Fatal decision that doomed MH17
THE day was July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 had left Amsterdam Schiphol almost three and a half hours ago and the crew were busy serving lunch.
The plane was well into Ukraine territory, taking the shortest flight path over Eastern Europe before flying onto Central Asia and over the Bay of Bengal and Thailand before reaching its final destination, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
Outside the oval windows, above the clouds, the sky over Ukraine was a perfect blue. From that height the situation on the ground below looked incredibly peaceful, and no one would suspect that blood was being shed and a war was raging on the ground.
Some thousand feet above them, Singapore Airlines was cruising leisurely a minute behind them and Air India was also just minutes away. Together with Malaysia Airlines, some 150 other aircraft were using this same air corridor every day.
It had been smooth sailing from Amsterdam, but now Captain Eugene Choo, glancing at his radar, noticed a small patch of bad weather ahead. In the cockpit with Choo was First Officer Rahim.
The forecast had been for thunderstorms in eastern Ukraine, so when it became evident that MH17 was on course to fly into the storm, Choo intended to ask the air traffic controller if he could divert from his flight route. It was standard practice to deviate from a route if there was good cause, but a plane needed permission from the air control centre to do so.
However, before Choo could call in to ask for permission to bypass the storm, a communication came in from one of the air controllers at the flight control and information centre at Dnipropetrovsk (commonly known simply as Dnipro), asking if he could perhaps take his aircraft to a higher altitude.
Flight MH17 up to now had been flying at flight level (FL) 330, equivalent to 33,000 feet. The controller asked him to take his plane to flight level (FL) 350 - 35,000 feet - but Choo declined. His reason is not clear, but it may have had to do with the detour that Choo was planning. The air traffic controller did not ask for an explanation.
It was a busy day in the skies above Ukraine and there were several other aircraft in the area at the time. The Singapore Airlines flight was still trailing behind MH17 so, to give both planes some leeway, the controller felt the need to direct one of the two to fly higher. Singapore Flight 350 let Dnipro control centre know that taking the plane to a higher altitude did not present a problem.
The airspace below 26,000 feet had been closed for civilian aircraft as a result of the Notices to Airmen that had been issued on July 1 and later, on July 14, the Ukrainian Air Traffic Service (UkSATSE) applied restrictions to airspace in eastern Ukraine, banning flights below 32,000 feet.
Any aircraft flying at or above the assigned airspace was considered to be safe from insurgent air attacks.
Captain Choo at this stage put in his request to divert around the storm: "Dnipro, Malaysian one seven, okay, start to two zero miles to the left of track due to weather?"
The answer came immediately: "Malaysian one seven, roger."
It was almost 1300 hours UTC (Universal Time Coordinated). At Ukrainian ground level it was around four o'clock in the afternoon.
Five minutes later MH17, having made its way around the bad patch, was back on its original flight path. But now Choo, feeling the need to make up for lost time, asked the air controller if the altitude at FL340 was free. This would take the plane up another thousand feet.
"Malaysian one seven, is flight level three four zero available?"
With Singapore Airlines 350 flying at almost the same altitude, the controller refused the request. He had just been able to give the two planes some room and allowing MH17 to fly higher would cramp both planes' airspace.
"Malaysian one seven, maintain flight level three zero for a while, three four zero is not available for now."
It was no great setback for the pilots of the MH17; they could deal with a loss of five minutes and they might be able to win back the lost time at a later stage. The MH17 crew now settled into the flight as they prepared to be handed over from Ukraine to Russian airspace.
There was a war on the ground but, when it came to commercial aviation, the two countries fully co-operated with each other. The Ukrainian controller directed them to proceed to Romeo November Delta (RND, the flight centre at Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia).
The last call from MH17 to Dnipro control centre was clocked at 13.19.56 hours. "Romeo November Delta, one seven."
Four seconds after the air controller received confirmation from the MH17 captain that the plane would proceed to Rostov in Russia, he contacted MH17 again with extra information on how to proceed on that flight path.
