How Hard Is It to Shoot Down a Passenger Plane?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 17 2014 4:10 PM

How Hard Is It to Shoot Down a Passenger Plane?

How rebels in Ukraine got a missile launcher.

MH17.
The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Wreaking this kind of havoc wouldn’t be hard if you had the right equipment.

Photo by Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

Update, 6:30 p.m.: U.S. officials have confirmed that Malaysia Airline Flight 17 was shot down by a missile.

After the sad, still unexplained loss of Malaysia Airlines 370 in March, another luckless Malaysia Airlines flight crashed Thursday. It was presumably shot down by militants, while flying over the conflict-torn Donetsk region of Ukraine. Footage of smoking wreckage appeared on YouTube. All 295 passengers on board are thought to have been killed.

The flight, en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, was flying at 33,000 feet when reportedly hit by a projectile from a Buk missile launcher on the ground. Passenger planes typically fly at this altitude, and a Boeing 777 would be traveling at about 0.84 Mach, or a bit more than 600 mph, according to Boeing. Wouldn’t such a plane be hard to shoot down? Just how hard is it to shoot down a plane flying at cruising altitude?

A Buk missile launcher is a mobile system designed by the Soviets in the 1970s, which has since been upgraded over several iterations. The latest model, the Buk-M3, will be standard issue for the Russian military beginning in 2016. Militants are more likely to have older models Buk-M1 or Buk-M2, which Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These can launch missiles about 70,000 feet in the air and have sophisticated tracking systems for locking on to targets. They are designed specifically to shoot down planes. Buk systems have also been exported to China, India, and Georgia.

Advertisement

So for a person who’s trained, it “would not be hard to shoot down a plane of that size, going at that speed, from the ground,” says Steve Mastalerz, a weapons training specialist, and would certainly be “a deliberate act” using the system’s homing system. Commercial airlines, including Lufthansa, Virgin, and KLM, are all diverting their flights from eastern Ukraine.

Boer Deng is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 21 2014 12:40 PM Asamkirche: The Rococo Church Where Death Hides in Plain Sight
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller's Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Doctor, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.