Much of the evidence so far in the crash of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 seems to suggest a missile brought down the airliner on Wednesday. A surprisingly illuminating video posted by The New York Times shows a pin of light ascending, then intersecting with what is presumably the plane, followed by a large explosion.
The plane continued in some sort of flight before crashing. Whether it turned back to the airport purposefully, is difficult to discern from the available information. Twelve seconds after the intersection of the purported missile with the airliner, the camera records the sound of the explosion. (Someone better at math can calculate how far away the camera was.)
Headlines this morning indicate that the US, UK and Canada have intelligence information leading to the conclusion that a missile was fired at the Boeing 737 shortly after it departed Tehran. Further details were not provided but Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau told reporters, information indicates “the plane was brought down by a surface to air missile from Iran.”
One important point to keep in mind is this; if a missile did hit the Ukrainian jetliner, there will be enough evidence on the ground to make a finding swift and unequivocal. There is metallurgy, what does the aircraft wreckage show? The debris field will indicate when and how and in what order the plane came apart, chemical residue on the plane, injury patterns on the bodies, penetration signatures, engine damage and on and on.
So those eager to get to the bottom of this disaster need not worry about statements by Hassan Rezaeifar, General Director of Iran’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Board, who told reporters extracting the data from the recovered flight data and cockpit voice recorders will be a lengthy process.
Frankly, considering everything else already on view, data from the black boxes just isn’t that crucial.
Nevertheless, who should extract the data and more important who should read it has gotten a lot of attention because shortly after the crash, Ali Abedzadeh, Iran’s civil aviation chief in a moment of pique insisted the Americans would not get their hands on the black boxes.
Distrust should come as no surprise given the hostilities between these two nations. Still, the suggestion by Rezaeifar, the investigative boss, that gleaning information would take a month or more is eyebrow-raising according to Canadian flight data specialist Mike Poole of Plane Sciences.
“It’s not going to take months, it will take a day. With the right equipment, it will take an hour or two. It’s either going to work or it’s not going to work,” Poole told me.
Since the recorder housing is designed and certified to protect the data collection cards, Poole believes it likely the data on the Ukrainian International airliner is recoverable. Even if Iran, which has been subject to economic sanctions does not have the equipment to read the Honeywell recorders, Ukrainian investigators certainly do and would be able to bring that with them to Tehran.
Now that Iran has indicated it intends to follow ICAO accident investigation standards and practices, international air safety folks are headed to Tehran which is good news for the investigation. More eyes on the evidence is always a good thing. Especially the eyes of the Ukrainian investigators who have recent experience with what a missile-triggered crash looks like from the loss of Malaysia Flight 17 – shot down by Russian separatists in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
Today, as Poole and I discussed the latest news, we realized the problem for investigators isn’t a lack of data. No, the challenge for them will be trying to keep an open mind in an extraordinarily high-stakes investigation with people from nations in a near state of war forced to work together for singular truths.
So for them, I close with the advice offered up by Poole, whose work for the last two decades has enabled accident investigators around the world to pry loose the secrets of an airplane’s last moments.
“Don’t read witness statements until you see the data or you’ll start looking for evidence to confirm what you think happened already,” Poole said. “Don’t care what the intelligence community says. Just look at the data with an open perspective and no prejudice.”