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Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 Ukraine crash: Why was a passenger plane flying over a conflict zone?

By Simon Calder and agencies

The Boeing 777 downed in Ukraine with the loss of 295 passengers was flying above a “no-fly” zone covering the troubled region.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was on a routine flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it crashed, apparently after being hit by a missile.

The jet was travelling east across Ukraine along an airway designated A87. Eurocontrol, the co-ordination centre for air-traffic control in Europe, said: “This route had been closed by the Ukrainian authorities from ground to flight level 320 [32,000 feet] but was open at the level at which the aircraft was flying.” The plane was flying at the lowest permitted altitude over the area, flight level 330 [33,000 feet], when it disappeared from the radar.

Since the crash, all the airspace of eastern Ukraine has been closed to civil aircraft until further notice. Flight plans submitted by pilots are automatically checked against closed areas of airspace. Eurocontrol said: “All flight plans that are filed using these routes are now being rejected.”

As the security situation in Ukraine deteriorated in April, the US Federal Aviation Administration issued a warning to American pilots and airlines operating in the region. The “Notam” (Notice to Airmen) ordered “Exercise extreme caution due to the continuing potential for instability”.

Nevertheless, civil aviation continued to fly over the conflict zone, along airways that normally carry thousands of passengers on dozens of flights each day.

Since the news broke, many passengers have expressed astonishment that commercial flights should be routed over a conflict zone such as eastern Ukraine. One traveller, Nicholas Eeley, said: “I cannot believe that civilian aircraft blithely overfly active battle zones. How bad does it have to get to order a fly-round?”

Passenger planes have long been presumed to be safe from most conflicts, for the practical reason that the weapons typically used on the ground are far too primitive to reach an aircraft flying six miles high. The combatants in Ukraine have been thought unlikely to have the kind of sophisticated weaponry that could reach a target at such an altitude.

Tony Wheeler, the founder of the travel guide publisher Lonely Planet, recently blogged about a Qantas flight from Dubai to Heathrow over northern Iraq: “Azwya, and Mosul, which we flew close by, have both been flashpoints for the Isis takeover of parts of Iraq in recent weeks. It's remarkable how peaceful everything looks from 40,000 feet.”

The loss of flight MH17 shows that supposed immunity of passenger planes to terrestrial conflict may have been tragically misplaced.

Airlines are naturally predisposed to fly the most direct route between two points, subject to weather patterns, and on many routes from Europe to Asia that involves transiting eastern Ukraine.

The aviation expert, Chris Yates, said: “It beggars belief that a large passenger aircraft could be brought down in this way.”

“There have to be questions asked of the European safety authorities and why they didn't route aircraft further north.”

Civil aircraft constantly “squawk” - transmit their identity and flight information to notify air-traffic controllers and other pilots. Technology available to anyone with a smartphone allows aircraft easily to be tracked - with real-time details of airline, flight number, heading and altitude provided.

Airlines moved quickly to reassure passengers that other passenger flights will not be at risk. British Airways said: “Our flights are not using Ukrainian airspace, with the exception of our once a day service between Heathrow and Kiev. We are keeping those services under review, but Kiev is several hundred kilometres from the incident site.” BA's early evening flights from Heathrow to Hong Kong and Singapore departed, respectively, one hour and 30 minutes late, but it is not known if they were delayed as a consequence of the Ukraine disaster.

Virgin Atlantic said that a number of its flight paths will be adjusted to circumvent the region where the crash took place. The airline serves destinations in China and India with flights that often traverse Ukraine.

Air France, Lufthansa, Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines have also said they will divert aircraft around Ukrainian airspace.

Previous events involving shootings-down of large passenger planes, with the loss of hundreds of lives, have been the result of mistakes or misadventure. In 1983, a Boeing 747 - flight KE007 from Anchorage to Seoul belonging to Korean Airlines - was shot down by a Soviet fighter after the plane strayed into restricted airspace. Five years later, Iran Air flight 655, an Airbus A300 from Tehran to Dubai, was shot down by an American warship in the Gulf. The Lockerbie bombing, later in 1988, has been claimed to be a response to the downing.

For any airline to lose two passenger aircraft within a few months is extremely rare. For a pair of catastrophes to occur when the planes are cruising normally at high altitude is unprecedented.

Malaysia Airlines was already suffering commercially as a result of the loss of MH370. The destruction of MH17 is likely also to have severe consequences, even if the airline itself is found to be blameless.

