Tehran shootdown: Ukraine Fligth PS752 opens geopolitical Pandora’s Box for a new decade
A commercial airliner full of passengers, shot down during a regional conflict involving one of the world’s most powerful states, with denials from those responsible swiftly contradicted as evidence leaks out from our increasingly interconnected world. The story of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 is not a new one for aviation.
Even more regrettably, it is not even unique in the last decade. For those on board PS752, and their loved ones, of course, it is a unique personal devastation. For an industry dedicated despite all its flaws to flying passengers at unprecedentedly high levels of safety, it provides stark reminders about how much more work is needed, and how that work may need to change.
PS752 was shot down at the start of a simmering, fast-moving hot conflict
At approximately 0100 Baghdad time on 3 January 2020, a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper fired missiles at two cars departing Baghdad International Airport, killing ten people including Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps major general Qasem Soleimani.
Four days later, following Soleimani’s funeral processions, Iran launched a ballistic missile attack at the Iraqi air bases at Erbil and Ain al Asad airbases, some 330km north and 160km west of Baghdad respectively. Both air bases host US troops in the country. The attack began shortly after 0100 local time on 8 January, and consisted of several waves of several missiles at a time, resulting in damage to structures, a helicopter and an uncrewed aerial vehicle.
Shortly afterwards, the US Federal Aviation Administration issued NOTAM flight restrictions to US carriers and commercial operators, which, in addition to prohibitions over the airspace of Iraq, Iran, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, “due to heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the Middle East, which present an inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations due to the potential for miscalculation or mis-identification.”
Few US flights would have been affected: US passenger airline operations in the region are few, but cargo carrier FedEx has a hub in Dubai.
Later that same morning, numerous airlines were still operating flights to and from Tehran. Departures included a Lufthansa Airbus A330-300 bound for Frankfurt, two Turkish Airlines A321s to Istanbul, an Austrian A320 for Vienna, and Qatar Airways flights to Doha on an A330-300 and to Hong Kong with a 777F freighter.
So was a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800, MSN 38124, registered UR-PSR, delivered fresh from the factory to the carrier in July 2016.
The aircraft took off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA) shortly after 0600 local time, approximately an hour and 15 minutes before sunrise, operating flight PS752 to Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport (KBP).
Some two minutes later, at just over 8,000 feet of altitude, the transponder signals from the aircraft ceased.
As the sun came up over Tehran, a wide débris field was revealed some fifteen kilometres to the northwest of the airport.
On board were 178 people: nine Ukrainian crew and 167 passengers of a variety of nationalities, the majority of whom were Iranian nationals and dual nationals. (The holding of dual nationalities by many passengers of Iranian nationality in particular means that the final details may end up differing slightly from what is known at the time of writing.)
Residents and citizens of Canada were particularly represented among the passengers, given that Ukraine International Airlines’ Kiev hub provided a useful and relatively inexpensive thrice-weekly connection with flights from Toronto to Kiev on to Tehran.
On 11 January, however, the Iranian line flipped completely
WHAT THE TRACKING DATA SHOW
Interpreting the information that is received by a variety of online flight tracking websites is a complex task. The World of Aviation spoke with Mikael Robertsson, co-founder of Flightradar24, who explained exactly what the data show.
“Flightradar24 data includes ADS-B data received by three ground stations in and around Tehran from the aircraft’s transponder,” Robertsson tells the WOFA. “In this case, ADS-B data includes the following: the aircraft’s ICAO 24-bit address, the flight’s call sign, latitude, longitude, altitude (reported at standard pressure in feet above mean sea level), ground speed (reported in knots) ‘squawk’, and vertical rate (computed by the aircraft and reported in feet per minute).
It’s useful to note the limitations of the data and what it really shows. “Altitude is reported at standard pressure (1013.25mb) as feet above mean sea level, meaning altitudes below the transition level must be corrected to local pressure,” Robertsson says. Moreover, “vertical rate is calculated and reported by the aircraft, providing an indication to positive or negative change in altitude. A more granular figure may be computed with the timestamp and altitude values in the historical data.”
“The ADS-B data indicates a standard departure from Tehran (IKA), as compared to previous departures of other flights on the same day and previous PS752 departures. PS752 appears to be following the PAXID 2G departure from IKA, similar to previous flights on the morning of 8 January,” Robertsson notes.
