Malaysia Airlines Flight 17: Why Was the 777 Flying over a War Zone?

Despite the risks, flight was on appropriate course.

Malaysia Airlines 9M-MRD

Malaysia Airlines 9M-MRD

Malaysia Airlines 9M-MRD (2011)
(Photo: Alan Wilson via Creative Commons)

Unlike the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last spring little mystery remains about what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the skies over eastern Ukraine last week.

We knew very quickly that the Boeing 777-200 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, and we soon learned that the culprits of the attack likely were Russian-backed separatists who acquired the missile launcher from Moscow.

A lingering question about the tragedy centers on why the passenger airliner was flying over a war zone in the first place.

The answer, to put it bluntly, is money.

The most efficient routes from northern Europe to eastern Asia go straight over Ukraine and Russia. Avoiding the area would require diverting far from the most direct routings, adding time to the flight and requiring more fuel.

A recent notam issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization closed the airspace over eastern Ukraine below 32,000 feet. An FAA notam also closed the airspace over the Crimea region far to the south. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was flying at 33,000 feet, above the reach of shoulder-fired missiles, after diverting to avoid thunderstorms. In other words, the airline and its pilots did nothing wrong by choosing the route and altitude they did. The fact is, Flight 17 was flying on an ICAO-approved route, as were other airline flights in the days and weeks leading up to the shootdown.

We now know, of course, that the separatists appear to have gotten their hands on a much more potent weapon system than a shoulder-fired missile. The mobile radar-guided SAM they used is capable of delivering a missile at supersonic speeds to heights well above Flight 17's cruising altitude. The 777 was a sitting duck when it was blown out of the sky, evoking global shock and condemnation when word came that the airliner carried 298 passengers and crew.

The grim task of returning the victims' remains to their loved ones now begins as investigators work to piece together the flight's final moments. What blame is eventually assigned to Malaysia Airlines remains to be seen, but it appears from everything we know about the path of the airliner that the ultimate culpability for this tragedy lies with those who fired the missile in the first place and not the 777's crew or the airline.

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