Passengers booked to fly on Malaysia Airlines, or any other long-haul carrier, who no longer wish to travel, have little option but to cancel and lose some or all of the fare. “Disinclination to travel” is not regarded as grounds for airlines to relax their conditions on cancellation, nor for claims to be made on travel insurance.

Aircraft shot down in Ukraine: A timeline

  • 4 October 2001 - Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 crashes over the Black Sea en route from Tel Aviv, Israel to Novosibirsk, Russia. Ukraine later admits that the disaster was probably caused by an errant missile fired by its armed forces. Evhen Marchuk, the chairman of Ukraine's security council, conceded that the plane was probably been brought down by "an accidental hit from an S-200 rocket fired during exercises".
  • 29 May - Rebels in eastern Ukraine shoot down a government military helicopter amid heavy fighting around Slovyansk, killing at least 12 soldiers including a general, officials say. Acting Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov tells parliament in Kiev that rebels used a portable air defence missile to bring down the helicopter. He says 14 died, including General Serhiy Kulchytskiy.
  • 24 June - Ukrainian government says a military helicopter has been shot down over a rebel-controlled area in Slovyansk.
  • 14 July - A Ukrainian military transport plane is shot down along the eastern border with Russia but all eight people aboard managed to bail out safely, the defence ministry says. Separatist rebels claim responsibility for downing the Antonov-26, but Ukrainian officials swiftly rule that out and blamed Russia instead.
  • 16 July - A Ukrainian air force fighter jet is shot down by a missile fired from a Russian plane, according to Ukraine's Security Council. The pilot of the Sukhoi-25 jet is forced to bail out after his plane was hit, says spokesman Andrei Lysenko. Meanwhile, pro-Russian rebels claim responsibility for strikes on two Sukhoi-25 jets.
  • 17 July - Almost 300 people die after a Malaysia Airlines plane is apparently shot down over Ukraine.

Disaster strikes again for Malaysia Airlines

Almost incredibly, Malaysia Airlines finds itself at the centre of a world aviation disaster for the second time this year.

It is only a few months since the Far East carrier was embroiled in what has become one of the great plane mysteries - the disappearance of flight MH370.

Now another Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 lies wrecked in the Ukraine - seemingly the victim of a missile attack.

It was on March 8 that flight 370, carrying 239 passengers and crew veered far off course for unknown reasons during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Initially, it was thought that the plane would soon be located. But weeks, and finally months, have passed - with the search areas changed and different theories being expanded - and still there has been no sign of the aircraft.

The search continues as does the heartache for the families of those lost on the flight.

Now today, comes news that of all the carriers to be involved in what appears to be an act of sabotage it should be beleaguered Malaysian Airlines.

Once more their managers have had to tell the world that they have lost contact with one of their aircraft. Now there are some who doubt whether the airline can recover from this.

BUK missile designed to take down aircraft

The BUK missile system is a set of medium range surface-to-air missile systems which were first developed in the Soviet Union and continue to be produced by Russia. A Buk division of Ukraine's armed forces was reportedly relocated to Donetsk region on Wednesday.

Designed to take out cruise missiles, aircrafts, helicopters and short range ballistic missiles, they can reach altitudes of up to 25km (15.5 miles or 82,000ft), according to the manufacturer's website.

Developed by Moscow firm Almaz-Antey, they are thought to have been used during the Russian war with Georgia in the territory of South Ossetia in 2008.

The manufacturer's website, which also lists military equipment including radar and naval missile systems, displays two models of Buk launchers - the Buk-M1-2 and the Buk-M2E.

A description of the Buk-M1-2, which has an altitude target range of up to 25km (15.5 miles or 82,000ft), reads: "The "Buk-M1-2" ADMC is designed to provide air defence for troops and facilities against attacks from current and future high-speed manoeuvring tactical and strategic aircraft, attack helicopters including hovering helicopters, and tactical ballistic, cruise, and air-to-air missiles, in conditions of heavy radio jamming and counter fire; as well as to destroy water and ground surface targets."

Meanwhile, the Buk-M2E "is designed to destroy tactical and strategic aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles, and other aerodynamic aircraft at any point in their range of operation, along with tactical ballistic and aircraft missiles, and smart air bombs in conditions of heavy enemy counter fire and radio jamming; as well as to attack water and ground surface contrast targets."

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