rebels had claimed the shooting down of a Ukrainian military aircraft.
Could they have hit the Malaysian 777 in error?
Later, however, the rebels said they lacked the ability to hit an aircraft flying at 33,000 feet, the height at which the Malaysian plane is believed to have been flying. But two Ukrainian fighters, and a helicopter, have been shot down in recent days by separatist forces using sophisticated weapons, including, claims the Ukrainian government, a Russian fighter jet.
Could the Russians have shot the aircraft down on behalf of the rebel separatists they sponsor, using far more powerful weapons than those in rebel hands? If they did, it would not be the first time they shot down an unarmed civilian aircraft. In 1983, a Korean airliner was shot down by a Soviet fighter jet when it strayed into Russian airspace, killing 269.
Russian sources quoted by the Interfax News agency last night joined the fray, suggesting that Ukraine could have fired the fatal missile on the assumption that its target was President Putin's jet returning to Moscow. According to the sources, the two aircraft were just 23 minutes apart.
Ukraine is not blameless in the targeting of civilian aircraft. In 2001, a Russian passenger turboprop was shot down by Ukrainian forces during a military exercise in the Black Sea: Ukraine admitted it shot that plane down, saying it was an accident.
Civilian passenger aircraft transmit an identification code from a device known as a transponder, which comes up as a block of data on air traffic control radar enabling controllers to quickly identify an aircraft as civilian.
Military aircraft, on the other hand, often fly with their transponders switched off. Surely, one might suggest, it would have been obvious to anybody tracking the aircraft on military radar that the missile target was a civilian jet. The situation is not so clear. Given that it is usually seeking to locate aircraft that do wish to be identified, military radar is often so-called primary radar, a more basic system, which lacks the ability to display identific-ation codes on the screen.
Of course, the possibility remains that the Malaysian jet may have been downed by mechanical failure, a mid-air collision, even a bomb.
Clever sleuthing by crash investigators using the cockpit voice recorder is often able to reveal the type of explosive used by carefully listening to the slowed-down sound recording of an explosion and that way they can tell if a bomb, or a missile, or even a fuel tank explosion was involved.
But this may be academic because the aircraft crashed in pro-Russian rebel-held territory. Rebels have been reported as saying they have recovered the black boxes and will send them to Moscow, not Kiev, for analysis.
International law states that a crash is investigated by the government of the country in which the plane crashed. But what happens when the area in which it crashed is disputed territory is anybody's guess.