Malaysia Airlines 777 Shot Down Over Ukraine

Surface-to-Air Missile Destroys 777 Jetliner. Fatality Count Makes it the 7th Deadliest Air Disaster in History.

July 21, 2014

A Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine last Thursday morning. The event has many people talking about the dangerous of commercial planes flying over hostile parts of the world.

It is fairly routine for civilian jetliners to overfly areas of conflict. Dozens of airline flights pass each day over Baghdad, for example (many of them land there). There are protocols, as you’d expect. Above restive areas, flights are restricted to particular routes, specific altitudes and airspace sectors. Large chunks of airspace are often totally off limits. Over certain countries — as was the case over Afghanistan for a while — commercial overflights might be prohibited outright. As situations on the ground change, these airspace limitations are adjusted.

Look at the typical aviation chart, meanwhile, and you’ll see military operations areas and various restricted and prohibited zones scattered all over the place. This is true even over the United States.

Compliance with these restrictions is important, but they are not difficult to follow. Thousands of flights deal with them every day. Crews don’t simply cross their fingers and hope for the best; down below, air traffic controllers are fully aware of who will be passing over, and when.

Reports that the FAA had already banned U.S.-registered jets from the area the Malaysia flight was traversing are incorrect. The zone the FAA had been worried about is well south of where MH17 was shot down, and the concerns were over communications issues, not missiles. One results of this was pushing more flights into the route that MH17 was using.

This is not the first time a civilian jetliner has been shot down — accidentally or otherwise. There have been several such incidents over the years. Most notoriously, at least until now, was the Soviet destruction of Korean Air Lines flight 007 in 1983 — a Boeing 747 flying from New York to Seoul that strayed off course — and the downing of an Iran Air Airbus A300 by the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes in 1988.

Ironically and tragically, the 298 reported fatalities from flight 17 make it the seventh deadliest disaster in aviation history — the same spot of infamy held previously by the Vincennes incident. The KAL 007 disaster was, until now, the tenth worst, meaning that three of history’s eleven worst crashes were planes brought down by missiles.

By no means does that imply we should expect or accept such things, but sadly they are not unheard of.

In a lot of respects these tragedies are less about air safety than they are about dangers and conflicts on the ground. If a government or rogue faction shoots down a commercial plane, is that really an “air safety issue”?

The consensus already is that MH17’s flight path should never have open in the first place, and the plane had no business being there. But it was open. It’s easy to say that Malaysia Airlines should have known better. However, at a certain point you have to trust the entities who job it is to determine which routes are safe and which are not. This is not the responsibility of specific airlines; it’s the responsibility of ICAO, local governments and the agencies that oversee their skies. Malaysia was one of many carriers flying through airspace deemed safe according those whose job it is to determine so.

On the other hand, perhaps greater precautions need to be taken over particularly unstable areas. Especially those areas where known anti-aircraft fire has been reported. Russia or Ukraine might say the skies above their border is safe, but perhaps that’s for others to decide. If in doubt, don’t fly there. The FAA can, at its own initiative, restrict the operations of U.S.- registered planes, as can individual airlines. The same holds true for the regulators and airlines of other countries.

Lastly, what a double-dose of agonizing luck for Malaysia Airlines. One of the world’s most highly regarded carriers has lost two Boeing 777s in less than a year’s span, with neither accident likely being its fault.



Some readers have asked me why the flight is referred to as “MH17.” This is the correct and full flight number. Flight numbers are always prefixed by a two-character airline code. The code for Malaysia Airlines is MH. In the United States we normally drop these prefixes, but they are used routinely elsewhere. This is discussed in more detail in chapter seven of my book.

The name of the airline is MALAYSIA AIRLINES. It’s not “Malaysian Airlines,” and certainly not “Malaysian Air.”

Malaysia Airlines was formed in the early 1970s after its predecessor, Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA), split to become Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. Both carriers are renowned for their outstanding passenger service and both have excellent safety records. Cabin crews of both airlines wear the iconic, floral pattern “Sarong Kabaya” batik — a adaptation of the traditional Malay kebaya blouse.

Malaysia Airlines’ logo, carried on its tails from the beginning, is an indigenous kite known as the Wau. True story: In 1993 I was in the city of Kota Bahru, a conservative Islamic town in northern Malaysia close to the Thai border, when we saw a group of little kids flying Wau kites. At the time I didn’t realize where the airline’s logo had come from, but I recognized the pattern immediately. It was one of those airline/culture crossover moments that we aerophiles really savor.

Malaysia Airlines logo


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100 Responses to “Malaysia Airlines 777 Shot Down Over Ukraine”
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  1. nianbo says:

    um Patrick, can i ask for your opinion on the MH17 conspiracy theories?

  2. Damien says:

    Doesn’t matter. The FACT that MH370 and MH17 crashed, so did others around the world, etc…will scare the shit out of most everyone who contemplates going up the flight of steps into a boeing!

    A person can say all he or she wants about this or that, or even writes an exhaustive encyclopedic volume on the “safety” of flying. The thought of a plane being blown up in the sky by a missile out of nowhere, and then sky-dive 35,000 feet down, is good enough for having second thoughts in booking a plane ticket!!

    • Eirik says:

      I wouldnt go that far, but its understandable that people with fear of flying may have second thoughts after these accidents.

      I know numbers and statistics doesnt help much if you`re already a fearful flyer, but since MH17 was shot down 11 days ago, more than 300.000 commercial flights have been completed safely. Only in the US.

  3. Eirik says:

    MH17 shot down, Air Algerie and TransAsia brought down by weather.
    462 people killed in plane crashes in just a few days.

    And all the thousands of relatives and friends being affected.

    Flights to Tel Aviv being cancelled and close to 1000 Palestinians killed lately.

    A plane being escorted back to Toronto today, followed by a SWAT team storming the plane. All due to a mentally disturbed young man making “direct threats”.

    As they were entering the plane one by one, all members of the SWAT team were shouting/repeating “HEADS DOWN, HANDS UP!!!”.
    By the way they kept repeating the message, I can only assume the passengers were confused. No wonder actually. Unless my hearing was playing me a trick it did sound like all the simultaneous SWAT yelling got it all mixed up. “Heads down…or was it hands???”.
    Can we do it all over again, one at a time now, please?

    Back in Norway there is a terrorist threat coming from somewhere. They say Syria, but details and targets are unclear. But whatever it is, I feel pretty confident that IF there is an ongoing threat, the terrorists are well informed about the authorities plans by now after all the press conferences. Thanks for the heads up.
    And in Norway its pretty easy to tell when the extra security is gone. You can tell by the police not wearing guns anymore.

    An innocent jogger was “ambushed” by police officers in Oslo (still Norway). Someone said he looked suspicious. Maybe it was because he was out running during the worst heat wave in years. I mean, who can be that crazy?? He was cleared to go, by the way.

    At Gardermoen airport in Oslo, a man was denied boarding the plane because he told the security officer his lypsyl “could be a bomb”.
    He was taken away for interrogation, his luggage removed from the plane and departure delayed by 2 hours. Thanks for the joke, asshole! Specially during these days. I should point out he was Swedish and we Norwegians always say the “swedes” are not the brightest ones (as a joke – not really).

    Anyway. The world seems pretty jumpy these days. Lots of stuff going on. As they say; when it rains, it pours.

    Whats next?

