Russian ministry version of MH17 loss proves confusing

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Russia’s defence ministry has put forward a baffling account of the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, using radar data to suggest that a Ukrainian fighter had been in the vicinity of MH17.

Its version of events – accompanied by maps and satellite photos – appears confused in a number of aspects.

The ministry presented a map supposedly illustrating MH17’s track over Ukraine. It depicted the airways from waypoints BULIG and MAKAK, through Donetsk, to the waypoints ABOLA, GOMED and TAMAK. These correspond to the airways W633 and L69.

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But flight-plan and publicly-available surveillance data indicate that MH17 was not flying either airway, instead operating the L980 route – which also converges on TAMAK – that lies north of Donetsk.

Deputy chief of the general staff Andrei Kartapolov claims that MH17 initially stayed within the airway contained in the ministry presentation. He says the aircraft then “deviated” from the route, straying 14km outside of the airway to the north before attempting to correct its course.

“We can see that the Boeing 777 turned back to the borders of the specified air corridor,” he says. “Nevertheless the Malaysian air crew didn’t succeed [with] the manoeuvre.”

There is evidence from transponder-derived surveillance data suggesting that, as it passed Dnipropetrovsk, MH17 started straying a few kilometres further north than two preceding aircraft – flights SQ323 and KC904 – which were also using airway L980.

There is no immediate indication whether the discrepancy is an error in the data or a true drift in the aircraft’s course.

Kartapolov openly queries whether the deviation highlighted by the ministry was the result of a navigation error or instruction from Dnipropetrovsk air traffic control.

The ministry also presented a 6min playback of radar information from the Rostov air traffic management centre from 13:19UTC showing the secondary return from MH17 as it tracked on a heading of just under 120° towards TAMAK at about 490kt.

Two other tracks are shown in the vicinity: another 777 operating Singapore Airlines’ flight SQ351 from Copenhagen and an Air India 787 out of Delhi.

Kartapolov claims that Russian air surveillance systems detected a Ukrainian air force Su-25 “moving upwards” toward MH17 at a distance of 3-5km.

He says the Su-25 can achieve “for a short time” an altitude of 10,000m (33,000ft). But Sukhoi’s own data on the type lists a maximum service ceiling of 7,000m (23,000ft) without the additional burden of weapons.

Kartapolov says the Su-25 can be armed with a Vympel R-60 air-to-air missile. “What was the mission of the combat aircraft on the [civil airway] almost at the same time and same altitude with [MH17]?” he asks. “We want to have this question answered.”

But the defence ministry’s own radar playback does not offer any convincing evidence of a fighter presence.

It shows MH17’s track suddenly disrupted about 51km from the TAMAK waypoint, the vector indicating its direction swinging sharply to the north-east, accompanied by a substantial loss of airspeed and the disappearance of altitude data.

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The playback shows the simultaneous appearance of a primary radar return in the same location, which air force chief of staff Igor Makushev interprets as the Su-25 – offering no other explanation, such as falling wreckage, even though the radar return was previously undetected and remains largely stationary afterwards.

MH17’s radar data block vanishes about 90s after the initiating event.

Malaysian authorities have been handed the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders from the 777. While investigators have yet to establish the reasons for the 17 July crash, Ukrainian and US government officials strongly suspect that the aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile.