Ahead of Tuesdays DSB report on the MH-17 shoot down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014, WC Turck,’s upcoming book, “A Tragic Fate: Politics, Oil, the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the Looming Threats to Civil Aviation,” fills in the gap, here with the only complete re-creation of the tragic events that day. The following is an excerpt based on hundreds of sources, thousands of photographs, videos and more than 300 hours of investigation:
It is, in the first confusing and shocking hours and days, tainted by the hate and propaganda of war and the insipid ignorance of social media, that the fertile ground for conspiracy theories and innuendo are created. Innocuous, misinterpreted or ill-informed early reports become fertilizer for conspiracies. But it is reports like the one from Malaysia’s Airlines director of operations, Izham Ismail, responding to claims that weather led to the change in MH-17’s flight plan, replied that he had no reports from the pilot to suggest that was the case, which help feed speculation.
Inside the cabin, the stewards and flight attendants were busy with meal service. The passengers were contented with in-flight entertainment. The flight so far has been routine, even mundane. There were still more than 8 hours remaining to Kuala Lumpur. The passengers were thinking of their final destination, making connections, seeing loved ones, business meetings and sleeping in their own beds again.
Far below them others are animated for war. The missile launcher and its crew, now near the town of Torez, as well as their command and control support were expectant of enemy incursion. They were blinded by that perspective, which betrays a complete and criminal negligence at every level in the chain of command. If Russia in fact supplied the vehicle the responsible authorities share substantially in culpability for allowing trigger happy, irresponsible and ill-trained rebels such a dangerously sophisticated weapon.
While fewer flights than normal flew through Ukrainian airspace in the month leading up to July 17, according to Mikael Robertsson, co-founder of flight tracking website Flightradar24, two other aircraft were present within 10 minutes flight time of MH-17. The presence of civilian over flights could not have been unknown to the rebels.
At a press conference following the crash, Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said that “MH17’s flight path was a busy major airway, like a highway in the sky. It followed a route which was set out by the international aviation authorities, approved by Eurocontrol, and used by hundreds of other aircraft… MH17 flew at an altitude that was set and deemed safe by local air traffic control, and it never strayed into restricted airspace. The flight and its operators followed the rules. But on the ground, the rules of war were broken.”
Ukrainian authorities had earlier prohibited aircraft from operating at 32,000 feet or below, just a thousand feet below the altitude that MH-17 was flying. That still placed it well within range of the BUK Missile battery now operating near Torez.
In June, despite assurances both British Airlines and Lufthansa decided against risking East Ukrainian airspace. Emirates suspended flights to Ukraine altogether, according to Reuters. As pointed out in a previous chapter the routine of war balanced against marketing and business concerns, it had become normal business practice for International airlines to fly over war zones simply to save money on fuel.
Ukraine was no different. Commercial airlines regularly flew over Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars there, comfortable that insurgent forces lacked the capability to threaten them. When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced: Ai-ya-fyatla-yoy-katl) erupted in 2010 disrupting air travel between North America and Europe and ground more than 100,000 flights, the cost to airlines and more than 6 million stranded passengers was in the tens of millions of Dollars. The costs to the bottom line are powerful drivers in the equation when left to airlines alone.
The dilemma begs a wider question, however, as to whether we are becoming far too cavalier with regards to war. In the wake of the Cold War and its international alignment, more or less, there was at least greater control over the proliferation of sophisticated weapons of war. It is a good thing that international market economics, to a degree, is less incumbent upon those old and obsolete structures. In the post-Cold war era, however, commerce and proliferation in weapons, such as the system that brought down MH-17, has become virtually unrestricted.
The collapse of nation states, regional instability and wars around the globe finds buyers for new and ever more terrible weaponry. Following the Malaysian Airlines disaster there has been little if any substantive discussion about limiting the proliferation of such weapons. The saddest aspect of all of this is that the avoidable and unnecessary deaths of 298 people might simply prove a demonstration of weapons capabilities, making it more attractive to despots, madmen and warlords.
Through banks of full gray and white clouds 33,000 feet below, embattled Ukraine appeared peaceful as a geometric patchwork of farms and towns elegantly carved with the telltale green of rivers and fertile tributaries. The distance and humidity near the surface deepened hues and softened lines until the land took on the character of a pastel rendering.
Somewhere just outside Snizhne, according to radio intercepts the Buk’s crew was alerted to an incoming aircraft. While indications are abundant and clear that the rebels assumed the incoming aircraft was a Ukrainian military transport there seems to have been a blatant disregard for protocols which would have allowed them to identify the plan as civilian.
