John-Thomas Didymus

Author’s note: This concludes a two-part series. You may access Part 1 here.

Opinion

Aviation experts and analysts have asked why Ukrainian air control left the Donetsk airspace open to civilian flights despite having evidence that pro-Russian rebels had come into possession of Buk missile systems capable of hitting targets at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet.

The Wall Street Journal points out that both Washington and Kiev have questions to answer about why they did not move quickly to advise commercial airlines about the grave dangers in the Donetsk airspace after obtaining intelligence that the pro-Russian rebels had deployed Buk systems in the area.

When Flight MH17 was diverted northward from its original course, the pilot requested to fly over Donetsk at 35,000 feet, but air control instructed him to fly at 33,000 feet, presumably to avoid other traffic flying at that altitude.

According to Malaysia’s Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, "MH17 flew at an altitude that was set and deemed safe by local air traffic control, and it never strayed into restricted airspace. The flight and its operators followed the rules. But on the ground, the rules of war were broken."

Following incidents in which separatists shot down Ukrainian military aircraft flying over the Donetsk region, Ukrainian and international flight authorities banned flights over the area below 32,000 feet.

Thus, the instruction to MH17 to fly at 33,000 feet brought it perilously close to restricted airspace, as The New York Times notes.

Aviation experts and analysts have expressed dismay at the gross inadequacy of the response of the Ukrainian authorities to the threat to civilian flights so soon after separatist rebels shot down an Antonov-26 military transport plane flying over the region at 21,000 feet.

According to The New York Times senior writer, C.J. Chivers, the notice from Ukrainian aviation authorities banning civilian aircraft from flying under 32,000 feet, following the shooting down of the Antonov-26 aircraft, raises serious questions.

Describing the restrictions imposed by the Ukrainian authorities as "catastrophically insufficient," Chivers comments:

From a weapons perspective, this is a very curious decision, given that the class of guided missile implicated in the downing of the Antonov has ranges that can extend, depending on the variants, to altitudes above 70,000 feet. Put bluntly, Ukraine’s restriction offered no protection to aircraft from a weapon newly in play in the conflict. It was, to use a crude example, akin to telling someone who is standing 10 feet from an angry drunk with a loaded pistol to move a few feet further away.

Also writing in The New York Times, C. J. Chivers, Keith Bradsher and Nicolas Clarke, commented: "The decision by government officials to restrict the airspace, rather than close it completely, raised unanswered questions."

The writers asserted that the restriction imposed by the Ukrainian authorities was inexplicable in the circumstance in which officials knew that commercial flights were being exposed to missiles that could potentially hit targets at twice the altitude that commercial jetliners were flying.

A European aviation official admitted the gross inadequacy of the restriction but blamed it on Ukrainian authorities whom he said set the restriction.

According to the official, "The general feeling is that if the airspace is closed to 32,000 feet, the last thing I am going to do is fly at 33,000. We wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it once we knew they were shooting things out of the sky.”

Chivers concluded that Ukrainian authorities have questions to answer in any investigation, saying: "the steps the [Ukrainian] authorities had taken offered the plane and the people aboard no protection whatsoever against what happened next."

A question that investigators will need to answer is:

Why did the Ukrainian authorities fail -- despite the intelligence that pro-Russian separatists were armed with Buk systems -- to protect commercial flights by closing down the airspace over Donetsk?

Following the denial by the Malaysian Airlines director of operations Izham Ismail that the pilot changed course due to a thunderstorm along its planned flight route, investigators will need to ask why MH17’s flight path was changed.

According to News Malaysia, when asked to clarify reports that MH17 changed course due to a thunderstorm along its planned flight path, Izham said, "There were no reports from the pilot to suggest that this was the case."

As Global Research notes, Malaysia Airlines will need to publicly clarify the following questions by releasing the audio files between the pilot and air traffic control in Kiev:

Why did the Ukrainian authorities fail to adequately protect civilian aircraft in their airspace after previous incidents in which aircraft were shot down by pro-Russian rebels?

Why did they expose civilian commercial flights to risk by allowing them to fly within range of Buk air defense systems they knew were on the ground?

A balanced and thorough investigation into the MH17 disaster must seek clear answers to the questions of the acts and omissions of air traffic authorities in Kiev.