Flight MH17: Dutch safety report cites Buk missile and vital missing evidence

279-page report rules out many possibilities and is precise on cause of crash naming warhead model

The 279-page Dutch safety report, and its appendices, covers the flight of MH17 from take-off from Amsterdam on 17 July 2014 through the moment it disappeared from radar screens over eastern Ukraine, to the recovery and forensic analysis of the wreckage and the human remains.

Much of the text is dedicated to ruling out options for the loss of the aircraft – such as catastrophic malfunction, an air-to-air missile or other more exotic possibilities such as a meteorite strike – but it is more precise than many had predicted on the actual cause of the plane’s destruction, even naming the model of Buk warhead the Dutch safety board believes was involved.

It also notes multiple cases of vital evidence going missing from the crash site and concludes that no commercial airliners should have been allowed to fly over the war zone in the first place.

On what hit the plane

The aeroplane was struck by a 9N314M warhead as carried on a 9M38-series missile and launched by a Buk surface-to-air missile system. This conclusion is based on the combination of the following: the recorded sound peak, the damage pattern found on the wreckage caused by the blast and the impact of the fragments, the bow-tie and cubic shaped fragments found in the cockpit and in the bodies of the crew members in the cockpit, the injuries sustained by three crew members in the cockpit, the analysis of the in-flight break-up, the analysis of the explosive residues and paint found and the size and distinct, bow-tie, shape of some of the fragments.

The bow-tie fragments appear to be crucial, but only two were identified among the 43 pieces of unalloyed steel believed to be shrapnel from the missile. One of those two was recovered from the body of the pilot, and the other from the remains of the cockpit. They were found to have the same weight and shape – allowing for impact and abrasion – as pre-formed fragments on the 9N314M warhead, which was consistent with two missiles fired by the Buk anti-aircraft system, the 9M38 missile or its later variant, the 9M38M1.

On the launch site

The Dutch board carried out computer simulations on the various trajectories that could have brought the missile together with the plane. That produced a 320 sq km swath of eastern Ukraine. Simulations by a Ukrainian forensic research institute and by the Buk manufacturer in Russia, Almaz-Antey, came up with different, smaller areas – both within the Dutch board’s grid.

Mh17 missile launch site

On whether MH17 should have been there

In the period between April and July 2014, the Ukrainians reported that 16 of their military aircraft, both helicopters and planes, had been shot down. Two of those planes had been flying at an altitude above 6,000m, and thus must have been downed by powerful missiles capable of hitting civilian airliners. The blame for allowing commercial planes to continue to fly over the war zone lies primarily with Ukraine, the report said.

In the international system of responsibilities, the sovereign state bears sole responsibility for the safety of the airspace.

On missing evidence

It should be noted that many pieces of the wreckage were not physically examined by the Dutch Safety Board until four months after the crash. During this period some parts were removed, therefore it was not possible to retrieve all wreckage pieces. Wherever possible, the photographs taken immediately after the crash were used in conjuction with the wreckage found.

Among the missing pieces of fuselage were sections of the upper left side around the business class cabin, which were pockmarked with shrapnel holes and covered in soot, presumably from the detonation of the explosives.

On the passengers

The impact was entirely unexpected, which means that people were barely able to comprehend the situation in which they found themselves. There was hardly any time for a conscious response. The occupants were exposed to extreme factors almost immediately. Depending on variables such as the occupant’s location in the cabin at the moment of impact, the factors were not the same for all the occupants. A number of occupants immediately sustained severe injuries as a result of the factors, probably causing death. For others, the exposure caused reduced awareness or unconsciousness within moments. It could not be ascertained at which exact moment occupants died, but it is certain that the impact on the ground was not survivable.

It seems that one passenger was conscious enough to put on an oxygen mask which dropped from the ceiling. The strap was found still around the passenger’s neck and the mask was around the throat.

Radar data

The Russian Federation did not provide the radar data stating that no radar data was saved, but instead provided the radar screen video replay, which showed combined surveillance primary and secondary radar. In the absence of the underlying radar data (so-called raw data), the video information could not be verified

The report notes that “states are required to automatically record data from primary and secondary surveillance radar equipment” for at least 30 days, longer if there has been an accident.

The Russia’s federal air transport agency told the Dutch board that it didn’t save radar data because the incident happened outside Russian territory. The Dutch board said that Russia’s own official procedure does not mention any exception to planes outside Russian territory.


Julian Borger

The GuardianTramp

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