Thursday, July 24, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Shootdown Incident: Not So Unprecedented Civil Aviation Incident?

Even though it does not happen with alarming regularity, will the recent Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 shootdown incident change yet again the current civil aviation safety measures in currently place?

By: Ringo Bones 

Fortunately for us civilians who frequently fly the increasingly not-so-friendly skies since the 9/11 Islamist terror attacks, shootdown incidents are still a rarity and don’t occur with alarming regularity as portrayed in most Hollywood action movies. Civil aviation shootdown incidents have happened before and even served as the catalyst of the tragic April 1994 Rwandan Genocide, it seems that such incidents only seem to provide the general perception that the flying civilian public had served as “unwitting pawns” in geopolitical power struggles since the Cold War. 

In putting a human face to this tragic incident, the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Boeing 777 back in Friday July 18, 2014 while flying its Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur route over the airspace of Eastern Ukraine largely under control by pro-Russia separatist rebels since February 2014 involved the deaths of 280 passengers and 15 crewmembers. Most of the passengers – 189 of them – are Dutch nationals on their way to vacation one of which is a leading and pioneering HIV / AIDS medical researcher Dr. Joep Lange together with 100 other leading HIV / AIDS researchers. At present, other passengers’ nationalities who perished in the tragic shootdown are 28 Australian nationals, 23 Malaysians, 6 Britons, 4 Germans, 3 Filipinos and 3 infants. 

The latest initial investigations so far have revealed that the most likely anti-aircraft weapons system used to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Boeing 777 is probably the Soviet era BUK surface-to-air missile which has become de rigueur air defense weapons system of choice by former Warsaw-Pac member countries. The BUK consists of four 16-foot long 1,500-lb missiles with a 150-ib warhead and launch system mounted atop a full track armored vehicle and is capable of speeds up to 2,684 mph which can easily make short shrift of a typical civilian passenger plane which only can fly around 600 mph and an incoming BUK missile can only be “seen” by a pilot in a cockpit equipped with advanced sensors oft the preserve of advanced fighter jets. 

The BUK missile is often used to shoot down planes flying at altitudes high enough to avoid man-portable anti-aircraft weapons systems like the famed Stinger. As an anti-aircraft weapons system developed near the end of the Cold War, the BUK is “user-friendly” enough to be effectively used by anyone with the brainpower to be able to tie one’s shoes while chewing gum at the same time but takes a bit longer training time to be able to accurately differentiate civilian from military targets. A modified BUK missile launcher system was modified with a high-speed Schottky Rectifier equipped Mainland Chinese Nanjing Radar system that brought down a US Air Force F-117 Nighthawk stealth plane during the 1999 operation to capture Balkan strongman Slobodan Milosevic. 

Though questions are being asked why Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was flying over a “hostile warzone” but the flight-path it took was a well trodden designated Europe to Asia international flight path L980 which the German airliner Lufthansa also uses but British Airways has since shied away from since the February 2014 Eastern Ukraine conflict initiated by pro-Russia separatist militias.  While a typical altitude flown by a typical civilian passenger plane at 30,000 to 40,000 feet is way above the range of most man-portable rocket launchers that are in the hands of most terrorist militia groups. 

Given that the pro-Russia separatist militias manage to hold a sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons system like the BUK and the intelligence so far gathered by secret American operatives imbedded in Eastern Ukraine had shown that the militants actually made the mistake of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 as the recently deleted text messages between a pro-Russian militant named “Greek” and “Major” revealed a “Tweet” of the screw-up. And diversions due to the tragic shootdown incident could make Europe to Asia flights take longer and cost more due to increased fuel usage.  

And investigation of the crash site has since became a contentious issue since the crash site has not been quarantined and been trampled around by both the pro-Russian militants and the nearby townsfolk. OSCE monitors trying to make an initial investigation of the crash site were even given warning shots by local pro-Russian militants after just spending 75 minutes on the crash site. In short, international investigators have so far been denied free unfettered access of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.   

While Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed the Ukrainian government for “responsibility” of the crash, such rhetoric only reminds the world of the legal case of a burglar suing the homeowner for medical compensation after the burglar broke his leg trying to scale the homeowner’s fence. And further rhetoric of the Russian strongman only seems like him digging a hole for him and the pro-Russian militants as war criminals straight into the International Court of Justice. 

