Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: Navigating airspace over warzones

The Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 catastrophe in Ukraine could have been a tragedy for another international carrier, aviation experts say, noting the doomed jet’s flight plan was the very route that was, until recently, used by several European airlines.

Risky flight path was 'a mistake a lot of people were making,' aviation expert says

An Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. The Malaysian airliner Flight MH17 was reportedly brought down by a missile over eastern Ukraine on Thursday. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

The Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 catastrophe in Ukraine could have been a tragedy for another international carrier, aviation experts say, noting the doomed jet’s flight plan was the very route that was, until recently, used by several European airlines.

The European Cockpit Association, which represents 38,000 pilots, said Thursday the path taken by the doomed Boeing 777 flying to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam is the "the most common route for flights from Europe to Southeast Asia."

MH17 ended up flying over a volatile region near eastern Ukraine.

A surface-to-air missile reportedly shot it down on Thursday after the commercial airliner carrying 298 people was believed to have drifted about 300 kilometres off its normal course to evade a thunderstorm.


"The flight was diverted … into an area where the conflict was very active," said Ted Lennox, president of LPS AVA Consulting.

"It was mischance, in some respects."

Amid calls for an international investigation, airlines and aviation authorities around the world ordered flight routes to circumvent the region.

"It’s a mistake a lot of people were making, and until now, very few were avoiding," said retired Air Canada and Canadian Air Force veteran Russ Cooper.

"The only ones that were basically opting out [of flying over the region] were the Americans because of the FAA."

Passengers' nationalities

Jos Nijhuis, CEO of Schiphol Airport, confirmed the 15-member crew were Malaysian nationals and said that along with at least one Canadian, the plane also carried:

  • 154 Dutch passengers.
  • 27 from Australia.
  • 28 from Malaysia (including two infants).
  • 12 Indonesians (including one infant).
  • Nine from the United Kingdom.
  • Four from Germany.
  • Four from Belgium.
  • Three from the Philippines.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority warned American aircraft on April 25 to steer clear of the region near the Crimean peninsula, where Ukraine’s military and pro-Russian separatists have clashed for months.

Air Canada released a statement Thursday confirming the carrier "has been proactively avoiding airspace over the region for some time already."

Before the disaster, there appeared to be little reason for concern given MH17’s high altitude, noted Pierre Jeanniot, a former Air Canada CEO who once negotiated flight routes over conflict areas.

The International Civil Aviation Organization had also deemed the route, known as L980, a safe corridor.

"I would think there are a lot of precedents around the world," Jeanniot said. "I mean, we flew over Afghanistan at those levels. We fly over Syria, we fly over Iran and Iraq … and we fly over a lot of Middle East points. We fly over Egypt, over a lot of potential problem areas, and no incidents have taken place. No major events."

Earlier in the week, however, Ukraine claimed that a military transport plane was downed by a Russian missile.

That should have raised red flags among risk-reduction analysts, said Arthur Rosenberg, a New York aviation lawyer.

A map shows approximately where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 went down in the eastern region of Donetsk near the Ukraine-Russia border. (CBC)

"I don’t think anyone can dispute the fact that this is a warzone and no commercial airline should have been flying — in my view — in, near, or around this area," he said.

Knowledge of open or closed airspace and "war exclusion zones" are communicated through documents called "NOTAMs" (notice to airmen), which would be reviewed by everyone from the airline to the pilot, air traffic controllers and dispatchers.

Studying up on NOTAMs is part of routine flight planning, explained John Maris, president of the Ontario aerospace research firm Marinvent.

NOTAMs issued by each country

"The NOTAM will give you whatever information you need to stay out of trouble. So in Quebec we’ve got fireworks displays in the summer, and they’ll establish a little zone above the fireworks display prohibiting flight over that area, and give whatever altitude limit is required," he said.

For a space shuttle launch, a NOTAM would inform pilots whether an area has become "hot" or active, and indicate whether a patch of airspace that is normally dormant should be avoided at any altitude.

The publicly accessible documents would also advise pilots about whether an airport is closed, a taxi runway is congested, or whether local air shows or military test sites are active in the area.

"If you're going to fly all the way across Europe, you'll get the French NOTAMs, the German NOTAMs, Greek NOTAMS, all in one big dump, if you will. It's up to you as a pilot to decide how you'll react to them," said Maris, who has conducted aviation accident investigation work.

The argument would be that at that altitude, the airplane is not a threat. Who's going to shoot down an airplane at 35,000 feet?- Mike Boyd, aviation expert with the Boyd Group

The non-profit Nav Canada runs and lists national NOTAM data. Ukraine’s civil air navigation system publishes its own.

If carriers failed to follow Ukraine’s aeronautical advisories then, they’re much more likely to heed them now.

"I guarantee there’s not going to be a commercial airline within a 1,000 kilometres of that place now," said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based airline security consultant and president of the Boyd Group.

While North American airliners exercised caution around Russia and Ukraine, Boyd said, "you can make the argument legitimately that Malaysia should have known better than to be there."

Yet it appears Malaysia flight never actually violated closed airspace near Dontesk in Ukraine’s east.

A deadly presumption

Eurocontrol, which co-ordinates European airspace, said its records showed the Malaysian airliner was flying at a cruising altitude of roughly 10,000 metres, or 305 metres above restricted airspace.

Although the airline company may have believed that to be a "safe" distance from the reach of military ground fire, Boyd said that was a deadly presumption to make.

"The argument would be that at that altitude, the airplane is not a threat," he said. "Who’s going to shoot down an airplane at 35,000 feet?"

Cooper called that a grave "miscalculation."

The BUK missile launcher, also known as the SA-11, is sophisticated radar-guided weaponry that can launch missiles with a range of up to 80,000 feet.

Saving on fuel costs

While flying in the Persian Gulf during his Air Force days, Cooper said, he narrowly escaped a variant of the same missile fired at his fighter jet by the Iraqi Republican Guard.

Airport security personnel look at the flight information board at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in Malaysia. Flight MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. (Vincent Thian/Associated Press)

"My F18 at the time had pretty state-of-the-art (radar) jammers and I had a lot of training with regard to how to avoid missiles, and I had to use every trick in my book to avoid being taken down by one of those SA-11s," he said. "There’s no way a civil airliner could come out of this on the bright side."

But knowing that transport planes have already been taken down in the region, why would any airline continue to take the risk in that airspace?

Cooper, who was tapped after the 9/11 attacks to work as a member of the Air Canada Pilot’s Association Security Committee, supposes the main reason in many cases is companies don’t want to hurt their bottom line.

MH17's flight path was considered to be cheaper, busier and more direct.

"Airlines run on a real tight profit margin and one of the biggest factors is fuel," Cooper said. "You go around things, you make your travel longer, you burn more fuel, you lose more money, and sometimes, saving money is the name of the game."

With files from CBC's Thomas Daigle


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