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How safe is flying over a war zone?

A Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 departs on a routine flight as MH17 did a week ago.
A Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 departs on a routine flight as MH17 did a week ago.
Malaysian Airlines

In light of the recent downing of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine, a tragedy that cost the lives of 298 innocent passengers. The inevitable question has to be asked: How safe is flying over a war zone? The answer is a surprising yes, it is usually safe as thousands do it every day without giving it a second thought. The proviso though has to be that the conflict must be low intensity and low risk in terms of air threat.

A police officer inspects the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17
Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

That however was certainly not the case in the Ukraine, as significant numbers of Ukrainian fighter jets, helicopters and transport aircraft had been shot down by pro- Russian separatists in the weeks proceeding the loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Yet some airlines still continued to operate in this airspace.

In fairness to them I should make it clear that the civilian aviation authorities had only issued a NOTAM (“notice to airmen”) that put the eastern edge of Ukrainian airspace off limits below 32,000 feet. A requirement that flight MH17 was fully compliant with at the time of its destruction.

There was also another factor that the airlines considered when risk assessing their route over Ukraine: that being the direct threat to them from surface-to-air missiles.

For most the assumption was that military aviation losses in the Ukraine had been sustained primarily at low level, by means of short range shoulder launched MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense Systems) and not long range missiles operating as part of a sophisticated integrated air Defense network.

So their view was essentially that there was no threat to them at high altitude. This decision being made despite growing evidence that Russia had been supplying sophisticated vehicle mounted SAM (Surface-to-air-Missiles) to the separatists as well as training in their usage.

What happened to flight MH17 was nothing but sheer bad luck, as the rebel fighters had believed it to be a high flying Ukrainian military aircraft.

The crew of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 simply never stood a chance to react against the lethal Buk (meaning tree) SAM that had been used against them, as the Mach 3 missile would have have hit them within 20 seconds of being launched.

Indeed the only airline that possibly had a chance of evading such a missile is Israel's national carrier EL AL, as it fits all of its aircraft with both missile detection sensors and countermeasure decoy flares that have the ability to divert incoming missiles.

Are we ready to fit such systems to our passenger aircraft in North America, I guess only time will tell.

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