Air crash investigation, by its thoroughness and impartiality, helps prevent recurrence of accident types. So it is the worst feeling when an aircraft crashes and it becomes clear that we have been here before; that it really should not have been allowed to happen. Thus the feeling in the aftermath of yesterday’s downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine with the loss of 298 lives.
Modern airliners like the Boeing 777 do not just fall out of the sky on spec. The aircraft was en route from Schiphol to Kuala Lumpur and in level flight at well over 30,000 feet. Meanwhile, rebel forces in eastern Ukraine had been happily potting military aircraft recently as part of their campaign against the Government in Kiev. But, it is thought, these were all flying at rather lower altitude.
Someone, though, had got hold of a Buk surface-to-air missile launcher, which can take out an aircraft at up to 70,000 feet. They then loosed it off without correctly identifying what they were firing at. Yes, we have been here not once before, but arguably twice, and both involved the same catastrophic loss of life. The first such incident that comes to mind happened in the Strait of Hormuz in 1988.
The warship USS Vincennes, without correctly identifying its target, shot at and destroyed an Airbus A300 flying Iran Air flight 655 from Bander Abbas to Dubai. The death toll of 290 remains the worst involving an Airbus aircraft. Worse, the subsequent evasion and dissembly by the USA helped set in train events that led Abu Jibril’s gang to bomb Pan Am flight 103 the following December.
There was a precursor event even to this appalling mistake: in 1983, during a period of heightened tension between the USA and then USSR, Korean Air flight KAL007 deviated from its flight path between Anchorage and Seoul, the error taking it so far to the north that it crossed well into Soviet airspace – worse, this was clearly understood to be prohibited airspace.
The pilot of the interceptor that rocketed the Boeing 747 correctly identified the type of aircraft. But he had his orders, and the “intruder” had already flown over the Kamchatka peninsula: why would a civilian airliner do this? The 747 was on the point of exiting Soviet airspace and a spur of the moment decision was made: 269 people died. The USSR was in the doghouse for some time after that.
And the USSR’s successor nation, the Russia of Vladimir Putin, is now well and truly back in that same doghouse. Just as his predecessors in the Kremlin, and the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush, his reaction thus far has been to deflect and dissemble. But if his armed forces are so inept that they can’t stop the Buk falling into yet less competent hands, it is nobody’s fault but theirs.
We should never, but never, have to re-learn those lessons from the 1980s.