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Interview: What Will MH17 Investigators Be Looking For At Crash Site?

Emergency workers stand at the crash site of a Malaysian airliner, which went to ground on July 17, killing all 298 people on board.
Emergency workers stand at the crash site of a Malaysian airliner, which went to ground on July 17, killing all 298 people on board.

A team of international investigators has traveled to rebel-held eastern Ukraine to collect evidence from the crash site of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. Concerns have already been raised that the investigation may be hampered by limited access and the fact that valuable evidence may have already been removed by local residents or separatist rebels. Joseph Burnside, the editor of "Aviation Safety" magazine, spoke to RFE/RL' s Daisy Sindelar about what investigators may expect to find once they reach the site.

RFE/RL: What are the first things that investigators are going to look for at any crash site?

Joseph Burnside: The first thing they're going to do is locate and secure the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. This will tell them what was going on with the airplane and its equipment, its controls, as well as what was going on in the cockpit in the minutes and moments leading up to the event.

RFE/RL: How will that information differ in the instance of a plane being shot down, rather than crashing?

Burnside: In the case of, shall we say, combat activity against the aircraft, there would not be very much evidence available from the cockpit voice recorder or the flight data recorder, except demonstration that all was normal up to the moment leading to the actual event. If, for example, the cockpit voice recorder demonstrated that all was routine up until a specific time and then -- if you'll pardon my language -- all hell broke loose, you would know that something catastrophic obviously occurred.

Other investigatory techniques could be used to determine if, in fact, the aircraft was hit by a missile, and perhaps even what kind. There might be explosive residue on components of the airplane, or specific patterns in sheet metal or other structures of the airplane associated with fragmentation of the missile warhead.

RFE/RL: There are clear concerns that a range of people have already had access to the impact site. Is there a danger this will compromise the investigation?

Burnside: It's an incredible loss. Investigators always want to start with a pristine, undisturbed crash site. The position of various items, the distance and direction of those items, can be extremely critical in determining the ultimate cause of an airplane crash.

If, in fact, this airplane was downed by a missile, those things will be less important in this instance than they might otherwise have been if the accident resulted from, shall we say, natural causes. Nevertheless, there is certainly the chance -- and it would be a high chance -- that important evidence is either disturbed or removed because of the lack of access control to the site.

RFE/RL: You mentioned explosive residue and other forensic evidence. Could any of this be used to indicate from what direction the missile was shot?

Burnside: It's unlikely, I would think. I think other evidence would be used to determine the source of the missile -- its launching site, etc. I'm aware of general media reports attributed to U.S. military officials saying that they had identified and/or tracked the missile and the time and the location from which it was launched. That data, combined with radar data or other positional data on the airplane itself, could in fact determine the direction from which the missile approached and its proximity to the aircraft.

RFE/RL: There have been varying reports about whether the black box recorders have been recovered and whose possession they're in. Is it ever possible to alter or tamper with the data stored on flight recorders?

Burnside: That's a question I would want to pose to the manufacturer of those recorders. I think ultimately any electronic device made by mankind can be altered and tinkered with by some other human. But demonstrating that that's occurred, and understanding how such tinkering could be in fact accomplished, is a question you'd have to pose to the manufacturers.

RFE/RL: Ukrainian aviation officials had issued some warnings about Ukrainian airspace, and some commercial airliners had already opted to circumvent Ukraine altogether. Were you surprised that there were still any commercial airliners flying over Ukraine?

Burnside: Yes and no. The type of document that is issued to aircraft operators of all kinds, whether they're commercial or private, is called a Notice to Airmen [NOTAM]. And NOTAMs are both prolific and sometimes difficult to correctly interpret. I'm aware of several NOTAMs having been published, both by the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. as well as foreign agencies, that restricted flight over that portion of Ukraine, or over other portions of Ukraine.

Aviation expert Joseph Burnside
Aviation expert Joseph Burnside

All the evidence I have seen, all the NOTAMs I have seen, reflect that the Malaysian airplane, if it was in fact cruising at 33,000 feet or Flight Level 330, was above and outside the restricted areas described in those NOTAMs.

Many airlines had decided to give Ukraine a wider berth than perhaps was dictated by those NOTAMs, but the fact that that aircraft was over that portion of Ukraine and outside the areas specified by the NOTAMs indicates to me that the [MH17] operators in fact were aware of the NOTAMs' existence and were attempting to comply with their provisions.

RFE/RL: This is a difficult question to ask, but surely one that's on the minds of many people. What is the fate of people on a plane hit by a missile? Is death instantaneous?

Burnside: Unfortunately, I would think not. Never having been in an airplane hit by a missile, that's a very difficult question to answer, but I think that depending on the proximity of the warhead, its size, and what fragmentation or shrapnel it may have generated, it's reasonable to presume that some passengers and crew were killed outright once the missile detonated. It's also reasonable to assume that some passengers and/or crew were not killed outright. They may have been rendered unconscious; they may have been injured in some other way. But it's reasonable to assume that at least some portion of the people aboard the aircraft were alive until the airplane hit the ground.

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