Visually it may have proved difficult, even with binoculars, but the BUK system hardly relies on antiquated technology for identification. But while NATO member countries rely on the International Friend or Foe, IFF, the BUK radar has its own IFF system. According to HIS Jane’s Missiles and Rockets editor Doug Richardson:
“Although it has it own Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, this is only able to establish whether the target being tracked is a friendly aircraft. It is the electronic equivalent of a sentry calling out “Who goes there?” If there is no reply, all you know is that it is not one of your own side’s combat aircraft. It would not give you a warning that you were tracking an airliner.”
The Buk’s acquisition radar, deployed some thirty miles to the southwest in the village of Styla, allowed the rebel fighters to identify, track and target the aircraft. Whether they believed they were once again targeting a Ukrainian transport, or simply took advantage of a ready target remains unclear. Protocols, IFF, known civilian over flights, flight path, altitude, command structure and time on target removes the specter of the accidental and indicates at the very least negligence if not intention.
Once launched the fate of MH-17 was sealed. The system is highly accurate. According to Army-Technology.com, in association with Defense and Security Systems International the BUK Air Defense Missile System maintains a high kill rate at target:
A single missile can destroy tactical aircraft and helicopters with a probability between 0.9 and 0.95, while the kill probability against tactical ballistic missiles ranges between 0.6 and 0.7. The missile can operate continuously for one day with refuelling and has a tear-down time of five minutes. The missile can destroy tactical ballistic missile within the range of 20km and can kill cruise missiles at 100m altitude and within the range of 20km. It has maximum target g-load of 10g and can destroy aerodynamic targets with a maximum speed of 830m/s flying at an altitude between 0.015km and 25km, and within 3km to 45km range. The missile system can operate in temperatures up to ± 50°C and wind speeds up to 30m/s. Its maximum operating altitude above sea level is 3,000m.
The BUK system wasn’t a truck with a couple of drunk rebels roaming the countryside in search of a target. Even paired down to a smaller unit, as it may have been on that warm July day, it would have consisted of several vehicles and several operators. It had proved itself more than capable against combat aircraft and requires only about 5 minutes to set up and deploy. It can be ready to move in another five minutes after firing a missile or missiles, making it a very versatile and competent weapon of war.
What isn’t in contention is that a missile was launched, and that it was fired by someone on the rebel side. The shot was intentional.
Credible witnesses place the large and unmistakable BUK vehicle entering the neighboring town of Torez only 4 miles due south of Hrabove and just six miles (10 kilometers) west of Snizhne. Three days earlier, on the 14th a BUK system was credited with the downing of a Ukrainian Antonov-26 flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet over the town of Izvaryne outside Donetsk. Two days later above the town of Amvrosiivka, 10 miles southwest of Snizhne a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter was shot down.
“A bird is flying to you,” a spotter told a rebel commander for pro-Russian separatists in Horlivka 15 miles west of the crash sight, identified as Igor Bezlor, a mercurial man and a typical character to be found in any conflict who is all too ready to rationalize any moral and ethical transgression to war. In temperament and stature Bezlor reminds one of the late Serbian thug and warlord Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic. His features are pallid and severe, an obligatory cigarette ever present and a black cap that seems costume-like.
“Reconnaissance plane or a big one?” asks Bezlor, from his regional headquarters in nearby Gorlovka.
Bezlor, who goes by the non de guerre of “Bes,” or “demon” in Russian, reportedly was a former undertaker sacked from his job for theft. He never once disputed the authenticity of the recordings. Many of those recordings have been verified and supported by other rebels. That is backed up by the initial communications and Bezlor’s own initial tweet that indicates quite clearly that the rebels believed they had downed a Ukrainian aircraft.
As for the possibility of mistaken identity? There is no indication from the rebels that they were firing at anything other than a single target. They are very clearly heard discussing the size of the aircraft. If, in fact, there was a shadowing aircraft below or near the 777 the Buk radar would have indicated, and the battery would have had the capability of hitting both. The observation being that the rebel shooters were either eager to satisfy their commanders, and in that regard had no other perspective other than one of war. In their mind, most likely, they were tracking what they believed to be an enemy aircraft, just exactly as the released recordings reveal. The rebel leaders in those recordings have never officially acknowledged nor denied their authenticity.
The unfolding tragedy was becoming eerily similar to the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988, 26 years earlier. It seems that, like the USS Vincennes crew, which reported mistaking flight 655 for an incoming F-14 fighter, the rebels likely mistook MH-17 for an incoming Ukrainian warplane. There are other eerie similarities as well. There were 298 passengers and crew, with 50 children on board MH-17. Iran Air 655 held 290, with 66 children. Both were destroyed by surface to air missiles. In both incidents there were no survivors.
