Rarely has a major commercial plane-crash investigation been as blatantly compromised as that of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. According to various reports, the plane’s wreckage has been tampered with. Bodies have been moved. And gun-wielding separatists have blocked investigators from the scene.
That’s all in stark contrast to what is supposed to happen when a commercial jetliner goes down.
First, according to aviation experts, the scene is secured so that only the relevant officials can enter. Second, every single piece of evidence is marked and photographed. Finally, says Ross Aimer of Aero Consulting, the wreckage is transported in an orderly fashion to a large hangar, where investigators painstakingly reconstruct the scene to examine in greater detail.
There’s a reason these things are important, explains James Hall of Hall & Associates, who chaired the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001. “You never know what information may or may not be useful” in ascertaining the cause of a crash.
For instance, when TWA Flight 800 went down off of Long Island in 1996, investigators spent the better part of a year recovering nearly the whole plane from the ocean. Then they reconstructed it to prove that it had not been taken down by a rocket or missile. In that process, Hall says, “almost every piece of the aircraft was important to the final conclusion.” The final NTSB report, published four years after the crash, identified an explosion in a fuel tank as the likely cause.
With MH17, such a detailed reconstruction will be impossible. Yet that doesn’t mean the investigation is doomed if it’s handled properly from here on out, Hall and other experts told me. It turns out that taking a plane down with a surface-to-air missile tends to leave a lot of evidence—probably too much for even a determined band of tamperers to hide.
Assuming the flight was in fact shot down, as President Obama has stated, here are five different forms of evidence that could be used to tie the wreckage to a specific type of weapon:
1. The “black box”: Ukrainian rebels on Tuesday turned over the plane's data recorders to Malaysian officials. Assuming they haven’t been damaged or hacked somehow—which would be very difficult to do, according to Aimer—the flight data recorder and cockpit voice reporter should provide useful evidence. That’s true even if the plane broke apart in midair, in which case the black box would likely have been separated from the main cabin and stopped recording. For one thing, the flight data recorder could help rule out any kind of technical difficulties prior to the explosion. For another, Hall says investigators may be able to identify the type of explosive device by its “sound signature.”
2. Signs of shrapnel in the plane wreckage: Surface-to-air missiles like the “Buk” SA-11 typically don’t hit their targets directly, aviation expert Robert W. Mann told me. Instead, they track them by radar and then blow up when they’re in close proximity to the plane, sending shrapnel in multiple directions. That should leave holes, pockmarks, and shredding in the fuselage that bear the weapon’s imprint.
And, in fact, the New York Times’ C.J. Chivers reported Tuesday that photographs of the downed plane show just these sorts of markings. “Most of the smaller holes look to be caused by a high-velocity projectile, as opposed to simple shearing or tearing caused by the forceful separation of the panel from the airframe,” an analyst at IHS Jane’s told the Times.
3. Signs of shrapnel on the victims’ bodies: Shrapnel that penetrates the plane could end up hitting the passengers, potentially either lodging inside them or leaving entry and exit wounds.
4. Residue from the explosion itself: If a warhead exploded in close enough proximity to the plane, it should leave tiny bits of chemical residue that would help confirm the nature of the weapon.
5. Military satellite imagery: The Russian Defense Ministry has said that there was an American satellite flying over eastern Ukraine at the time of the crash, and it has called on the U.S. government to release the relevant imagery. The U.S. may be reluctant to do that. But it could well be the basis for the conclusions the Obama administration has already drawn as to the cause of the crash. And it has the advantage of not being able to be tainted by any tampering at the scene.
It’s a shame that the messy aftermath of the Flight 17 crash will prevent the sort of meticulous investigation that this sort of tragedy deserves. And the victims’ families are justifiably outraged at the mistreatment of the bodies.
The only good news is that, if a missile really did take the plane out of the sky, it would have been extremely difficult for anyone tampering with the scene to remove all the smoking guns. The best they could hope for, it seems, is a veneer of plausible deniability should the remaining evidence point in their direction.
“You can put together a highly sufficient circumstantial case” even with a compromised scene, says Mann. “The problem is, you’re never going to convince the people who don’t want to be convinced.”
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