    • Rod says:

      ‘A man was denied boarding the plane because he told the security officer his lypsyl “could be a bomb”.’

      Never EVER make the mistake of assuming that these people possess even the slightest sense of humour.
      The recruiters screen them meticulously against it.

  4. JuliaZ says:

    Did anyone else watch Morning Joe on MSNBC this morning? I usually enjoy it, but this morning, they were talking about the overall safety of flying and that even with ~700 people dead in crashes in the past 6 months, flying remains the safest mode of transport. (Of course! No argument from me there).

    Then there was a clever hair-splitting of facts that bothered me. They said that the last US crash of a domestic carrier was the Buffalo, NY, crash of Colgan CLC3049 on February 12, 2009, where 50 people died. That is *technically* true, but it ignores the July 6, 2013, crash of Asiana OZ214 on approach to SFO which killed three. Yes, Asiana Airlines is not a domestic carrier, but the crash did happen here.

    Oh well. I was glad that they were not reactionary about the crashes, that they speculated very little about the Air Algerie flight crashing over a war zone (which probably had nothing to do with it), and that they pointed out that of course, Malaysia MH17 went down almost certainly because of an act of war, not any fault of the airplane or crew. They also (mis)quoted the statistic that you would have to fly daily for 60,000 days before you’d be killed in an airplane crash. I say misquoted because of course, you could be unlucky and be killed on the third or fourth day… I understood what they MEANT but it’s not what they SAID.

    Anyone else notice the piece on Morning Joe?

  5. Tom Zimmermann says:

    I just saw this interview:

    but with an error in the first line I thought. Did you fly 747s?

  6. JuliaZ says:

    And now ANOTHER plane missing and presumed crashed, the Air Algerie MD83 (AH5017) from Algeria is probably gone, given that they lost contact with it over Mali.

    It’s been a bad six months for air travel… but I’m still looking forward to my AS03 flight home from DCA tomorrow. 🙂

    • Eirik says:

      Safe travels! 🙂

      Yeah its been a bad year, one of the worst in a long time. Lets hope its back to normal soon!

  7. seth says:

    The ban of flights to Tel Aviv was not based on judgement or safety and probably had little input from those in the aviation community. How do we know this? Because nothing changed. The rockets from Gaza have been a known quantity. For weeks we have seen rockets land at distances greater than Ben Gurion airport. The fact that one got close has no bearing on the odds of when one will strike the airport or a plane. And, now, the ban has been lifted while, still, nothing has changed. Sow what was behind the ban? There may have been a little bit of concern rooted in the Ukrainian disaster but this was probably mostly a political pressure play. Israel’s business and travel industries rely heavily on travel in and out of that airport. This was a way for the US to remind Israel that pressure can be applied if Israel oversteps in its invasion of Gaza.

    Here’s what’s more interesting. If the rebels in Ukrain brought down that plane they surely regret it now. It scored them no points in terms of sympathy and support and it will undoubtedly have some painful repercussions. However, militants in Gaza would be thrilled to bring down a plane. They have little issue targeting innocents and it would be a huge PR boost for Hamas. Luckily there aren’t many militant terrorist groups with access to the equipment used in Ukrain. But what is stopping one of these groups from getting a portable, shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile and hitting a low flying plane during take-off or landing? Of the hundreds of international airports, there have to be countless locations where an ascending or descending passenger plane would be a sitting duck for a terrorist with a missile. I guess it’s not that easy because otherwise, I’m sure we’d have seen it by now.

    • Rod says:

      “This was a way for the US to remind Israel that pressure can be applied if Israel oversteps in its invasion of Gaza.”

      Interesting take. Would be nice if the US government could get a trifle less subtle.

      “Militants in Gaza would be thrilled to bring down a plane. They have little issue targeting innocents and it would be a huge PR boost for Hamas.”

      Probably hundreds of innocent Gazans have died in the past week, “targeted” or no. This is asymmetrical warfare.

      As I said above, all SORTS of goodies were swiped by jihadi wackjobs from Kaddafi’s arsenal, and it is indeed puzzling why they haven’t been turning up under the approaches to Western airports.

      Maybe good intelligence work. Though somehow …

    • Eirik says:

      Im not so sure Hamas would hit a plane, even if they had the ability. Maybe an El Al plane, but I doubt they are stupid enough to shoot down a foreign plane. Even terrorist groups have (some kind of) moral. And Hamas are depending on foreign support so that would hurt them much more than it would gain them.

      And those rockets they keep firing – from my understanding its not very sophisticated stuff. If it was, I guess we would have seen more casualties in Israel. Its more like a firework rocket; you light it up and it goes where it goes. Direction is the only thing you can predict. The one that ended up “close” to the airport, Im pretty sure it was “aimed” at something else.

  8. Eirik says:

    I dont want to jump into the Israel/Palestine conflict, but it did catch my attention when Israeli officials (joined by Bloomberg) claimed there are no risk at all flying to Tel Aviv.

    AND, they claimed it was perfectly safe to come and stay in Israel.
    Maybe so.
    But why then launch a full scale war against Palestine, killing hundreds of sivilians?

    Yes, I do know they keep firing rockets into Israel and many of them are knocked out by iron dome, but it still sound like double standard to me.

  9. Eirik says:

    As expected, the media is now “warning” about hundreds of flights passing over conflict zones daily.

    Why are they flying there? Because its safe.
    Its not like driving your car through the streets of Baghdad.

    Its like if someone chokes to death on a burger.
    Its still pretty safe to eat a burger. You dont have to go ahead and warn people.

    Their “warnings” have some effect too. A girl at my job talked about cancelling her flight next month. Shes flying from Houston to Dubai. Her flight do pass over some troubled areas, but still, no reason to cancel. It just shows what kind of effect media have on (certain) people when it comes to flying and aviation safety in general.

    • Rod says:

      Just wait till somebody somewhere uses some of the stuff that was nicked from Kaddafi’s arsenal while Libya was being “liberated”.
      We could see some very ugly crashes in the coming years.

      Meanwhile, Der Spiegel is reporting that an “influential” rebel commander (one “Alexander Chodakowski”) has stated that the missile was fired by another rebel group in another region than his own, and that they thereupon hustled all their BUKs back across the Russian border so as to cover their tracks.

      He’s also blaming Kiev for knowingly provoking the event by launching an airstrike right underneath the Mlaysian 777.

      So the plot thickens.

      • Eirik says:

        Maybe same story as I saw a few moments ago.
        Someone (I didnt get who), claimed the missile was fired from the Russian side of the border, which would make it even worse for the Russians.

        Shortest distance to Russian border from crash site is only approx 20 miles, so I guess its possible, without knowing the exact specs of that weapon.

        But then again, I can only think about North-Korea in addition to the Russians when it comes to creating crazy cover up stories.
        In that regard, the plane could not have crashed at a worse place.

  10. john Ardis says:

    Sorry, got mixed up with the stories

  11. john Ardis says:

    I really don’t think that Hüsker Dü was involved in any way.

  12. steven says:

    i am australian and have been watching reports from american, russian, and oz and bbc. out of all the stories the the only ones with any evidence is the one that seems the most likey. russian rebels (for starters they actually admitted it) some stories from Russia Today are out right absurd. Putin jet actually target !? wtf ridiculous his flight path was almost a thousand miles away!, there are a lot of crazy stories all coming from russia news sources. they are bordering on north korea levels of propoganda.