The order to fire was given, and the order was followed, apparently without question. The missile launched. There would have been no warning, no indication of the rebel missile already streaking skyward towards the aircraft at more than 2,000 feet per second. For the crew of MH-17 view from the flight deck is notoriously limited in the best of circumstances. The flight crew would have been just as surprised as anyone on board. There is a certain comfort in that realization.
On the ground at around 1:20 that afternoon residents of Torez recalled hearing loud explosions. Rostislav Grishin, a 21-year-old prison guard remembered hearing “two powerful blasts in a row. The time must be viewed as subjective. “First there was one, but then after a minute, a minute and a half, there was another discharge. I raised my head and within a minute I could see a plane falling through the clouds.” The two powerful blasts Grishin heard were undoubtedly the nearby launch of the missile followed by the detonation as the missile found its intended target.
The launch would have been powerful and thundering, followed by the long tearing crrrraaacckkk as the missile streaked skyward. Smoke and dust from the launch would have consumed briefly the massive vehicle. The roar of the launch, as recalled by a number of witnesses, carried for several miles in the rolling hills around Torez.
The 9M317 missile required a radar lock to steer it to the target. It is an awesome weapon when launched, a solid fuel rocket with a total burn time of about 15 seconds that finds it target at speeds of up to Mach 3 four times faster than MH-17 was travelling. A rebel Operator steered the missile in flight until the missiles own onboard system locked onto the airliner. For the crew on MH-17 and the passengers there would have been no warning as the missile streaked skywards at better than 2000 feet per second.
The missile is designed to detonate within 65 feet of its target. From the wreckage it is difficult to say with certainty that the missile struck the aircraft directly. A direct impact wouldn’t have been necessary. With a 154 pound high explosive fragmentation warhead an explosion anywhere near the aircraft would have been devastating. What is certain is that the explosion was catastrophic to the 777.One hour and fifty-six minutes after takeoff Malaysian Airlines flight 17 disappeared from radar screens. It was 9:11am in Washington D.C.
The missile raced up at the aircraft, passing underneath from right to left at three times the speed of sound. Just below and behind where Captain Wan Amran sat the missile exploded with a blinding flash, probably within 20 to 40 feet of the aircraft and almost directly above the town of Rozsypne. At the controls, opposite Wan Amran, Eugene Choo Jin Leong would have had no warning and no opportunity to react.
Evidence indicates that the flight deck, and first and business class cabins, bore the brunt of the explosion as thousands of pieces of Shrapnel shredded the nose and cockpit of the plane. A surviving section of the fuselage from the flight deck, with portions of the window frame, shows significant scorching and substantial shrapnel damage, including a massive hole more than a foot in diameter. The edges of that remaining piece of fuselage point to terrible damage done to the front and nose of the aircraft, which by itself would have been enough to doom the aircraft and passengers. It should be noted here that the apparent shrapnel wounds are entrance points and that no exit points have been found, which would indicate an external explosion, and that the integrity of the fuselage was breached by the decompression of the aircraft caused by the missile detonation and not a bomb as some have wrongly theorized.
The debris field is telling, and allows for a reconstruction of the moments after the explosion. The cockpit and much of the forward compartment would come to rest in and around Rozsypne. Much of the rest of the aircraft continued for another several kilometers. Indications are the aircraft began to break up immediately. Fully a third, or more than 100, of the passengers were ejected from the aircraft.
More deadly shards of steel sliced through the aircraft along its length, though the front of the craft bore the brunt. A piece of the overhead storage bins from the business class section found in a tree exhibit a number of possible shrapnel marks. A section of wing revealed what appeared to be shrapnel gouges as well. Still the damage, enough damage, had been done.
The nose tore away. The aircraft was hammered sideways, the port engine likely incapacitated or diminished, the starboard engine screaming as the plane began to turn over. Monstrous and incapacitating G-forces tore at the aircraft and the bodies within. The aircraft twisted, engines sputtering and began breaking up. The wings, engines and mid-section remained intact. A section of fuselage would fall within a thousand yards, the tail section nearby. All of them would come to rest more or less perpendicular to the line of flight.
