The Loss of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17
MH17 was flying at 33,000 feet. The cabin was pressurized to provide occupants with an environment similar to that found at an altitude of 7,000 feet. Due this internal pressure, any tears, or rents, in the aircraft fuselage would quickly enlarge as the interior air explosively vented to the outside atmosphere. After the missile explodes, momentum will continue to carry the aircraft forward at 1 km every 4 seconds. The damaged fuselage will be torn open by the high speed airstream. The missile initiates the destructive sequence but aircraft momentum completes it. As the airstream pulls the airframe apart, the aircraft will begin to loose speed. Its control systems may no longer function, its engines and fuel systems may be inoperable, its crew may be dead, the radios silenced. It will follow a ballistic trajectory toward the ground. Given the aircraft’s height, and its initial high speed, it can be expected to travel 20 to 30 km before it strikes the ground.
While the exact cause of the loss of MH17 is subject to debate, there are a number of known facts. These facts are not disputed. Residents near the entrance to the town of Rozsypne reported bodies falling from the sky. This indicates MH17 suffered a major structural failure and spilled passengers out into the airstream. The aircraft engines, and heavy parts of the airframe, came down in a field of sunflowers adjacent to a chicken farm south of the town of Hrabove (also identified as Grabovo). The debris field was located between these two points with the heavier components located toward the eastern end of the field. Image 1 portrays the debris field. The line drawn between Rozsypne and Hrabove is 5 km long with intermediate marks at 1 km intervals. This line represents the track MH17 followed during its descent and suggests the aircraft travelled on a course of 090 degrees after it was struck.
Ukraine Air Traffic Control informed Malaysian Airways that radar contact with MH17 was lost at 1623 local time or 1423 GMT. MH17’s last reported radar position showed it to be 50 km from the Russian border on a course of 118 degrees true, traveling at 490 knots, or 907 kmh.
We can plot this data and begin to develop an understanding of what must have occurred. The debris field outside Hrabove is aligned along a track of 090 degrees. This is a significant deviation from MH17s last reported course of 118 degrees. We can extended this 090 degree track to the west until it intersects with MH17’s course at a point 50 km from the Russian border. This point is near the likely point of catastrophic failure of the aircraft and its systems. These combined tracks are shown in Image 2.
Residents of Torez reported hearing two blasts at 1620 local time (1420 GMT). Others heard one blast. It is possible these blasts were the sound of the Buk missile exploding adjacent to MH17. Given the 3 minute time difference between the time of the blasts and the time MH17 disappeared from ATC radar, this suggests the point of missile impact was roughly 3 km further back along the aircraft track of 118 degrees. In the three minutes it took for the aircraft to traverse this distance, aerodynamic forces were pulling the aircraft apart. As MH17 turned into a shredded mass of metal it lost all of its prior aerodynamic characteristics and began falling from the sky.
Buk M-1 missiles travel at a speed close to Mach 3. They must climb from the ground launch position to reach the target’s altitude. In the case of MH17 the missile faced a vertical climb of almost 5.5 miles, or 8.85 km. A missile speed of mach 3 equals 2,284 miles per hour or 3,375 feet per second. Fired vertically the Buk missile would have required almost 10 seconds to reach the altitude of MH17. During this 10 second period MH17 would have travelled 2.5 km. If we move 2.5 km back along MH’s course track (Green segment) we arrive at a point which represents the missile impact point if the launcher had been directly beneath MH17.
But it is unlikely the missile was located directly beneath MH17. The Buk M-1 system is equipped with the 9K37M missile which has a range of 35 km. This is equivalent to a range of 114,828 feet which is traversed at 3,375 feet per second.
Russia has released satellite imagery (see Image 3) which depicts a Ukraine Buk 1 emplacement 30 km east of Donetz and 8 km south of Shakhtars’k. A missile fired from this position would have a flight time of 21 seconds to reach MH17’s track. During this period MH17 would have travelled 5.2 km. If we move 5.2 km back (Yellow segment) along MH17’s course of 118 degrees and draw a circle with a diameter of 70 km we can identify an area within which the Buk launcher must have been located.
When we combine all this data in a map representation we see what is pictured in Image 4. The red line shows MH17s course of 118 degrees. The adjacent scale is 50 km long and depicts MH17’s distance from the Russian border at the time it disappeared from ATC radar. The point of missile impact must have been to the northwest of this 50 km distance. The debris field between Rozsypne and Hrabove (Grabovo) is depicted by a blue oval approximately 10 km in length. The distance from the western end of the debris field to MH17’s course of 118 degrees is 20 km. This accords with the expected trajectory of objects falling from 33,000 feet at MH17’s speed of 1 km every 4 seconds. The green segment extending back along MH17’s track represents the distance travelled between 1623 and 1620, the time the citizens of Torez reported hearing one or two loud explosions and the time MH17 disappeared from ATC radar. The yellow segment extending further back along MH17’s track line represents the 21 second flight time of the missile. The gray circle depicts a range of 35 km centered on the end of the yellow time line segment. The missile that struck MH17 must have been located within this gray circle.