    • Pablo says:

      The Russian rebels admitted to downing the plane… In a tape released by the Ukrainians that, as far as I know, has been validated by no one. The Americans claim to have satellite images that no one else has been allowed to see, let alone verify. I still have seen no credible evidence from any side.

      Our only hope is an independent inquiry. Unless, that is, the Americans release those satellite images. Who knows, they might reveal where Saddam’s WMD are. Ooooooops. Sorry. Got carried away and forgot to forget recent history.

  13. Rod says:

    Excellent point, Pablo. That’s why I wish Obama would shut up and simply give any hard evidence he may be in possession of to the proper authorities.

    This event has hit the East-Ukraine-Rebel bandwagon like a dung-bomb.
    So the “cui bono?” question is perfectly justified.

    Therefore beware the views of Minsk or London, let alone Moscow or Washington.

  14. Pablo says:

    I just wanted to remind everybody that the Ukraine conflict is in fact a proxy war between Russia and the US, which means that any information coming, directly or indirectly, from sources linked to those countries cannot be taken at face value.
    The manipulation of the media is rife in both countries. They both have a vested interest in turning this incident into a blow to the other side.
    The link between the pro-russian side and the Russian Federation might be more transparent than the one between the Ukrainian Government and the US, but both are strong and explain a lot about what is happening in terms of (dis)information, rumours and “intelligence sources”.
    We can only wait, cross-check and be cautious.

  15. Rod says:

    That’s why Patrick has mentioned a badly managed decompression event as a plausible explanation. Though it doesn’t account, as far as I can make out, for the radical course changes of MH370.

    There were no course such changes in the Helios case, were there? And did the transponder ever stop operating? Etc?

    Someone further up was exclaiming what an unlikely string of bad luck this is for MH. Check this out:

  16. BruceR says:

    Just a point on the original article: the area closed by the FAA was over Crimea, quite a bit away from where this occurred: see map at

  17. I am truly sorry — I actually plucked my comment out of a blog post ( and now I realise that the quote removed by Rod is actually very badly inserted into this comment stream — I didn’t realise it at the time, but when I said “The very same people who murdered their loved ones are also conducting the investigation.” it was without the context of the “they” I had been referring to in my blog post.

    I had meant that the reaction from many nations had been unusually muted — ridiculously so, in my opinion. My point (if you read the whole post you’ll understand it) was that the general foot dragging by the nations whose citizens were the victims, in condemning the Russians was merely pointing to the fact that the people who are now supposed to be undertaking the investigation of what exactly happened are the same people who caused the shootdown in the first place.

    Hmm . . . even that explanation is lame, but I think you get the picture. I just meant that the murderers were setting themselves up as the judge and jury of the murders, so to speak. Which is why any mention of “justice” as voiced by Russia is a cruel joke.

    However, silence by itself is a fantastic admission of . . . something, so the longer Putin and his thugs remain mute, the worse it will be for them in the end.

    Formerly, I never viewed the guy as particularly evil, but, at least in MY mind, he has just dug his permanent grave and will have an extremely hard time wriggling his ugly way out of this one.

    Whatever criticisms you might have about the US, the NSA and the CIA, the words “brazen defiance” and “ignorance of worldwide notions of humanity’ usually don’t enter the ordinary vernacular when referring to America.

  18. Yo Moer says:

    “There has NEVER been an incident in which a commercial airliner has suddenly stopped all communications, turned off course, kept flying for hours, and crashed hundreds or thousands of miles away. Except for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.”

    Well Patrick has already mentioned time and time again another flight with similar sets of “Circumstances” too. Loss of communication, not off course but keep a holding pattern under autopilot, kept flying for hours and crashed after it ran out of fuel. And that was Helios Flight 522.

  19. I know it is ridiculous to compare, but during WWII I do believe Nazi Germany actually expressed sorrow — yes, those two words are in the same sentence — upon the downing of Glenn Miller’s plane, even though he was a legitimate target flying in a legitimate shoot-down zone.

    It’s really got to say a lot about this moment in time. Al Capone had rules. READ THAT AGAIN! Al Capone had rules. If you did not obey them, no matter who you were, you got whacked. FEDS were OFF THE LIST. Whack a Fed and YOU would get whacked.

    You may not believe me, but at the time it was very true, and several people paid with their lives.

    See, the difference between now and then is that Vladimir Putin is no Al Capone — he wishes! He dearly wishes he could be looked up to like a man like Al Capone.

    Al Capone was NO SAINT but Al Capone had ironclad rules. HITLER had ironclad rules. Do this, get whacked. It was simple as that.

    Of course, six million Jews didn’t benefit from Adolf’s rules, but there wasn’t much we could so about that then.

    There is PLENTY we can do about it now. So, what exactly ARE WE going to do about it? Wring our hands together and bemoan the lack of communication between us and Russia? Or go over there and literally, bomb the Ukraine rebels into the Stone Age.

    What’s Putin going to do? Declare war? To defend an army of semi-conscious (at best) self-proclaimed conquerors of huge swathes of territory? As plain as the nose on your face, these people are simple criminals — not “freedom fighters” or any other happy label they would append to themselves.

    Half in the bag most of the time, drunkenly aiming at objects in the sky the rest.


    These guys are wannabe rebels with little or no agenda whose strings are being pulled by Moscow.

    Do I have an agenda? Yeah, I have an agenda. Let the families have the bodies and then find out who to hang.

  20. George Williams says:

    What are the odds? The same airline losing planes to two extremely-low probability events must be far less likely than winning a major Powerball lottery. Assume 50,000 flights per day and the frequency of shoot-downs or outright disappearances as once very 10 years, well, you do the math for the combined probability of both occurrences.

  21. Speed says:

    James Fallows writes in the New York Times in part …

    “Such explicit prohibitions are critical, because the entire aviation system works on the premise that unless airspace is marked as off-limits, it is presumptively safe and legal for flight. The airlines want to minimize cost and time by going as directly as possible, and they rely on regulators to tell them where they cannot go.”

    Regulators tell them where they cannot go but the pilots and airlines decide where they can and will go.

    • Seth Knoepler says:

      Fallows has very strong feelings about this. I haven’t seen his NYT piece but on the Atlantic’s website he reproduces a graphic which shows that MH was just one of many airlines which were – in accordance with the rules that he describes – continuing to send their planes over eastern Ukraine. I’ve heard rumors that there were some airlines which, as you suggest, had decided to order their pilots to avoid the area but I’ve been having some trouble finding a reliable report of that.

      • Speed says:

        From Aviation Week …

        “Some airlines had previously decided not to fly over Eastern Ukraine. However, during a July 18 press conference, Malaysian authorities claimed that 15 of 16 member airlines from the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) were continuing to use similar routes to MH17, and stressed that it was an approved ICAO route.
        [ … ]
        “According to an earlier Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) statement, U.S. airlines had “voluntarily agreed” not to operate in the airspace near the Russian border. The agency issued a Notice to Airman (NOTAM) on April 3 prohibiting U.S. airline flights over the Crimea and some parts of Ukraine adjacent to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The FAA says the restrictions did not apply for the airspace in which MH17 operated, confirming earlier statements by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

        No detail about who or when but the full article has more on the exact restrictions and who issued them.

        The FAA press release is unclear as to whether the US airline voluntary restriction happened before or after the shootdown.