Since the Cold War began, high profile shootdown cases of civilian airliners by the former Soviet Union and her allies had almost started an all-out thermonuclear exchange between the United States and the then Soviet Union. Back in July 23, 1954, a Cathay Pacific Douglas DC4, also known as Cathay Pacific Flight VR-HEU which also carried the then Taiwanese Ambassador, was brought down by anti-aircraft fire by the Mainland Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force off the coast of Hainan Island, People’s Republic of China, killing 13 passengers and 6 crew shot with anti-aircraft incendiary rounds. Fortunately, 9 people survived as the plane made an emergency landing. 

And before the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 back in September 1, 1983 that nearly triggered a thermonuclear World War III, the Korean Air Lines Flight 902 shootdown incident by a Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 fighter plane on April 20, 1978 near Murmansk, Russia after it accidentally violated the country’s airspace and failed to respond to Soviet interceptors only gives the impression to the rest of the world that Russians in charge of monitoring the security of their airspace are – then and now – trigger happy yahoos. Two passengers were killed after the Sukhoi Su-15 fighter plane strafed the Korean Air Lines Flight 902 plane with its 25-mm guns. Fortunately, 107 passengers survived after the plane made an emergency landing on a frozen lake. 

On the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, authorities of the then Soviet Union only admitted to “accidentally” shooting down the plane 20 days after the tragic incident. And a historical footnote of the tragedy now probably largely forgotten, the black box of the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was “hidden” by Soviet authorities and was only returned back in 1993 when the West friendly Boris Yeltsin became president of post-Soviet Russia.  

The Unexplained Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Disappearance: Unsolved Mystery?

Even though quite a number of planes – both civilian and military - had disappeared throughout the history of manned flight, will the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370 destined to be an “unsolved mystery”?

By: Ringo Bones 

As paradoxical as it seems, despite of scores of unexplained flight disappearances – both civilian and military – throughout the relatively brief but crowded history of aviation, it seems that air travel is still the safest way to travel statistically in comparison to other forms of transportation systems. But will the still unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Boeing 777 destined to be added unto the roster of aviation’s “unsolved mysteries” like that of the US Navy’s Flight 19 that mysteriously disappeared while conducting a supposedly routine flight over the “infamous” Bermuda Triangle? 

Given that most idle speculations and conspiracy theories put forth so far seems to have only raised the ire – rather than provide closure – to the surviving family members and loved ones of the 290 passengers and crew on board Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that inexplicably disappeared back in March 8, 2014 somewhere over a yet to be determined part of the southern Indian Ocean, it is somewhat disconcerting to comprehend that the yet to be explained disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 Boeing 777 is not an unprecedented event in aviation history – that is it had happened before. Both civilian and military fights seem to be not immune from the misfortune of “unexplained disappearances”. 

Probably the first – and still largely unsolved – unexplained flight disappearances in civil aviation history is the disappearance incident of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2501 that happened back in June 22, 1950. The civilian passenger plane involved was a Douglas DC4 Propliner operating its regular daily transcontinental service between New York and Seattle when it mysteriously disappeared on the night of June 22, 1950 while flying over the “notorious” Lake Michigan Triangle. The flight was carrying 55 passengers and 3 crew members; the loss of all 58 on board made it the deadliest commercial airline accident in American history at the time. To this day, the wreckage of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2501 Douglas DC4 Propliner has yet to be found despite of the involvement of famed underwater shipwreck hunter Clive Cussler in the search since he started his underwater salvage firm. 

One of the most mysterious flight disappearances in the history of American military aviation was the disappearance of the Atlantic C-124 back in March 23, 1951 flying from Walker Air Force Base in Roswell, New Mexico to RAF Station Mildenhall, Suffolk, UK, when US Air Force C-124 Globemaster after an in-flight fire forced the pilots to ditch the plane in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Shannon, Ireland. After the mayday call was successfully sent, the ditching and subsequent evacuation was successful, except that when the rescuers arrived on the scene, the aircraft and its occupants had vanished. All 53 people on board were never fond and were presumed dead. 

While previous images of the alleged wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that was “seen” by Mainland Chinese reconnaissance satellites were later proved to be misleading in finding the plane to determine what caused it to crash, it seems that it could probably take some time before the rest of the world know what really happened to the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Boeing 777. And due to the length of time involved in the search, all hands are now unfortunately presumed dead leaving the rest of us hoping that the lessons learned from this aviation tragedy would improve current civil aviation safety standards.