As the manufacturer of the Malaysia Airlines 777 jet that crashed in eastern Ukraine July 17, Boeing Co. would typically be among the first parties to send in experts to help figure out what happened.
This time, at least for now, they’re staying home.
“As of this morning, no one from Boeing has gone, or has been requested,” Charlie Miller, a spokesman for the Chicago-based company, said in an e-mail today.
The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by a missile in territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists fighting Ukraine’s government throws out all the rules for conducting crash investigations.
In normal aviation accidents, representatives of airlines, manufacturers and government agencies quickly assemble a team of eight to 12 experts to secure the crash scene, study the wreckage, and retrieve and analyze the flight recorders.
“This has nothing to do with the aircraft or the air- travel system –it’s all about a wartime atrocity,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president at Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group Corp., an aviation consultant. “I can’t imagine any company would be eager to force its way into a situation that won’t yield a result. There’ll be no clarity until the site is secure, and in the hands of a responsible body of adults.”
Ukraine’s State Emergency Service, not an aviation body, claims to be the “center” of the investigation. The crash site, though, is being patrolled by hundreds of armed men from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic who are limiting investigators’ access and moving bodies.
Representatives of the U.K., the Netherlands and the U.S. are in Kiev helping the Ukranian government set up a structure under United Nations rules to investigate the aviation aspects of the case, a U.S. government official who’s been briefed on the group’s progress said.
Malaysia’s Transport Minister, Liow Tiong Lai, said July 20 that his country is also on the investigations team and has sent 133 officials and experts to Kiev.
The aviation team hasn’t been allowed to go to the crash scene because it is under the separatists’ control, the U.S. official said. For now, the group will study airspace restrictions in eastern Ukraine at the time of the incident and the history of the flight, said this person, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the situation.
A second group is conducting a probe more like a criminal investigation into who shot the missile, said the person.
There are conflicting reports on the whereabouts of the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders, known as black boxes, that investigators usually rely on after aviation accidents to piece together what happened.
An aide for the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic’s self-proclaimed prime minister, Alexander Borodai, said that some “technical parts” that may be the recorders are in Donetsk and will be turned over to international organizations. That hasn’t been confirmed by any of those organizations.
Press representatives for ICAO, the United Nations aviation agency that separatists earlier said would get the recorders, didn’t return six phone calls and e-mail messages for comment. A number of world leaders and the Moscow-based Interstate Aviation Committee have said the ICAO should lead the probe.
The aviation team in Kiev is working out such details as where the recorders will be downloaded if obtained, the U.S. official said. Both the U.S. and the Netherlands, which lost 193 citizens among the 298 people on board the flight to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, have recorder-analysis laboratories.
Even if the black boxes get into experts’ hands, there’s probably little of use investigators can learn from them beyond what happened in the “milliseconds” around when the missile hit the plane, said Paul Hayes, a safety expert for London-based Ascend Worldwide Ltd., which provides aviation data to insurers.
In previous accidents in which aircraft blew up in flight, such as the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 in the Atlantic Ocean off New York after vapors in a fuel tank exploded, the devices have had limited value because they stopped recording at the moment of the explosion. The flight recorders can help establish the precise time that the missile struck the plane and rule out any mechanical or pilot failures.
While black boxes don’t have beacons to help locate them after crashes on land, they’ve been retrieved in even the most difficult circumstances. In 1992, when an El Al Boeing 747 cargo plane slammed into a suburban apartment block after an engine fell off, searches found the recorders after sifting through a mountain of rubble.
The FBI dispatched two agents with training in forensics and crime scenes to assist in collecting evidence from the crash scene, a U.S. law enforcement official said yesterday. The experts are waiting 800 kilometers (500 miles) away in Kiev for security conditions to improve, the official said.
“The people who did this can hardly be counted upon to ensure a safety environment for investigators,” Teal’s Aboulafia said. “They didn’t care about 300 passengers on a jet, so they’re not going to care about helping an eight- to 12- person investigating team.”
–With assistance from Shamim Adam in Kuala Lumpur and Del Quentin Wilber in Washington.
To contact the reporters on this story: Andrea Rothman in Toulouse at [email protected]; Alan Levin in Washington at [email protected] To contact the editors responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at [email protected] Bernard Kohn, Elizabeth Wasserman