The seizing of flight recorders from the downed Malaysian Airlines jet by Russia-backed Ukrainian rebels has parallels with the Soviet response to the destruction of another civil airliner more than three decades ago.
After Sukhoi Su-15 interceptors used air-to-air missiles to shoot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 when the Boeing Co. 747 strayed into Soviet airspace in 1983, a security clampdown was immediately imposed at the crash site off Sakhalin Island, with the jet’s so-called black boxes spirited away from the scene.
Separatists in eastern Ukraine said yesterday they’ve stripped the flight recorders from Malaysian Air Flight 17 after the plane carrying 298 people was brought down on July 17, with international investigators still struggling to gain access to the site and bodies removed from the scene held up en route for examination. Following the 1983 incident the data and cockpit-voice recorders weren’t released for almost 10 years.
“The world was pretty disgusted at the time,” said David Learmount, air-safety editor at Flightglobal, who reported on the Korean Air incident. “The Soviets just said ‘Look, they came into our territory, so we shot them down.’ But those were different times. The Cold War is supposed to be over.”
In eastern Ukraine, self-proclaimed Premier Alexander Borodai of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said he believes his forces have retrieved the black boxes and stored them in the embattled region’s capital city, from where they will be handed over to experts.
Following the Korean Air tragedy in August 1983 -- which came five years after Korean Flight 902 survived an airborne attack by landing on a frozen lake -- the Soviet Union failed to release the flight recorders or comment on whether bodies had been found. The incident was one of the tensest in the Cold War, coming five months after U.S. President Ronald Reagan had labeled his ideological adversary an “evil empire” and revealed plans for the SDI “Star Wars” missile shield.
In a television address to the nation, Reagan called the Korean crash a “massacre” and a “crime against humanity.”
It was not until long after the end of the Cold War that Russian President Boris Yeltsin released the black boxes to South Korea. A revised study from the International Civil Aviation Organization heard that the 269 passengers and crew on the 747 bound for Seoul from New York via Anchorage, Alaska, had probably been conscious for 12 minutes after the missile attack before the plane shattered as it hit the ocean.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has defied international anger over his nation’s alleged role in last week’s downing of the Malaysian jetliner. The U.S. and Europe have threatened further sanctions against his increasingly isolated country.
While the fragmentation missile thought to have taken out Flight MH17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur might mean the recorders are of limited technical value in reconstructing the cause of last week’s crash, the uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts of the devices adds to the chaos of an investigation caught in the regional military standoff.
Ronald Schleede, a retired U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said that while the time it has taken for accident investigation teams to reach the crash scene in Ukraine was longer than he could recall, the situation echoes other crashes that occurred in international hot spots.
The NTSB sent a team of investigators to Colombia in December 1995 after an American Airlines plane struck a mountain near Cali, killing 160 of 164 people aboard, Schleede said. Rebels fighting the Colombian government controlled the area, making it difficult for investigators to reach the scene, he said.
Avoiding such hurdles that may raise questions about the Ukraine investigation makes it possible that the International Civil Aviation Organization will take over investigating the aviation aspects of the incident, he said.
Even if inspectors are able to carry out a full probe, the delay in securing the site and gathering evidence will provide an easy get-out for anyone unhappy with the results.
“They’ll simply say that the scene has been contaminated and that they don’t accept the findings,” said Flightglobal’s Learmount, who is a former Royal Air Force pilot. “Even if it was them doing the contaminating.”