Concerns over why ill-fated aircraft flew over war zone
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 appeared to have been flying through ordinary and open airspace before it was ‘shot down’, according to an airline industry group.
The International Transport Association said that an initial assessment revealed that the airspace the aircraft was travelling through was ‘not subject to restrictions’.
The Malaysian Airlines flight lost contact with aircraft control when it was flying over eastern Ukraine.
The Geneva-based group said in a statement: ‘Based on the information currently available, it is believed that the airspace that the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions.’
Earlier yesterday, air accident investigators were planning to inspect the proposed flight plan lodged by pilots on board Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 to see if they flew over a warzone to save fuel.
The 17-year-old jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine despite British, European and US commercial aircraft being warned against using the airspace since April.
One of the major questions is whether the Malaysian flight crew received the warning from flight safety officials about the risk to safety.
One aviation expert revealed: ‘Malaysia Airlines, like a number of other carriers, have been continuing to use it because it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money.’
The jet was travelling at 33,000 feet at 490 knots when it disappeared from radar screens while approaching the Russian border.
It is believed that the Malaysian Airlines pilots ignored several warnings to avoid the airspace over Ukraine. It is understood the Malaysian Airline jet used the Ukrainian route to save fuel as diverting north or south would have taken longer.
In April, the European Aviation and Safety Agency warned: ‘Taking into consideration the recent publication by the Russian Federation of a series of notices to airmen (NOTAMs) modifying the Simferopol FIR which is under the responsibility of Ukraine, and their intent to provide air traffic services (ATS) within this airspace, the Agency draws the aviation communities’ attention to the possible existence of serious risks to the safety of international civil flights.
‘Due to the unsafe situation where more than one ATS provider may be controlling flights within the same airspace from 3 April 2014, 0600 UTC onwards, consideration should be given to measures to avoid the airspace and circumnavigate the Simferopol FIR with alternative routings. ‘
On July 8, the State Aviation Administration of Ukraine closed its airspace to civilian aircraft after rebels shot a military transport aircraft that was flying over 20,000 feet.
The restriction warned commercial aircraft against using Ukranian airspace.
A Notice to Airmen, seen by Mail Online warned: ‘Due to the potential for conflicting air traffic control (ATC) instructions from Ukrainian and Russian authorities and for the related potential for misidentification of civil aircraft, UK aircraft operators are strongly advised to avoid, until further notice, the airspace over Crimea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.’
The EASA supplied airlines with a list of alternative routes avoiding the conflict zone.
The US Federal Aviation Authority had also banned its aircraft from the Crimea region.
The suspected shooting down of a large passenger plane while flying at altitude presents airlines and their passengers with an extremely serious new development in air travel, according to aviation experts.
Norman Shanks, the former head of group security at airports group BAA, and professor of aviation security at Coventry University, said there had been suggestions airlines had been warned to avoid the route because of the violence below.
But many carriers continued to use it because it was shorter and therefore cheaper.
He said: ‘It is a busy aviation route and there have been suggestions that a notice was given to aviators telling airlines to avoid that particular area.
‘But Malaysia Airlines, like a number of other carriers, have been continuing to use it because it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money.
‘I expect the area will be declared a no fly zone and aircraft will have no choice but to take a different, longer route.’
Prof Shanks said it was ‘extremely unusual’ for political disputes to spill over and endanger the lives of civilians travelling in commercial flights in the skies above.
And he suggested those behind the shooting ‘deliberately’ targeted a passenger plane as it would have been obvious from its appearance that it was a commercial aircraft and posed no military threat.
He said: ‘This is probably the first time this has happened in recent history. The aircraft was flying at such a height that it is unlikely to have been a military aircraft.
‘You would be able to tell it was a civilian aircraft not a military aircraft with the naked eye because of the jet plumes behind it.
‘This would almost certainly have to be a deliberate act, for whatever reason – we can only speculate.
‘It should have been quite visible to people on the ground that it was a civilian aircraft, by the size of it and the shape of it. Anyone who has looked at a civilian aircraft or large military aircraft will know the difference.’
He said the plane’s black box could contain vital clues to help piece together what the pilots knew during their final moments in the cockpit.
But he warned that tracing the flight recorders could be very tricky as they are probably ‘now in a war zone’ somewhere in the Ukraine.
He added: ‘The pilots and passengers could well have been totally unaware that this missile was heading for them.’
If yesterday’s incident is confirmed as a deliberate act then Ukraine airspace could well be closed down, meaning diversions for UK carriers who currently fly to and over the area.
‘This could be a very serious development,’ said David Kaminski-Morrow, air transport editor of Flightglobal magazine.
He went on: ‘If reports are true, we are not talking about small-arm fire but serious weaponry. Normally even if planes fly over a war zone they can go high enough for the conflict not to be a worry.
‘Any decision about the opening or closing of Ukranian airspace will be a matter for the Ukrainians. It could well be that part or all of that airspace will now be closed.
‘Also, individual airlines, including UK carriers, could decide to detour around Ukraine.’
Mr Kaminski-Morrow continued: ‘It’s really quite incredible that it should be Malaysia Airlines involved in this, after what happened earlier in the year.
‘This is not a small airline on a faraway route. This was a major airline flying from a European destination to a capital in the Far East. There must be serious concerns about how the airline can recover from this.
‘There will obviously be political as well as aviation concerns from all this. This will run and run.’
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