PAXID 2G is a standard departure route from the airport, and one fundamental question for Iran is thus why an aircraft that seems to have been travelling on a commercial route specified by Iran, at a height and speed within normal parameters, was targetted.
The investigation and the geopolitics initially seemed to complicate matters significantly
In the three days between the crash of flight PS752 and Iran’s statement accepting responsibility for shooting down the aircraft, the scale of the geopolitical impact on the potential investigation seemed immense.
At its most distilled, the situation was that a US-made aircraft looked very much like it had either been shot down, been blown up or suffered a catastrophic structural failure for some other reasons, and involved:
– an aircraft built and certified by a US company crashing in Iran, while the United States was exchanging missile strikes with Iran
– a Ukrainian operator, in the context of the impeachment of the US president revolving around allegations involving the Ukrainian president
– a Boeing 737, in the context of the ongoing investigations by the US Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Justice into Boeing as a result of the 737 MAX
– a context of international concern about the level of closeness between Boeing and the present US administration.
The geopolitics of the investigation was looking equally murky: ordinarily accident investigators from the Boeing and the US National Transportation Safety Board, as manufacturer and state of manufacture, would have been on the first plane to the crash site. But with the US and Iran staring down the muzzle of a shooting war, the complexity was obvious.
Initial statements from official sources in both Iran and Ukraine were unequivocal in initial statements that the aircraft had encountered technical difficulties.
This was met with scepticism from experts: the 737-800 is a tried and tested aircraft, and is not known to simply fall out of the sky. Early pictures of the crash scene heightened that scepticism as the débris field appeared to suggest breakup of the aircraft at altitude rather than a ground impact intact or mostly intact.
Pictures of what appeared to be a missile from a Russian 9K331 Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) surface to air system emerged, while investigative journalists unearthed and confirmed videos that seemed to show first one missile and then a second streaking through the dark Tehran skies towards an aircraft that looked to be PS752.
It became very clear on 9 July that the United States was briefing both its allies — notably the Canadians — and its domestic press that the aircraft had been shot down, in the ongoing context of denials from Iran.
Meanwhile, in contravention of accident investigation norms, images emerged of bulldozers clearing wreckage from the crash site on 9 July, while video footage of the missiles being fired, captured by security cameras and civilians expecting US retaliation for the ballistic strikes on their airbases, emerged.
For three days, the big question in observers’ minds was whether Iran’s denials of responsibility and accusations of a catastrophic technical failure would remain as evidence of a shootdown mounted.
On 11 January, however, the Iranian line flipped completely, with the defiance turning to contrition and regret.
A statement from the Iranian military cites a high level of military readiness following the US airstrike on Soleimani in Baghdad, and the Iranian ballistic missile response earlier on the morning of the incident. The Iranian flight, says the statement, was mistaken for a hostile aircraft and its shootdown was therefore human error.
While the Iranian statement suggests that the aircraft was at an altitude and position that resembled a hostile aircraft, ADS-B tracking information from FlightRadar24 suggests that neither its altitude nor its departure track was materially different from others that same morning.
…that same morning, numerous airlines were still operating
Beyond MANPADS: the ground-to-air missile threat to aviation
Fundamentally, there are clear and present dangers to operating commercial aircraft in and around conflict zones, whether at higher or lower altitudes.
These dangers are lower at cruise altitude, owing to the relatively lower number of missiles that are capable of shooting down an airliner around 30,000 feet in the air. But the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 at cruising altitude by a Russian-made 9K37 Buk (US/NATO reporting names SA-11 Gadfly) is an all too recent example of the risks.
The dangers are much higher, however, when operating in and out of airports in conflict zones. The proliferation of cheap, effective lower altitude MANPADS — man-portable air-defence systems — and their production by some two dozen countries, plus their supply to a variety of state and non-state actors over the last seven or so decades, means that they are a major threat.
In October 2003, then-US secretary of state Colin Powell highlighted that “no threat is more serious to aviation” than MANPADS. A month later, an Airbus A300 was struck by a MANPADS missile on departure from Baghdad.
The evidence so far in the case of PS752, however, suggests that the aircraft was shot down not by a MANPADS system but by a larger system based on a tracked vehicle, the Russian 9K331 Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) short-range, low-to-medium altitude surface to air missile launcher.
