The story of of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is both compelling and troubling. It is compelling because nearly 300 lives were lost for no other reason than they chose that particular flight to travel on. It is also compelling because the act that took those lives was barbaric in its disregard for human life.
And it’s troubling because of the speculative drivel that has found its way into the media, the airwaves and the internet since the crash occurred.
As someone who once trained to avoid, attack and defeat surface-to-air missile systems and whose knowledge of those systems could literally mean the difference between life and death, I find myself shaking my head in disbelief as supposed “experts” from the media and aviation arenas comment on a subject they know little to nothing about. I’ve read discussions of electronics countermeasures suites, deployable countermeasures and even evasive maneuvers for airliners. It is apparent that those participating in these discussions don’t know how ECM works, don’t know that deployable countermeasures also require maneuvers to be effective and also don’t realize that the maneuvers themselves require an element that airliners are utterly incapable of – the application of g-force to the airframe to rapidly maneuver it. Further, countermeasures require detailed knowledge of the radar or infrared guided missile systems they are attempting to defeat and the ability of the crew to identify those systems from something as arcane as the sound of a radar’s pulse recurrent frequency in the headset. (I could digress into a discussion of union work rules and additional training and study, but I’ll restrain myself).
The bottom line here is, unfortunate as it was, MH17 was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Neither the crew nor the airline demonstrated any negligence or malfeasance in their actions. There was no way to predict that barbarians with no respect for human life would gain control of a SAM system or that they would figure out how to use it. (A question no one is asking is how the missile system was cued to fire on MH17. Most battlefield systems do not have onboard acquisition radars and using the on-carriage target tracking radar to find a target is like searching the sky with a soda straw. Someone or something had to point the SAM system at MH17. That didn’t happen by accident) The only way to avoid such tragedy activity in the future is to avoid airspace where hostilities may be possible (we did it for over forty years during the Cold War) and that will require closer study of the airspace in unstable areas and the cancellation or re-routing of flights to not overfly those areas.
One last word. This incident has rekindled discussion of TWA Flight 800, which exploded in mid-air and crashed in Long Island Sound in 1996. There are many who believe that the 747 was downed by a missile of some sort and the ensuing NTSB and FBI investigations were cover-ups. Here again, I find myself shaking my head in disbelief that the ignorance of those who hold this belief. While I enjoy a good conspiracy as much as the next guy (I totally believe the Kennedy Assassination was a conspiracy), in the case of TWA 800, the lack of knowledge of how SAM systems work and the capabilities of those systems is simply amazing. Some insist the “missile” flew a “crooked path” – the classic path of a man-portable infrared guided SAM – just one problem, man-portable systems can’t reach targets as high as TWA Flight 800 was when it exploded. Others claim it was a US Navy radar-guided missile, which means that the Navy was carrying on live-fire surface-to-air missile training underneath one of the most heavily traveled air routes in the world. Which makes about as much sense as the Air Force doing basic fighter maneuver (dogfighting) directly over a major civilian airport. The theories are positively nonsense. Of course, if you’re one of those that believes that 911 was an inside job, then maybe you buy this sort of thing.
If you’re an “expert” about something – stick to your field of expertise please. And leave the discussions of SAMs and maneuvers to those of us who actually know what we’re talking about.