        “The FAA was in contact with US carriers following the crash of Malaysian Air Flight 17. The agency confirms that carriers have voluntarily agreed not to operate in the airspace near the Russian-Ukraine border. The FAA is monitoring the situation to determine whether further guidance is necessary.”

        On one hand, you can say that the airline and crew have final (!) responsibility for the safety of the flight. On the other hand neither has the assets or expertise necessary to evaluate this kind of risk. By issuing specific no-fly zones, the ICAO and other government bodies give the appearance of having such expertise. We now know that they did not.

  22. Rod says:

    N. Robinson: “The very same people who murdered their loved ones are also conducting the investigation.”

    Got any proof???

    G: “The separatists and Putin have not expressed any sympathy for the victims or their loved ones.”

    The Russian cabinet yesterday stood for a minute’s silence in memory of the 777 victims. Make of that what you will.
    My suggestion would be to move away from the US media as your sole source of information

    My question is whether the Ukrainian SAM system is one bit different from the Russian one.
    And even if it is, is it possible that the Ukrainians were in possession of even one fireable (even from an airplane) Russian missile.

    Because as long as either of these is the case, the Russians will be able to plausibly claim that they are being framed.
    And who could prove they weren’t?

    The only way would be credible primary-radar recordings showing a missile rising from rebel-held territory and headed toward the Malaysian 777.

  23. G says:

    At this point (11:08PM Pacific time, 19 July), the facts as reported by respectable media point to the conclusion that Russian separatists shot down the airliner with a Buk missile system, and appear to have mistaken it for a military aircraft.

    What is disturbing to my (American) sense of morals, is that the separatists and Putin have not expressed any sympathy for the victims or their loved ones, but have focused on denying responsibility. This strikes me as callous to the point of “beyond the pale,” and aggressive and provocative.

    Yes I would pay additional costs for flights on aircraft equipped with anti-missile technology. $50 additional per ticket for a coast-to-coast flight would be reasonable and should be profitable for airlines.

    Keyword search “superempowered individuals” and read up. John Robb, USAF intel (ret.), believes that high tech weaponry will inevitably percolate down to the level of subnational groups, small groups, and individuals. A Buk system in the hands of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine qualifies under that definition. It is only a matter of time before international terrorist groups have the means to shoot down airliners, even if only within short distances of airports. The way to prevent that is to get ahead of the tech curve by equipping airliners with appropriate defenses.

    Meanwhile if Putin wants to demonstrate that he is not in league with those who committed this act, he should immediately cooperate with the Ukraine gov to gain protected access to the site for international investigators, and should seek to bring to justice those who were directly responsible. If he does not do those things, it’s reasonable to conclude he is protecting the terrorists. Either way, international diplomatic and economic factors will have to come into play. I would rather we not descend into a new Cold War, but neither can we let something like this go without consequences.

  24. Oh. Now it appears that people are actually getting umm . . . fed up with letting their loved ones’ body parts resting, undergoing peculiar tans in the noonday sun while still strapped in the seats they fell 33,000 feet down in.

    Hmm. Apart from the fact that an involuntary ride in a narrow airplane seat that starts at 585 mp/h and ends in, well, ZERO, the last part occurring at a force of about 7,000 Gs — the equivalent of being hit by a bullet train while being strapped into a seat on the tracks . . . all the while being denied drinks and having tray tables out of operation with NO intercom explanation to boot — well, the relatives are beginning to chafe and change the channels, not willing any more to watch the end of that rerun of I Dream of Jeannie in favor of I Dream of Putin’s Moldering Corpse, which, unfortunately was cancelled after only ten minutes because of Katherine Heigl’s first tantrum on set.

    Strangely enough, it appears that they want answers. This is lamentable, because the very same people who murdered their loved ones are also conducting the investigation — such as it might be termed (in your dreams.)

    This plane crash makes the Tans Peru crash (aren’t you glad I have a mind like a steel trap and can actually remember the name of the obscure airline company involved in this horror?) look like a kid smashed his front-loader Tonka Tough Truck into his friend’s Dinky Mini Cooper.

    The Tans Peru crash, you will remember, was some 767 that crashed in the jungles of Peru and before the bodies had even gotten cold the locals were stealing everything in sight, including the flight recorders, which had to be bribed back for $5,000 and ended up showing nothing because the vaquero that stole them took them apart to see what he could get out of them.

    Here it seems like they’ve just been spirited away by idle “third parties” whose “main interests” are having them flown to Moscow, where they can be “accurately tested.”

    That’s like Hitler in March, 1945, suddenly setting up an inquiry about “What happened to all those hooked-nose fellows I used to get my bagels from?”

    Putin should be strapped to a chair TOMORROW and have 10,000 volts conducted from his balls to his big brain and THEN be interrogated.

    They could bottle the smoke from the proceedings and call it “Putin’s Last Dance.”

    Guy’s gotta make a living.

  25. Rod says:

    Agreed. But the watchword is circumspection.

  26. Rod says:

    We should be wary of anything said at this point by Interested Parties (including the US). Here’s a list of questions from a very interested party. Still, they are questions (heavily freighted with allegation, OK, but questions nonetheless). Serious answers wouldn’t go amiss.

    1. Immediately after the tragedy, the Ukrainian authorities, naturally, blamed it on the self-defense forces. What are these accusations based on?

    2. Can Kiev explain in detail how it uses Buk missile launchers in the conflict zone? And why were these systems deployed there in the first place, seeing as the self-defense forces don’t have any planes?

    3. Why are the Ukrainian authorities not doing anything to set up an international commission? When will such a commission begin its work?

    4. Would the Ukrainian Armed Forces be willing to let international investigators see the inventory of their air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles, including those used in SAM launchers?

    5. Will the international commission have access to tracking data from reliable sources regarding the movements of Ukrainian warplanes on the day of the tragedy?

    6. Why did Ukrainian air traffic controllers allow the plane to deviate from the regular route to the north, towards “the anti-terrorist operation zone”?

    7. Why was airspace over the warzone not closed for civilian flights, especially since the area was not entirely covered by radar navigation systems?

    8. How can official Kiev comment on reports in the social media, allegedly by a Spanish air traffic controller who works in Ukraine, that there were two Ukrainian military planes flying alongside the Boeing 777 over Ukrainian territory?

    9. Why did Ukraine’s Security Service start working with the recordings of communications between Ukrainian air traffic controllers and the Boeing crew and with the data storage systems from Ukrainian radars without waiting for international investigators?

    10. What lessons has Ukraine learned from a similar incident in 2001, when a Russian Tu-154 crashed into the Black Sea? Back then, the Ukrainian authorities denied any involvement on the part of Ukraine’s Armed Forces until irrefutable evidence proved official Kiev to be guilty.

    • Yoni says:

      This flock of questions tactic shows that RT’s propagandists are far more skilled than the clueless hacks of the former USSR.

      Radio conversations allegedly between pro-Russian rebel commanders were released by Kiev and broadcast by the BBC. If they are authentic then the blame is clearly on the rebels and by extension on the Russian government for supporting and equipping them.

      As The Pilot says, we should reserve judgment until a lot more is known, but it’s not looking good for Russia at this point.

    • BruceR says:

      My favorite: “2. Can Kiev explain in detail how it uses Buk missile launchers in the conflict zone? And why were these systems deployed there in the first place, seeing as the self-defense forces don’t have any planes?”

