Photo: mk.ruA Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that went down over a war zone in eastern Ukraine in July was struck by “high-energy objects from outside the aircraft,” Dutch officials leading the investigation of the crash said in a preliminary report published on Tuesday.
The finding is consistent with theories that the jetliner was brought down by a missile designed to detonate before reaching its intended target, spraying it with sharp metal fragments.
The objects struck the cockpit and front fuselage of the eastbound plane, investigators for the Dutch Safety Board reported, strongly suggesting that they were fired from eastern Ukraine or western Russia. The investigators did not identify the source of the fragments that struck the aircraft or who was responsible for launching them.
The investigation team, which is based in The Hague, also said a review of the plane’s on-board flight recorders, or “black boxes,” found no evidence of mechanical failure or pilot error that could have been responsible for the crash.
“A full listening of the communications among the crew members in the cockpit recorded on the cockpit voice recorder revealed no signs of any technical faults or an emergency situation,” the summary said. “Neither were any warning tones heard in the cockpit that might have pointed to technical problems.”
Flight 17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when it was blown out of the sky on July 17 over territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels, killing all 298 people on board, of whom two-thirds were Dutch citizens. The United States and Ukraine have accused the separatists of downing the plane with a powerful surface-to-air missile provided by the Russian military.
Moscow has publicly denied those claims, however, and some Russian officials have gone so far as to suggest the plane was brought down by the Ukrainian military.
Because of intense fighting in the area where the plane, a Boeing 777-200, went down, the investigators’ access to the wreckage site was extremely limited in the immediate aftermath of the crash. For days, bodies and debris were strewn across fields near the village of Grabavo, a separatist-controlled area not far from the border with Russia.
Much of the wreckage was left unguarded and accessible to journalists, mourners and curiosity-seekers, raising concerns that important evidence may have been tampered with.
While dismayed about the unsafe conditions that have complicated their work, the Dutch investigators were provided with a trove of on-site photo and video evidence, as well as data from military satellites and radar, to supplement the information gleaned from the plane’s flight recorders.
The plane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders were recovered by rebel forces in the days after the crash and handed over to Malaysian officials, who in turn transferred them to the Dutch board. Analysis of the data they contained was conducted in Britain by that country’s Air Accidents Investigations Branch and presented to the Dutch team in The Hague last month.
The investigators reported that the pattern of the wreckage, which was scattered over dozens of square miles, suggested that the plane “split into pieces during flight.” An analysis of available images, it added, showed that “pieces of the wreckage were pierced in numerous places” in a pattern “consistent with that which may be expected from a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from the outside.”
The Dutch report indicated that air traffic controllers lost contact with Flight 17 shortly after 1:20 p.m. Coordinated Universal Time (4:20 p.m. in Ukraine), just as controllers in Ukraine were handing off responsibility for the flight to their Russian counterparts.
When the crew failed to acknowledge an instruction after a one-minute delay, Ukrainian operators of an air traffic control center in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, repeatedly tried to establish contact with the flight — first by radio and then by satellite phone.
“Malaysian one-seven, how do you read me?” a controller asked. “Malaysian one-seven.”
A minute later, a Russian controller, who was also monitoring the flight from a control center in Rostov interjected: “Listening you, it’s Rostov.”
“Rostov, do you observe the Malaysian by ... by the response?” the Ukranian side asked.
“No,” the Russian controller responded. “It seems that its target started falling apart.”
“It’s disappeared,” said the Ukrainian operator, who asked if the Russians could see any trace of the plane on their radar screens.
“We see nothing,” the Russian operator said.
The Dutch board stressed that the report published on Tuesday was only a preliminary snapshot of the evidence uncovered and said further analysis and investigation would continue over the coming months. A final report is not expected to be published before next summer.
“More research will be necessary to determine the cause with greater precision,” Tjibbe Joustra, chairman of the Dutch board, said in a statement, adding that investigators “believe that additional evidence will become available for investigation in the period ahead.”