Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine after being hit by “a large number of high-energy objects,” the Dutch Safety Board said in findings that appear to point to a missile attack on the plane.
The Boeing Co. 777 broke up in the air, most likely as a result of structural damage after being penetrated from the outside, the Hague-based investigator said in the first official report into the July 17 tragedy that killed 298 people.
“The initial results of the investigation point towards an external cause of the MH17 crash,” Tjibbe Joustra, the board’s chairman, said in a statement, adding that the flight “ended abruptly” with no indication of any technical fault or crew intervention. The preliminary report stops short of identifying a missile strike as the cause of the tragedy.
MH17 was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew members when it came down while traveling over a war zone in eastern Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The U.S. has said the aircraft was probably destroyed by a missile fired from the ground by pro-Russian rebels, while the breakaway groups and Russian President Vladimir Putin have blamed Ukrainian forces.
“I would interpret this as meaning it’s the kill-payload on the warhead of a ground-to-air missile,” said Paul Hayes, head of safety analysis at Ascend, a London-based aviation data distributor. High explosive fragmentation warheads are designed to detonate short of the target, maximizing destructive power by flinging thousands of pieces of shrapnel across a wide area.
An analysis of the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. 777’s voice recorder revealed no warning tones in the cockpit, and no emergency was declared by the experienced crew, today’s report said. The plane’s engines were also running normally and maintenance records indicated that it was airworthy.
“The pattern of wreckage on the ground suggests that the aircraft split into pieces during flight,” according to the safety board. While a detailed study of the wreckage hasn’t been carried out, available images show that the fuselage was “pierced” in numerous places — damage “consistent with that which may be expected from a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside,” it said.
Only a few members of the team investigating the crash briefly visited the disputed site following the impact, causing Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to say this month that fresh access is required for the collection of further evidence.
The preliminary findings are based on the cockpit voice recorder, flight data recorder, data from air traffic control, radar images and satellite photos, the board said Aug. 11.
Dutch travelers made up the biggest national contingent traveling on MH17, at more than 190. Other nationalities included people from Australia, Indonesia, the U.K., Germany, Belgium, the Philippines, Canada and New Zealand.
“More research will be necessary to determine more precisely what caused the crash and how the airplane disintegrated,” the safety board said, adding that it expects that “additional evidence will become available.”
A draft of the preliminary study was sent to representatives of Malaysia, Ukraine, Russia, the U.K. and U.S., with the report subsequently amended where appropriate in light of feedback, the board said.
The research team will now start working toward producing a definitive report to be published within one year of the crash.
–With assistance from Fred Pals in Amsterdam.
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