Should airlines still be overflying Iran?
The question of overflights in the Gulf region is a complex one that is, as ever, mired in geopolitics. For a start, some airlines, primarily hailing from majority Muslim nations, avoid flying over Israel for political reasons.
Next, there are five states that are current conflict hotspot zones that some airlines are avoiding: existing conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, plus now Iran. As a rule, these are not necessarily complete interdictions, but rather there are areas in the various countries that are more or less safe, and airline security chiefs’ tasks include making this sort of analysis.
In addition, there is the complexity of the diplomatic crisis involving Qatar and a number of its neighbours, most notably in this present context Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, sometimes called the Arab Quartet. Qatar Airways is banned from those states’ airspaces, and has had to dogleg either north and west to overfly Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey or east to the north of the Straits of Hormuz and over Omani airspace.
As a result, the question of whether airlines should overfly Iran (or Iraq, or Syria, or Yemen, or any other country) is one that’s complex and dynamic. If you had suggested in the not too distant past that a “safer” air route from Europe to Asia would be over Afghanistan, you might have found a chilly reception.
In some edge cases where airlines would have to take the long way round, the question may be whether a particular flight can remain operational. Qantas flight QF9, for example, was rerouted on the westbound leg from Perth to London to avoid both Iraq and Iran, increasing flight times by 40-50 minutes and necessitating a reduction in passenger loads.
While the eastbound QF10 return remains at full load, and the longer flight time has been absorbed into the schedule, the economic sustainability of flights at the end of their aircraft’s ranges comes into question.
That’s true not just for the widebody longhaul end of the market, like QF9 and 10. It’s also true for the increasingly capable narrowbody aircraft like the A321neo and its long-range and extra-long-range family members.
The geopolitics of the investigation was looking equally murky
Questions have to be asked about the coordination of air safety information
The world is moving faster than ever before, and so is information. Before the fires burning on the outskirts of Tehran were even out, questions were being asked about whether Tehran airport should still have been open, and whether airlines should have been flying in and out. For those of us who remember the 2014 shootdown of Malaysia airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, these questions were all too familiar.
By and large, decisions about whether to operate to, from or over a particular airport or airspace and are up to individual airlines, unless their national regulator has precluded them from doing so. The FAA’s interdiction of Iranian overflight or operations for US carriers is just one example of that.
The problem is, of course, that not all airlines are equipped to resource their safety departments to the same extent, and even when they do the calls that airline security executives make are not always the same.
One might imagine that western European airlines like British Airways and Lufthansa, for example, would make similar decisions, but Lufthansa was still operating to Tehran — indeed, its flight LH601, and its subsidiary Austrian’s flight OS872, had departed just a few hours earlier than PS752.
FlightRadar24 cofounder Mikael Robertsson tells the World of Aviation that “at least 6 flights adjusted their flight paths in the hours following the missile launches. Four British Airways flights adjusted their routing, with two flights to Dubai diverting to Istanbul, one flight from Mumbai to London making a 180-degree turn at over Kuwait and re-routing through Saudi Arabia, and one flight from London to Kuwait City also re-routing through Saudi Arabia instead of Iraq. A Scoot flight from Singapore to Berlin and a Kuwait Airways flight to London also routed through Saudi Arabia instead of Iraq. A few airlines had already adjusted their flight paths to avoid Iran prior to 7 January, including Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways.”
Greater international coordination of safety information could well be beneficial to reducing the risk of another aircraft being shot down in similar circumstances. The question is, of course, in what forum that coordination should take place.
United Nations agency ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, is often mentioned as one option. But whether ICAO is the right agency for this coordination is a reasonable question, not least because of the agency’s own actions and the geopolitical problems it faces as a UN body.
In the last week of January this year, the ICAO staffers operating the agency’s Twitter account began what can only be described as a bizarre series of ideological moves, blocking users from reading the account’s information if they mentioned Taiwan, in the context of the spreading outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus, or advocated for the island’s inclusion in countermeasures coordinated by UN bodies.
ICAO, like other United Nations bodies — including, in this context, the World Health Organisation — recognises the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal representative of China, based on General Assembly Resolution 2758 of 1971.
Taiwan is thus excluded.
