Skyfire Threatens to Burn Down the World

The picture was heart-rending; a Russian soldier examining a teddy bear that belonged to a

Published: 20th July 2014 07:37 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th July 2014 07:37 AM   |  A+A-

NEW DELHI: The picture was heart-rending; a Russian soldier examining a teddy bear that belonged to a child amongst the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down over Ukraine last Thursday. That child could well have been an Indian.

According to Flightradar24, the 24x7 global flight-tracking service, an Air India passenger (AI-113) was flying just about 25 km from the ill-fated Malaysian aircraft. The numbers tell the tale — the lives of 192 Dutch, 29 Malaysians, 28 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 10 Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Vietnamese, three Filipinos and one person each from the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong were extinguished along with MH17. This is excluding the flight crew. The flight manifest is a bloody reminder of how civil wars affect the entire world today — not just on the ground, but also in the air.

Data from Aviation Safety Network suggests that at least 66 civilian aircraft were shot down by terrorists in the last two decades, killing over 1,416 people, since the first such incident was recorded on February 21, 1973. On that day, the Israeli Air Force had shot down Libyan Airlines Flight 114, which had strayed into the Jewish state’s air space.

Meanwhile, the world is watching a stand-off between Russia, which backs the anti-Ukranian government rebels who shot down the plane, and the Western alliance of the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and Australia, which is demanding a transparent investigation and absolute access to the crash site.

Putin blames the West for the crash, because it supports the Ukrainian government. “This tragedy would not have happened if military operations had not resumed in south-east Ukraine,” he said.

India, meanwhile, is treading carefully with long-term ally Russia. The government has so far referred to the MH17 incident only through condolence letters from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Malaysian and Dutch counterparts. 

In his letters, Modi hoped that the circumstances which led to the crash are “established quickly”.

What has puzzled aviation experts is why MH17 chose to fly over the troubled region of eastern Ukraine. Indian officials said they altered the route of the country’s aircraft only after rebels shot down MH17.

After the Malaysian aircraft accident, most of the countries are re-routing flights avoiding Ukrainian air space altogether.

However, an Air Traffic Control (ATC) official said many other airlines had been using the Ukraine route before the shooting. Aviation authorities issue notice to airmen about any danger in the sky, but accepting it is up to the airlines.

“Many times, airlines follow the same path due to commercial obligations like saving fuel. The Ukraine route for that matter was the most popular and most international airlines were using it,” he said.

Shooting Made Easy

In the post-9/11 days, the fear of SCUD attacks against civilian aircraft, notably American, have plagued intelligence agencies.

But a commercial airliner at cruising altitude cannot be shot down without advanced anti-air missile systems like man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS), which require a heat signal to track and destroy. They can be fired from both wheeled and  tracked chassis.

The SA-17 Buk 2, which is suspected to have downed MH17, is known to NATO countries as the ‘Grizzly’ and is deployed by both Russia and Ukraine.

The same rebels who deny they had the hardware to bring down MH17 flying at an altitude of over 30,000 feet had claimed that they had shot down a Il-76 Ukrainian transport plane last week. The latter was flying at 21,000 feet.

 Aviation experts say as the wingspan of the MH17 Boeing 777-200 was 199 feet and that of Il-76 165 feet, the two aircraft might look similar to a Ukranian rebel radar operator.

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