      Given that a Russian jet reportedly shot down a Ukrainian attack jet in Ukrainian airspace three days ago, the real question would be why wouldn’t they? ( Don’t let the facts stop you from your spinning for RT, though.

  27. toBryan says:

    Malaysia Airlines is a government run airline. So other than perhaps a rebranding, name change and color scheme change, they will not be going out of business any time soon.

    JUst FYI, Malaysian Airlines has been running “into the red” for a while now (more than 5 years, I believe. The only time they did get a profit was when Airbus had to defer their A380s and make some reimbursements or something like that. Again, this is something off the top of my hat, a little more research would get a more accurate facts)

  28. Dave K. says:

    Another irony related to this terrible tragedy: the downed B777 (9M-MRD) had it first flight on 7-17-97, its unfortunate last flight on 7-17-14, exactly 17 years to the day later…as Malaysia Flight 17.

  29. Bryan says:

    Patrick, or anyone who knows, I have a more airline industry related question: with these two accidents, is there the possibility Malaysia Airlines could go out of business? Here’s why I ask…

    After 2 accidents like this, I would expect ticket sales AKA revenue to drop somewhat significantly. I would also expect Malaysia Airline’s insurance costs and premiums to skyrocket. I believe they are also the defendant in some civil suits and will likely have to pay out some sizeable settlement payments due to MH370 (and possibly MH17 if anyone there decides to sue). With the margins in the airline industry already being so small, I expect their balance sheet to swing into the red.

    Too much of that, and well, bankruptcy, liquidation, etc.

    Is this likely, or am I way off?

    • JuliaZ says:

      MH is state-backed, so presumably they have deeper pockets than a LCC does, but of course, no country’s people have unlimited cash. I really feel for the leadership of this airline as they have apparently run a solid, safe, well-respected airline for many years, and you could argue that this year, they’ve had a major bit of bad luck… though we could also argue over whether or not flying over an area where a war is known to be raging and where planes have been shot down in the past few weeks is wise and being the next one shot down is “unlucky,” or if it is the obvious result of poor risk analysis.

      The airline seems likely to run way into the red but I’m not sure what will happen with their insurer. I look forward to Patrick’s insights here.

  30. […] Eastern Ukraine, I highly recommend that you read Patrick Smith’s posting on the subject in his Ask the Pilot blog in preference to listening to the mainstream media pundits bloviating about unsupportable […]

  31. Vinny Noggin says:

    It baffles me that humans and Patrick are upset about this. What did they would happen? And so they whine…

    Got it!

  32. Speed says:

    From Flightglobal …

    “Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 had been operating 1,000ft above the upper limit of closed airspace at the time of its disappearance over eastern Ukraine.

    “Pan-European air navigation service Eurocontrol states that the aircraft was flying at 33,000ft when radar contact was lost.

    “It states that the route had been closed by Ukrainian authorities up to 32,000ft.

    “But the route was “open at the level at which [MH17] was flying”, says Eurocontrol.

    [ … ]

    “Eurocontrol says the upper airspace closure limit has been withdrawn and that this closes all routes in the Dnipropetrovsk airspace.

    “All flight plans that are filed using these routes are now being rejected,” says Eurocontrol. ‘The routes will remain closed until further notice.’

  33. JuliaZ says:

    Other carriers re-routing:

    This is an interesting blog post, wondering if air travel is too safe: It echoes some of the things that Patrick has said before, and has some interesting statistics as well.

  34. Roger says:

    The colours of the Ukraine flag and of Malaysian airlines look very similar to me. Not everyone has perfect vision, especially something at least 10km away. Do airlines do anything to make their planes look unambiguously civilian from the ground?

    For example Emirates makes that clearly visible on their planes,_Christchurch,_19_Nov._2010_-_Flickr_-_PhillipC.jpg while it looks like Malaysian doesn’t

    • Ed says:

      Really? The Ukrainian flag is yellow and blue. Malaysian Airlines’ livery is red/white/blue, as is the Malaysian flag. I’ve lived in Ukraine, and the two color families aren’t remotely similar in my view.

  35. Reader says:

    Was Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 1103 shot down in 1992, too? Seems to be conflicting accounts of the incident.

  36. Speed says:

    Two hours ago …

    “The NTSB will send 1+ investigator to Ukraine. Details TBD. Response will be guided by events as they unfold. #MH17.”

  37. seth says:

    This is a good question. But to be more specific, this was not just a region with armed conflict. This is a region where in the previous days there were multiple reports of anti-aircraft activity.

    • JuliaZ says:

      I have to agree with this… this wasn’t just an administrative difficulty of air traffic control jurisdiction (even if that’s what the FAA’s restrictions were based upon), the separatist fighters have shot down other planes in the past few weeks and they haven’t demonstrated incredible powers of perception… they’re just shooting planes down and therefore, I would not want to be a plane in that area. They have bragged about getting these surface to air missiles publicly and have also made their “kills” known. To me, this is kind of like not sailing where you know there are lots of pirates boarding ships, unless you’re fully armed and have lookouts posted for pirates at all times… and regular passenger jets just aren’t equipped to sense and evade missiles fired from the ground (and I hope we are not entering a time when such equipment is considered necessary). I’d rather see the airlines re-route a bit and spend a little more for fuel; tack on a “terrorist-avoidance fuel surcharge” if necessary! I’d pay! That doesn’t seem like stupid reactionary crap along the lines of removing shoes for the TSA. 🙂

      Seriously, RIP and I do feel terribly sorry for the people who are doing their best at Malaysia Airlines. They must be so demoralized by this, and in large part, it’s not their fault.

      • Seth Knoepler says:

        Both this post and the James Fallows article which Smith points to are emphatic about the fact that the “rules of the road” require airlines and pilots to be aware of any restrictions that have been imposed by the appropriate national and international authorities. And they both insist that no airline or pilot who faithfully fulfills those responsibilities should be faulted when something like this happens. Those businessweek links are to articles about airlines which are now avoiding the area. However, I’ve heard that some airlines had already decided on their own to avoid this area. Do you happen to know whether that’s true?

      • Curt Sampson says:

        All of the aircraft that had been shot down previous to this one were flying at a much lower altitude, and were taken out with man-portable anti-aircraft missiles that are not capable of reaching anywhere near the altitude the airliner was travelling at.

        There are other types of air-defense system that would be perfectly capable of taking out an airliner were it flying a couple of hundred kilometers away from the launch site.

        Any “stay out of this area for safety” directives are inevitably a compromise, and perfect safety cannot be achieved at a reasonable cost. From everything I’ve seen so far, assuming that the rebels both had no interest in shooting down civilian aircraft and did not have access to the weapons to do so anyway was not an unreasonable assumption.

  38. Francesco says:

    Patrick you should also mention the Ustica massacre in Italy: a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15 shot down by a missile, probably coming from a french Mirage during a NATO training or while trying to hunt down Gheddafi. I invite you to read about that if you haven’t yet, being Italian makes very emotionally involved especially when similar things still happen. May their souls all rest in peace, God bless those angels.

    • Rod says:

      Yes, I have also been thinking of the Itavia crash. By the way, apparently there were a Fench AND an American aircraft carrier in the area, thus adding to the confusion.
      So that may be two commercial airliners shot down by the US navy. We’ll never know.