“Irrelevant, compromising and offensive material will be removed and the publisher precluded,” ICAO said on Twitter, citing “an unusually large amount of spam”. This seemingly referred to users asking questions (of greater and lesser degrees of pointedness) about the rationale for officially excluding the world’s 11th busiest airport by international passenger traffic, Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei, from anti-coronavirus coordination efforts.
A complexity and source of some raised eyebrows is that the director general, Liu Fang, is Chinese and previously worked at the Civil Aviation Administration of China. So, it seems from widely publicised LinkedIn listings, is at least one of the officials responsible for the agency’s social media. International civil servants are required to be impartial and neutral. In an age when their personal histories are easily visible online, this is more important than ever.
The story of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 is not a new one for aviation
Fundamentally, global aviation safety relies on national and international regulatory bodies and forums being, to the greatest possible extent, a step apart from politics.
This is as true for the one China question as it is for the question of whether the US Federal Aviation Administration is sufficiently independent from US government interests around Boeing in the context of the 737 MAX disasters.
If ICAO is to be the forum for any improved international information sharing, the world community must have confidence that it will be independent of any undue influence from any one state or group of states. That is especially true given that East Asia, and especially the South China Sea, is a notable geopolitical flashpoint and is being increasingly militarised. It is beyond neither the realms of the imagination nor the pages of military thriller books of varying quality that the next time an airliner is shot down by a state actor it might be in the area demarcated by the nine-dash line.
Options other than ICAO exist, of course. Airlines based in mainland China and Taiwan coexist within airline coordinating trade body IATA. It seems baffling that they are unable to do so within ICAO.
Pragmatism must rule the day here. If ICAO, as a result of its UN agency nature, is unable to put practical action before political beliefs of member states — or those of its officials — then its vital safety roles must be reassigned elsewhere.
But the questions go wider. At a time when the United States is untrusted and increasingly in conflict with other states, the question of who is best placed to investigate any particular American-made airliner accident may result in an answer that is not “the NTSB”. What does the geopolitics mean for future incidents like this?
What discussions, information, procedures and agreements would need to be put in place in order, say, for the French Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses, the German Bundesstelle für Flugunfalluntersuchung or the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, say, to be a sort of designated alternate agency, able to be requested to take the lead in certain circumstances?
Aviation, and particularly regulators and the governments responsible for them, must answer these questions — and many more — to ensure that a passenger airliner remains the safest way to travel through the 2020s and beyond.
The question of overflights in the Gulf region is a complex one
Korean Air flight 007, 1983
A Soviet Union Sukhoi Su-15 Flagon shot down a Boeing 747-230B operated by Korean Air Lines over the island of Sakhalin while the aircraft was flying from Anchorage to Seoul after refuelling en route from New York.
Later analysis would suggest that the aircraft’s autopilot remained in in ILS (instrument landing system) mode rather than HEADING mode, leading to the aircraft straying into restricted Soviet airspace, either through direct crew error or by the crew failing to notice the deviation.
Iran Air flight 655, 1988
The US guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes fired a surface-to-air missile at an Iran Air Airbus A300 flying over Iranian territorial waters en route from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. The crew of the Vincennes, discovered to be inside Iranian waters, mistook the aircraft for an F-14 Tomcat.
In a 1996 settlement at the International Court of Justice, the US recognised the shootdown as “a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident”.
DHL Baghdad incident, 2003
An Airbus A300B4-200F aircraft operating for DHL Express was struck by a Russian 9K34 Strela-3 (US/NATO: SA-14 Gremlin) shoulder-fired missile at approximately 8,000 feet after takeoff from Baghdad, despite a maximum-angle climb out of the airport
The A300 landed without crew injury after an impressive feat of piloting, using only differential engine thrust after a total loss of hydraulics control.
Malaysia Airlines flight 17, 2014
A Russian Buk (US/NATO: SA-11 Gadfly) mobile surface-to-air missile destroyed a Boeing 777-200ER flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over eastern Ukraine during the separatist conflict in the east of the country.
Findings by the Dutch Safety Board on aviation matters and the Netherlands-led Joint Investigation Team on the criminal side highlighted that the missile system had moved into Ukraine on the day of the shootdown and then returned to Russia with one missile fewer. By and large, the international community has concurred that Russia was responsible for the shootdown.