A major question which needs to be answered in the nvestigation of the MH17 shot down is why the airspace over East Ukraine was not completely closed. Especially after July 14 when an Antonov 26 was shot down while flying at 6500 meters. Too high for simple shoulder launched MANPADs.
To understand we have to go back to april 2014. At April 3 the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published a Safety Information Bulletin (SIB). The SIB with ID 2014-10 can be downloaded here. It says:
Taking into consideration the recent publication by the Russian Federation of a series of notices to airmen
(NOTAMs) modifying the Simferopol FIR which is under the responsibility of Ukraine, and their intent to provide air traffic
services (ATS) within this airspace, the Agency draws the aviation communities’ attention to the possible existence of
serious risks to the safety of international civil flights. Due to the unsafe situation where more than one ATS
provider may be controlling flights within the same airspace from 3 April 2014, 0600 UTC onwards, consideration should
be given to measures to avoid the airspace and circumnavigate the Simferopol FIR with alternative routings.European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), ICAO and EUROCONTROL Network Manager strongly recommend airspace users to avoid the airspace and circumnavigate the Simferopol FIR using available alternative routings
Wall Street Journal reported about this advisory here.
Ukraine authorities then requested Eurocontrol to not accept any longer any flightplans overflying Simferopol FIR. However Eurocontrol stated it has no legal authority to reject flight plans unless the routes are formally closed by the competent local authority
At July 14 an Antonov transport plane of the Ukraine Air Force was downed by a missile. At July 15 ambassadors were briefed about the war situation and the threat of Russia. Also a topic at this meeting was the shot down of the Antonon one day earlier.
It is interesting why EASA, which has a slogan titled ‘Your safety is our mission‘ did not advise to close the airspace over East Ukraine at July 14.
When MH17 flew over East Ukraine the airspace was not closed. Civil aircraft were not allowed to fly at a lower altitude than 32000 feet (FL320). This was because of a shotdown of an Antonov aircraft at July 17. The aircraft was flying at 6500 out of reach for shoulder launched MANPADs. So the Antonov was shot down by a big Surface to Air missile.
Ukraine ignored warnings from Eurocontrol to close the airspace over East Ukraine. Later Eurocontrol stated they did not talk to Ukraine about safety of their airspace.
Also Ukraine did not mention the reason for the limit of flighlevel 320. The Russian ATC mentioned war and shooting in their NOTAM.
There are several reasons Ukraine should have closed the airspace:
- the shotdown of the Antonov at July 14 and other military jets.
- separatist forces were jamming communication frequencies
- there had been a breakdown in communications between Russian and Ukrainian air-traffic control.
- NATO warned for Moscow supplying SAM to rebels.
- Ukraine intelligence sources said they had been made aware that several anti-aircraft systems had crossed from Russia into Ukraine at least a week before the MH17 incident. But they claimed the intelligence was not “100 per cent reliable” and could not have been used as grounds for “drastic moves” such as shutting airspace.
EASA issued a new SIB id 2014-21. It says
Taking into consideration the reported loss of Boeing 777 Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine on 17 July
2014, a series of notices to airmen (NOTAMs) affecting the Simferopol (UKFV) and Dnepropetrovsk (UKDV) Flight
Information Region (FIR) have been issued. This SIB is issued in addition to the previously published EASA SIB 2014-10 which was related to the situation in
Crimea and the changes to the Simferopol FIR that are under the responsibility of Ukraine. The Agency draws the aviation community’s attention to the
possible existence of serious risks to the safety of international civil flights and the consequent airspace restrictions implemented.
Due to the unsafe situation created by a conflict on the eastern border of Ukraine and the situation over Crimea, where more than one Air Traffic Service provider may be
controlling flight within the same airspace, careful attention should be given to NOTAM and information addressing airspace and routes modifications.
It is related to NOTAM A1514/14 and A1517/14 issued on 17 July 2014 regarding the Ukrainian airspace, see Appendix 1 of this SIB. FDC 4/2182 Airspace Special Notice of Ukraine Potentially Hazardous Situation issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on 18 July 2014. EASA SIB 2014-10 on the Simferopol Flight Information Region (FIR) issued on 03 April 2014
The main question is: Why wasn’t the airspace closed completely?
Ukraine government could have known the rebels had heavy anti-aircraft weapons. This article published June 30 is titled U.S. European Commander: Russia Supplying Anti-Aircraft Weapons to Ukrainian Separatists
The top U.S. commander in Europe said Monday that Moscow was supplying heavy, anti-aircraft weapons to Russian-backed separatists groups battling for control of the country’s eastern border.
Ukraine secret service for sure knew that BUK SA-11 systems were close to the border or in East Ukraine. SA-11 is able to shot down any civil aircraft.
In a July 22 interview with Reuters, pro-Russian separatist commander Aleksandr Khodakovsky admitted the separatists had the type of antiaircraft missiles believed to have been used to shoot down a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine. He also said Ukraine knew the rebels had a BUK. This is the interview with Reuters.
Earlier US airlines were not allowed to fly over parts of Ukraine airspace by the FAA. The area not allowed was over Crimea. Also airlines from Israel were not allowed by their national aviation authority to fly over parts of Ukraine.
There was a ban for civil flights over zone of military operation in eastern Ukraine which was extended at July 8 according a Kiev newspaper.
So why allowed the Ukraine’s State Aviation Service civil flights to overfly East Ukraine at an altitude of 32.000 feet or higher? Before July 14 the minimum altitude in the area was set to 26.000 feet (source Flightglobal.com)
There are several possible reasons for Kiev to keep the airroutes open;
- For the money. Airlines pay air traffic control for their services. The Ukraine government would need the money of civil aircraft overflying Ukraine.
- Closing the airspace could be seen as a defeat for Ukraine government. Earlier the Simpferopol airspace was closed because Russia took over Air Traffic Control. A major blow in the face of Ukraine.
- To be able to use civil aircraft as a human shield. As long as the airspace would be open, the rebels which were using heavy surface to air weapons would not be able to use them
We will probably never know the reason.