      • Achilles says:

        The Ustica massacre was not a missile, but a bomb. Air Crash Investigation, season 13, #7. Seems the Italian court system declared it a missile, while the scientists who actually proved the cause said bomb.

        • Francesco says:

          Not true. The DC9 was shot from a french missile, coming from either a Mirage or a submarine, and was able to make a sea landing. The SAS after sank it down with explosives. Read here (you might want to translate this through google translate)

          • Rod says:

            For what it’s worth, Wikipedia has this to say: “Parts of the discovered wreckage showed telltale signs of an outside explosion – some outer skin parts were shown to have blast residue on the outside with the metal curved inwards, uncharacteristic of a bomb (which would have curved the metal outwards as the force would have come from inside the plane outwards instead of out to in, like in the case of a missile). However, other pieces – especially the area around the rear lavatory, showed many signs of a bomb that exploded inside, such as the deformities of the surrounding support beams situated around the lavatory in question. (…) Aviation Week and Space Technology reported that damage had been found consistent with a continuous-rod warhead, which would have had to have come from an anti-aircraft missile.”
            So go figure.
            See also Gadddafi-related speculation in same article.

  39. RevZafod says:

    Well, Patrick, this even-handed thoughtful analysis shows why you’ll never make it in what passes for journalism today. But, as the commenters at Wonkette say, it would be irresponsible not to speculate.

    It appears that some intercepts from radio or phone transmissions target Russian separatists in Ukraine as the culprits. I’ll wait to see if this pans out, but if so, it shows the dangers posed by major powers allowing untrained people not under their direct chain of command, to acquire and use such weapons. If that is true, it redounds directly back to Putin as the one who let the cannons loose.

    But again, as The Pilot said, let’s all calm down and wait for the facts.

  40. Hate to be reactionary — it’s about as much in my blood as it must be in Patrick’s. But in today’s schizoid world of technology, terrorism and trigger fingers, perhaps many airlines — not all, but many — should consider the extra step of installing the anti-heat-seeking missile technology that we know, for example, El Al has.

    I’m not much up on exactly what that technology is, but I’ve heard that it’s the kind that detects incoming weapons and automatically deploys decoys — much like the aluminum chaff that the British Air Force used in WWII.

    I understand that even a $1.5 million extra expenditure on a modern aircraft would be a possibly completely unnecessary, even extravagant outlay for some airlines — sardine carriers like RyanAir come to mind — but when a new 777, say, might cost an airline $175 million per PLANE (pulling numbers out of my hat) — what is an extra $1.5 million going to hurt, to defend against now worldwide and ubiquitous armaments like MANPADS and other various hardware that are circulating amongst our li’l jihadi buddies?

    Hell, Iraq must have liberated about 5,000 SAMs alone (again, numbers from hat) so one can assume the bad guys, if they REALLY REALLY wanted to — not saying it would be easy — could bring down a 747 flying out of uh . . . MONTREAL if they so chose.


    Yes. I know the possibilities are closer than finding an exoplanet upon which Abraham Lincoln’s duplicate still rules, but my point is, like as in installing UNTURNOFFABLE TRACKING HARDWARE ON EVERY COMMERCIAL AIRCRAFT CARRYING MORE THAN 100 SOULS, it’s time we took a hard look at the tombstone economics — after all, by this time next year, is Malaysia Airlines even going to exist? and really do like the Israelis are doing, even if it costs an extra $15 per passenger per flight. *I* would be more than willing to switch equipment from a 777 NOT equipped with anti-missile technology to one that DOES. And I know a lot of other people would too.

    The world has changed. For sure, let’s not let one little megapower’s mistaken shootdown of a major carrier’s state-of the-tech airplane into 295 x 1000 scattered body parts alarm us, but at the same time, let it be a warning to the carriers that are NOT Ryan Air that investing those few extra bucks in the long run might help prevent $500 million in insurance payouts plus the possible (now probable) bankruptcy of a previously extremely dependable airline.

    Just sayin’.

    • Eirik says:

      Luckily this kind of threat is not that widespread yet.
      Knock on wood, I dont think we will see a similar incident involving a commercial jet during the next 10 years. Airlines are proably thinking the same way, so thats why they dont see the need for this kind of equipment.

    • g says:

      “But in today’s schizoid world of technology, terrorism and trigger fingers, perhaps many airlines — not all, but many — should consider the extra step of installing the anti-heat-seeking missile technology that we know, for example, El Al has”

      Note that the Buk missile system – one of the likely candidates for “what shot down this plane” – is radar-based, not heat-seeking.

    • Henry says:

      A new 777-9X is listed at US$377.2 million so yeah an extra 1.5 million (its all relative) shouldn’t be out of the question.

  41. Really tough situation for MH, and so sad for the pax poor families. that would be a very shocking thing to have to absorb.

  42. Eirik says:

    Media is still asking the question “who is behind this brutal attack?”. Maybe its just a figure of speech, but I hope they dont think whoever did this acted intentionally.

    Or Im sure they did, but they didnt know they shot down a foreign commercial jet.

    Say what you want about the Russians or Ukrainians, but they would never shoot down a foreign airplane like this.

    • Bryan says:

      My goodness Eirik I seem to be replying to you again, but I’m afraid your info is wrong again. In 1983, the Soviets intentionally shot down Korean Air flight 007 as it was flying into Russian airspace in eastern Russia. That incident was air-to-air, and there is authentic audio of the communication between the Russian fighter pilot and his bosses on the ground. The fighter pilot knew it was a Boeing passenger jet, relayed this back to his superiors, and was given the order to shoot the plane down anyway.

      Russia is currently slipping down a very slippery slope and into dangerous territory. They are becoming more isolationist and aggressive, and as a result are being cutoff from the rest of the world (they’re no longer a member of the G8 for instance), and for good measure.

      While this is most likely an accident and the Pro-Russian separatists were likely thinking it was a military plane, I would not put it past Russia to do something like this intentionally. These separatists are now squarely in the ‘terrorist’ category and will get no sympathy on the world stage. They’ve hurt their cause immensely, have forced NATO and the U.N.’s hand, and their movement needs to be squashed before it escalates. As of right now they cannot be taken seriously.

      • Rod says:

        Whoooah there. 007 was shot down because it was wayyyyy off course (not the first time with Korean Air involving the USSR by the way — which made it all the more suspicious) and approaching an extremely sensitive military area at the height of the Cold War. Which explains — while not excusing — why it was shot down.

        Nothing of the sort is the case today.

      • Eirik says:

        Replies are welcome, would be boring if we all agreed.
        But I agree with Rod on this one. It was a different time back then. Today its much more transparent and almost impossible to get away with such an act. Not that they got away with it back then, but anyway.

        Putin may be responsible in the end for giving them such weapons, but I strongly doubt he would approve shooting it down if he knew it was a MA passenger jet and they asked him if they were good to go. Or any other commercial jet for that matter.
        Maybe except a Ukrainian jet…

        I mean, why would they do that? Nothing good would ever come from it, and they know that much, at least.

        • Bryan says:

          Rod and Eirik, very true. I guess I was letting exaggeration get the best of me. I definitely agree that there cannot possibly be a way that Putin would have personally okayed shooting down a commercial jet. And in this case I certainly don’t think he did. This specific case seems to be an instance of trigger happy pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine mistaking a civilian aircraft for a military one and firing a Russian provided missile at it.

