Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 broke apart above eastern Ukraine on July 17 as the result of structural damage caused by penetration of the Boeing 777-200 by a “large number of high-energy objects,” according to a preliminary Dutch Safety Board report issued Tuesday. Furthermore, the board found no evidence of a technical fault or that any crew action caused the crash.
While the U.S. and Ukraine have accused pro-Russian separatists of shooting down the airplane with a missile, the report does not render any conclusions about who, in fact, might have fired it. However, the report supports the theory that a warhead exploded in the vicinity of the airplane.
The cockpit voice recorder, the flight data recorder and data from air traffic control all suggest that flight MH17 proceeded as normal until 1:20 p.m. UTC, said the report. It added that “a full listening” of the communications among the crew members in the cockpit recorded on the cockpit voice recorder revealed no signs of an emergency. The flight data recorder registered no aircraft system warnings and recorded aircraft engine parameters consistent with normal operation. Radio communications with Ukrainian air traffic control confirm that the crew made no emergency call. The final calls by Ukrainian air traffic control made between 1:20:00 and 1:22:02 UTC went unanswered.
According to the report, the pattern of wreckage on the ground suggests that the aircraft split into pieces during flight. Although the unstable situation in eastern Ukraine has prevented Dutch investigators from examine the wreckage, available images show parts of airplane pierced in numerous places. “The pattern of damage to the aircraft fuselage and the cockpit is consistent with that which may be expected from a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside,” said the board. “It’s likely that this damage resulted in a loss of structural integrity of the aircraft, leading to an in-flight break up. This also explains the abrupt end to the data registration on the recorders, the simultaneous loss of contact with air traffic control and the aircraft's disappearance from radar.”
ATC transcripts indicate fairly routine exchanges between ATC and the crew of MH17 involving weather and potential traffic conflicts, and no concern about any threat posed by the flight's path over a conflict zone.
According to MH17's flight plan, the crew would fly at 33,000 feet above Ukraine until the waypoint PEKIT, which lies on the Flight Information Boundary (FIR) between Kiev FIR and Dnipropetrovs'k FIR. From waypoint PEKIT, the flight plan called for MH17 to travel at FL350 for the remainder of its flight over Ukraine. As the airplane flew within the Dnipropetrovs'k Control Sector 2, at FL330, controllers asked the crew whether or not they could climb to FL350 as planned and to clear a potential separation conflict with other traffic in the area. The crew said they couldn't comply with the request, and ATC agreed to allow the flight to continue at FL330 while the other traffic climbed to FL350.
Some 20 minutes before loss of radar contact, the crew of MH17 requested from ATC to divert its flight track 20 nautical miles to the left to avoid bad weather. ATC agreed to the change. Still flying at 33,000 feet, the crew then asked about the possible availability of FL340, but ATC would not grant permission to change altitude, instructing the flight to maintain FL330 "for a while."
The Dutch Safety Board has sent its draft preliminary report to the accredited representative of the states that participate in the investigation (Malaysia, Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Australia) for review and all representatives sent a reaction. The board said it assessed the provided suggestions and amended the report where appropriate.
“The initial results of the investigation point towards an external cause of the MH17 crash,” Dutch Safety Board chairman Tjibbe Joustra. “More research will be necessary to determine the cause with greater precision. The Safety Board believes that additional evidence will become available for investigation in the period ahead.”
Joustra added that the board aims to publish its final report within a year of the date of the crash.