Severe G-forces can lead to so-called gray outs caused by a lack of blood flow to the eyes, or blackouts and unconsciousness as the head is robbed of blood and oxygen. In centrifuge tests, absent fear and surprise, and far less violent g-forces than the passengers of MH-17 would have experienced, 50% of trained pilots loss sight and consciousness. In those tests pilots lost consciousness for between 5-15 seconds after G-forces were diminished, followed by another 5-15 seconds of severe disorientation. Tolerance for the effects of G-forces varies from individual to individual, depending upon height, weight, age, training and on health. The G’s the passengers would have experienced alone, not including the effects of severe oxygen deprivation, extreme cold, shock or blunt force trauma, and punishing winds in excess of an F5 tornado would have been debilitating and, in most instances, fatal for anyone on board.
Within the cabin a foggy daylight would have appeared suddenly from the front of the plane and in places where the red-hot shards of rocket casing pierced the fuselage, spreading quickly as the highly pressurized tube began tearing itself apart. It would have been the last thing, without any cognoscente understanding, the passengers would have physically perceived. Many likely succumbed to what has been deemed the ultimate whiplash, capable of separating the spine from the skull and causing instant death. A number of victims appeared to exhibit deep red collar line bruising. Death at 33,000 feet is shocking and violent, but mercifully quick.
The flight data recorder marked the moment disaster struck MH-17: Explosive decompression! Debris appears to show evidence that the starboard side of the aircraft buckled and ripped from the force of that sudden and violent decompression on the port side.
Unconscious or already deceased, passengers were flung from the aircraft into the abyss, many still strapped in their seats. The violence of that moment evident in the numbers of bodies found stripped completely of clothing. Dozens remained within what remained of the aircraft as it plummeted towards Hrabove. Several of the bodies, at least from photographic evidence, were so badly mutilated that they may have been victims of the initial blast, or were partly ingested into the failing engines. One of those bodies was recovered still wearing part of a flight attendant’s green uniform. The wounds are far different from dozens of those who fell or were scattered across the countryside, indicating different fates.
Just 45 miles and 10 minutes flight time behind MH-17, was SQ351, a Singapore Airlines flight out of Copenhagen. An Air India 787 flight 113, with 126 passengers, departing Delhi for Birmingham approaching from the opposite direction was just 25kms, or 4 minutes away. It is worth noting here why these aircraft were also not targeted, flying roughly the same route and at the same altitude, if in fact the rebel radar command and control mistook MH-17 for an enemy aircraft, why did they not make the same assumption at other aircraft following relatively closely? The BUK system was more than capable of managing multiple targets.
There was little fire, save for that initial explosion. The lack of oxygen, air temperature and speed either prevented or curtailed immediate fire. In the video of the initial explosion notable is the lack of smoke trailing from the sky. The video seems to show a light shadowy trail, but nothing more significant.
From any vantage point from Hrabove south to Pelahivka and west to Rozsypne the scene would have taken on a nightmarish cast. Witnesses were caught by surprise. “It was falling over my garden,” described one villager, “and it turned drastically and started falling in that direction.”
Oleg Georgievich, 40, a miner from Hrabove and a rebel fighter, feared the town was under attack.
“Aircraft have been flying over daily,” he told the New York Times.
Georgievich said that he heard a whistling sound, then saw part of the aircraft’s fuselage and bodies falling from the sky. Another witness described seeing the plane falling to pieces from the cloud bank with pieces flying “in all directions.”
Katya, 64, told News.au she was napping when she was awakened by “an enormous bang like an earthquake”. Katya’s son-in-law Alexander told her Flaming aircraft parts had fallen from the sky, scorching the fence around his farm and burning his grapevines.
Parts of the aircraft, cargo, luggage and bodies tumbled earthward. For the worst of it, the sickening and heart wrenching sounds as they landed, falling among woods and fields, upon roads and roof tops, many victims still strapped in their seats, would have only lasted a few moments. Those sounds partly lost to the earth shaking roar, described by katya, as the largest section of plane, including the engines and wings, exploded at the outskirts of Hrabove. Sadder still, like a ghostly repose to the dead, as thick black smoke rose and drifted with the wind, clothing, some torn from falling bodies fluttered earthward for some time.
WC Turck is an author, artist, playwright and talk radio host in Chicago. He has been called the most dangerous voice on the Left. He is currently working on a new book “Shoot Down: An unflinching look at the events leading up to the shooting down of Malaysia Air Flight 17.” His first novel, “Broken” was recommended by NAMI for its treatment of PTSD. In 2006 he published “Everything for Love,” a memoir of his experiences during the siege of Sarajevo. He wrote and produced two critically acclaimed plays, “Occupy my Heart” and “The People’s Republic of Edward Snowden.” He works with the homeless and foreclosure victims in Chicago. He partners in a weekly radio show dedicated to issues, society and politics with cohost, activist and artist Brian Murray For more information, past shows, videos and articles, visit www.revolutioandbeer.com