          And just a quick note: Unfortunately, credible news sources, intelligence agencies, and even Obama in his presser today, pointed the finger at the Russian backed separatists in Ukraine. So it seems like this case is moving quickly from theories and speculation into fact. I highly doubt the President would lay blame if we weren’t 99.9% sure who was responsible.

          • Eirik says:

            “…trigger happy pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine mistaking a civilian aircraft for a military one”.

            Exactly what Ive been thinking. Or trying to say 🙂

            As time goes by I can only imagine how pissed off Putin must be.
            But in the end, he can only blame himself for being irresponsible.
            It seems like if he wants to stand on the sideline and blame any wrongdoing on the rebels (“wasn`t me…”).
            This one though, he cant run away from.

            Russia always felt they are being misunderstood by the rest of the world (not without reason though). They have been struggling with internal political mess (still are), free press are not tolerated, Chechnya conflict and now Ukraine, among other things.

            At the same time, they want to be accepted by the rest of the world. Its not like North-Korea whos totally in their own bubble and could not care less what the world think of them.
            Russia just hosted the winter olympics and in 2018 they will host the FIFA world cup. They are, sometimes desperately, searching for acceptance.

            Shooting down a commercial jet is the last thing they need.
            I wont be surprised if the guy who pulled the trigger will end up somewhere in Siberia.

            This was a bit on the side, but oh well.

        • dude says:

          It’s entirely possible that the separatists/federalists captured a unit from the Kiev forces – they have taken many bases, including missile bases, from the Ukrainian army. Kiev itself has been inconsistent in its statements about this, and the current story is that no anti-aircraft equipment such as the Buk has fallen to the s/f forces – though earlier reports suggested that such units were abandoned but supposedly decommissioned so that they would be inoperable. We may never know who fired, or if the s/f forces are ultimately responsible for this tragedy, the source of the Buk equipment. It would be nice if all the pols would chill on the accusations, but I guess that’s not the world we live in…hopefully this will not lead to a direct conflict between NATO and the Russian Federation because we then might not have long to live in this sad and imperfect world. Thoughts and/or prayers for the innocent victims….

      • Mark R. says:

        My recollection of KAL 007 is the Soviets thought it was the NSA spy plane that was doing figure 8 loops outside their airspace (and passed next to the 747, causing the Soviets to think the NSA plane had entered their airspace pretending to be the civilian plane). Doesn’t excuse anything but it wasn’t an intentional destruction of a target known to be civilian. KAL 007 overflew land when they should have stayed over the ocean, something that would be hard to explain as unintentional. They overflew some of the most sensitive military sites in eastern Russia and the incursion caused the air defense system to light up, activate radars and intercept procedures, which was an intel bonanza for the USA. Two books, might be hard to find now: “Shootdown: Flight 007 and the American Connection” by R.W. Johnson and “KAL 007: The Coverup, why the true story has never been told” by David Pearson.

        Regarding the tragedy this week, the Russian backed rebels did it theory seems compelling today, it might or might not be the truth.

        • Bryan says:

          Mark, I don’t disagree with what you said, and I’m a bit guilty of lying by omission. You are right, I believe KAL 007 was indeed off course a bit and in a place it shouldn’t have been.

          But there is this quote from the Russian pilot who shot the plane down:
          “I saw two rows of windows and knew that this was a Boeing. I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use…”

          So, the Russians knew that it was a civilian model plane. Whether they shot it down anyway and there was a cover up OR they truly did think it had been converted to a military plane, I guess that secret is in a file somewhere locked in the Kremlin.

          Regardless, among the Russians there seems to be a shoot first and ask questions later mentality.

          • Goks says:

            Bryan, when you fly an interceptor, your job is not to question what the plane looks like. it is to seek and destroy. He already had his instruction to shoot as he was scrambled.

            if he was on in interception mission, that is when he flies alongside the aircraft and calls the pilot on the guard frequency (as we see in the movies). The fact that there was an American spy plane in the vicinity (made the Russians to shoot 1st & ask questions later). We can argue whether its right or wrong but the fact that KAL 007 was wayyyyy off course was the decider. There was another KAL flight about 2hrs behind. When the captain of 007 said he had a tail wind, the other pilot was wondering which course he was flying as they had a head wind (either way, one of the aircraft had a tail wind, the other a head wind).

          • Joe Chew says:

            One source of the direct quote used by Bryan re KAL 007 is this article, in which the interceptor pilot (by then a disgruntled pensioner) lays out what he knew, and what he did and did not tell his ground controllers:

  43. Aaronm says:

    Great piece, informative, but not sensationalist.

    One thing though, it is my understanding that the FAA prohibition wasn’t due to the fighting, but to a dispute over who was providing air traffic control over the area, which is not really relevant to this situation (unless it turns out that there was another aircraft involved)

  44. Henry says:

    Great piece. I really respect your writing and find your experience, restraint, and knowledge refreshing in this era of instantaneous journalism. I was watching the NBC special report immediately after this incident (clip can be found here: and the anchor, Tom Costello, said “This plane is designed to fly regardless of what kind of situation it comes up against or the quality of the pilot in the cockpit.” Yet another reporter who is under the impression that planes fly themselves. I found his comments to be so ignorant and insulting to pilots. If only more people had the journalistic integrity of you and actually knew what they were talking about.
    Absolutely tragic story. I send my deepest condolences to family and friends of the passengers and crew. RIP

    • Eirik says:

      To be fair to Mr Costello, I dont think they knew at this point that the plane was shot down. Obviously hes not suggesting that an airplane should be able to stay in air after being hit by a missile.

      He did mention B777`s excellent safety record and that these numbers have been destroyed during the last year (Asiana in SF and the two MA planes). As we know, neither of those accidents are related to the airplane itself.

      • Bryan says:

        We actually don’t know that MH370 wasn’t a result of a malfunction with the plane. In fact, and I may wrong here, isn’t that the leading theory at the moment? All the other theories, such as pilot suicide and terrorism seem to have been ruled out. The triple 7 is still an extremely safe plane obviously, though I think my confidence in it has been shaken somewhat.

        • Rod says:

          “We actually don’t know that MH370 wasn’t a result of a malfunction with the plane. In fact, and I may wrong here, isn’t that the leading theory at the moment? All the other theories, such as pilot suicide and terrorism seem to have been ruled out.”

          Yes, you are wrong. Of course, nobody knows (that I know of), but pilot suicide best fits the known facts, which admittedly are sketchy.

          • Bryan says:

            Rod, I’m not so sure. Patrick has talked about it many times here about how pilot suicide is very far fetched. By all accounts from the people who knew them, the pilots of MH370 loved flying, had a lot to live for, and were psychologically sound of mind. Also, the question remains, why would a pilot commit suicide 6 hours into a flight?

            So far, the best theory I have heard (and I forget where I heard it–but Patrick has talked about on this site and seems to agree) is this: warm night, overloaded plane, under-inflated front tire. Take off causes the rubber tire to smolder and burn, with smoke and fumes seeping into the cockpit. The pilots recognize the dire situation, turn the plane back to KL, but its too late. The cockpit has filled with smoke, the pilots pass out and never regain consciousness, the plane is on autopilot, and rather than landing, it flies on over the Indian Ocean until it runs out of fuel and crashes.