"Malaysian one seven, after Romeo November Delta, expect direct to TIKNA." (The TIKNA waypoint is located east of Rostov in Russia.)
But now no answer came back and, as he checked his radar, the controller noticed the plane had suddenly disappeared from his screen. A green dotted line, what controllers called a synthetic track, had appeared where the plane had disappeared.
The synthetic track displayed on the air controller radar is also known as "coasting". After an interruption on the radar screen, the position and altitude are predicted and displayed by the green dotted line; the dotted line's course is based on the previously received radar data and flight plan information. It is a kind of ghost track.
It was 13.20.10 UTC, about 4.20pm in Ukraine. Wondering why the plane had suddenly vanished from his radar, the controller, with growing concern, tried to make contact.
"Malaysian one seven, how do you read me?"
"Malaysian one seven, Dnipro Radar."
After he had repeated his call three times, the controller was at a loss as to what could have happened. There had been no distress call. Nothing. Just a blip where the plane had gone off the radar, leaving only the ghost line.
Two minutes after the plane had vanished, the Ukrainian controller decided to call his Russian colleague in Rostov.
"Rostov, do you observe the Malaysian seventeen by the transponder?"
The answer from Rostov wasn't what the controller wanted to hear: "No. It seems that its mark has started to break."
The Dnipro radar told the same story: Just the synthetic line where the plane should have been, and nothing to indicate where it had gone. Both controllers checked their devices, but the MH17 did not appear on any of them and appeared to have just vanished.
Dnipro control, running out of options, decided to contact the nearest aircraft flying close to the spot where MH17 had disappeared. It was the Singapore Airlines 350 flight. The controller asked the captain if he had detected something or could see the aircraft from his position.
But Singapore Airlines could only give Dnipro a negative. The captain said they could see no plane in the vicinity, not on the radar and not from the windows.
For minutes after that the Dnipro controller frantically tried again to make contact with MH17; he was still at a loss as to what could have happened, but he was slowly beginning to fear the worst. Rostov control contacted his Ukrainian counterpart to let Dnipro know that he had reported the incident.
To check the possibility that there was perhaps something wrong with MH17's instruments, Dnipro suggested that his Rostov colleague search for another Malaysia Airlines plane flying in the neighbourhood. It might help if Malaysia called the plane using its own radio. But there was no other Malaysia Airlines plane flying in the area.
After trying to locate MH17 for almost thirty minutes, RND control centre informed Dnipro that everyone at Rostov was by now rushing around on high alert, desperately trying to figure out what had happened.
Russian nationalist Igor Girkin was one of the first to mention on social media that the separatists had managed to down yet another Ukrainian plane: "In the vicinity of Torez, we just downed a plane, an An-26. It is lying somewhere in the Progress Mine. We have issued warnings not to fly in our airspace. We have video confirming. Residential areas were not hit. Civilians were not injured."
The post came just 30 minutes after MH17 went missing.
Word of the disaster spread quickly across the internet. It was too early to point the finger, and no one knew yet what exactly had happened. The Dutch as a nation aren't very prone to speculation; the people of the Netherlands, digesting the news in a state of horror and disbelief, waited for the facts to be revealed.
As news agencies scrambled to collect data about the downed plane and the circumstances under which it had so tragically crashed, everyone involved held their breath, in anticipation of what would happen next.
The Dutch news broadcast lasted for more than two hours. Bit by bit the information trickled in. The first footage came from CNN and the images of the dismal smoke plumes rising from the Ukrainian countryside left little hope that anyone could have survived.
In Kuala Lumpur, family members and friends of the passengers of flight MH17 started arriving at the airport expecting to pick up their relatives. The plane had been due to touch down at 6.10am. But the plane didn't land, and over the next hours, as they waited, it became apparent that something was dreadfully wrong.
This is an edited extract from Shot Down by Marianne Van Velzen, published by Allen & Unwin, July 2019