            All the facts available line up with this theory. All the theories, including pilot suicide, require you to overlook the evidence in front of us, and make up evidence that isn’t there.

            Right now, a malfunction or failure of the aircraft is the most likely cause.

          • Patrick says:

            I don’t feel the idea of pilot suicide was very far fetched. It remains a distinct possibility and has been from the start. I just don’t agree that it’s the best possibility. And I don’t think the media’s “evidence” (the captain had a hobby sim in his house) has been all that meaningful or persuasive.

          • Rod says:

            “By all accounts from the people who knew them, the pilots of MH370 loved flying, had a lot to live for, and were psychologically sound of mind.”

            By all accounts (wikipedia’s anyway:, “a fellow pilot and long-time associate of Capt. Shah stated the captain was ‘terribly upset’ that his marriage was falling apart.”

            “Also, the question remains, why would a pilot commit suicide 6 hours into a flight?”

            Easy — to put it where it will never be found. (And it hasn’t been, so far.)

            Patrick: “I just don’t agree that (suicide is) the best possibility.”
            OK, what is the best possibility at this point?
            I realize this is a column on MH17 and not 370. But I’m curious to know what better fits the known facts than pilot suicide.

          • Yo Moer says:

            The MH370 “he got a computer sim at home, he must have (bad) motives to have it” theory is just blown out of proportion.

            I think Patrick has already mentioned many times pilots are passionate about flying. And for many, outside their jobs, they do like to feed their passion either flying other real aircrafts or in a sim as a hobby.

            The analogy is Formula 1 drivers, which is the pinnacle of motorsports. Yet with their dream jobs they do still go rallying or other motorsports out of seasons; or play racing videogames at home with friends or even other known F1 drivers. Yeah, they must be plotting a terrorist attack or suicide in some race course in the future if you apply the media’s logic.

          • Matthew Barich says:

            Here is what people don’t understand about the pilot suicide hypothesis:

            It is extremely rare for a pilot to deliberately crash a commercial airline flight, but it has happened before, on several occasions.

            There has NEVER been an incident in which a commercial airliner has suddenly stopped all communications, turned off course, kept flying for hours, and crashed hundreds or thousands of miles away. Except for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

            If you put it in perspective, it would not be surprising that it is a pilot suicide.

            The pilot suicide hypothesis is the only one that fits the facts.

            To the people who think it might be a fire, read about Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 and ValuJet Flight 592. If there were a fire severe enough to suddenly disable the aircraft’s communication and tracking systems without warning, the plane would crash within minutes. (Even with those crashes, the pilots were able to send distress calls.) And how would it leave the ACARS satellite communication system still partially functional (able to send pings)?

            And if there were a decompression, the proper course of action would be to immediately dive to an altitude where the air is thick enough to breathe, not turn off course. And that doesn’t explain how the aircraft’s communication and tracking systems were disabled.

            “And I don’t think the media’s “evidence” (the captain had a hobby sim in his house) has been all that meaningful or persuasive.”

            That’s not the only, or even the main, evidence. The plane suddenly stopped all radio transmissions, except for ACARS satellite pings. The plane then turned off course. And it continued flying for many hours, and crashed into the Southern Indian Ocean.

            That the captain had a flight simulator is not suspicious. And that he used it to simulate a flight to the Southern Indian Ocean is not suspicious — by itself. But taking into consideration all of the other evidence, it gives additional support to the already probable hypothesis that the captain deliberately crashed the plane.

          • Yo Moer says:

            @Matthew Barich

            “There has NEVER been an incident in which a commercial airliner has suddenly stopped all communications, turned off course, kept flying for hours, and crashed hundreds or thousands of miles away. Except for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.”

            Well Patrick has already mentioned time and time again another flight with similar sets of “Circumstances” too. Loss of communication, not off course but keep a holding pattern under autopilot, kept flying for hours and crashed after it ran out of fuel. And that was Helios Flight 522.

          • AA says:

            Helios lost communications with ATC. But the transponder kept working. And the malfunction was not catastrophic, but a simple matter of an incorrect setting. I just don’t imagine anything that can be so catastrophic as to disable multiple communication systems, passengers, and crew at precisely the worst possible moment (between transition from one country’s ATC to another), but not crash the plane for hours during which the plane intentionally maneuvers around several countries. Again, Helios is not apt here because Helios flew a pre-programmed course. Not so with MH-370.

  45. Eirik says:

    Patrick; Is there any way the pilots would be able to see this incoming object on their radar?

    Of course, they were at cruise altitude so Im guessing their eyes would not be glued to the radar screen anyway – but IF they looked at it, would it show up?

    Im not suggesting they would try any manuever to avoid it if they saw it (impossible as that is for a commercial jet), but just wondering if they would be able to see it. Obviously its only a matter of seconds from launch to hit with this kind of weapon so maybe impossible?

    • Yo Moer says:

      Not even a remote chance they’d see it on radar, this isn’t a videogame or movie.

      1) Commercial jets and even jet fighters only have a forward facing radar. Thus only see a limited patch in front of the airplane.
      2) The ones on commercial flights are Doppler/weather radars which detect storms and weather, not small objects.
      3) They do swepts at intervals. Even if it could detect something, anything fast enough would sneak inbetween swepts. Even some Airport ATC radars have difficulties tracking something flying supersonic.
      4) You’re thinking of something called RWR and other sensors on combat jets. Something not installed on commercial jets, except Airforce One and the such. And how they work is another story.

      • Eirik says:

        “…this isn’t a videogame or movie.”

        Glad we cleared that up.
        Thanks for the rest of the information.

        • Tim says:

          Why fly over an area of armed conflict if you don’t have to? Would it really cost too much in extra fuel to route a flight a hundred miles to the north or south as a pilot on another website indicated?

          In this case it is known that countries involved in the conflict could easily have advanced missile systems in the area. The conflict was escalating with several planes being shot down, although not by the same systems that could reach 30,000 feet. I would think the area is best avoided.

  46. Eirik says:

    At least CNN is acting sober, so far.

    What a tragedy for all involved. Just incredible! Is this going to be too much for Malaysia Airlines? As if the missing jet wasnt already enough to handle. Clearly not their fault, but anyway, it has to have an impact on them some how.

    As for the missile launch. This looks to be the work of an amateur group which, some how, got their hands on weapons they were not supposed to have. Obviously they knew how to handle the weapon, but had no way of finding out what they were actually firing at.


  47. Dan O says:

    Sober, informative without being speculative, and as thoughful as one could be with so little information. Well written as always. I keep coming back here for good reason.

    • Udara says:

      Totally agree. Patrick’s objective analysis of highly controversial situations is highly admirable.
      One big concern I have regarding this tragedy is that even before the first pieces of evidence were discovered, Western media (and leaders for that matter) were going on about the jet being shot down by pro-Russian separatists; like they had all the evidence in the world! You know it’s not ethical with media to point fingers without proper clues. We don’t need media to give us “who did it” based on their speculations or political views. Also, there is a theory going on about president Putin’s plan being the actual target – which apparently flew the same course some minutes after the MH17 was downed. Not sure how true this is, but it’s going around. I personally wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Ukraine (to get more attention and sympathy for themselves from the Int’l community on their issue) or a powerful Ukraine-ally (to paint a huge negative image on Russia) did this purely for political advantage. It’s a cruel world we live in. Whatever the motive, my deepest condolences go out to the families of the innocent victims.