Boeing Absence From Crash Scene Testifies to Chaotic Aftermath

Jul 20, 2014 5:48 pm ET

(For more news on the crash, see EXT2 <GO>.)

July 21 (Bloomberg) -- As the manufacturer of the Malaysian Airlines 777 jet that crashed in eastern Ukraine July 17, Boeing Co. would typically be among the first parties to send in experts to help figure out what happened.

This time, at least for now, they’re staying home.

“As of this morning, no one from Boeing has gone, or has been requested,” Charlie Miller, a spokesman for the Chicago- based company, said in an e-mail yesterday.

The downing of Malaysian Flight 17 by a missile in territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists fighting Ukraine’s government throws out the rules for conducting crash investigations.

In normal aviation accidents, representatives of airlines, manufacturers and government agencies quickly assemble a team of experts to secure the crash scene, study the wreckage, and retrieve and analyze the flight recorders. While dealing with armed rebels and looters isn’t unprecedented, investigators are limited if they can’t get to a crash site at all.

“This has nothing to do with the aircraft or the air- travel system --it’s all about a wartime atrocity,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president at Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group Corp., an aviation consultant. “I can’t imagine any company would be eager to force its way into a situation that won’t yield a result. There’ll be no clarity until the site is secure, and in the hands of a responsible body of adults.”

Kiev Meetings

The Ukrainian government set up a special commission, led by the deputy premier and including interior ministry, intelligence and aviation officials, to study who fired the missile and why.

Representatives of the U.K., the Netherlands and the U.S. are in Kiev helping the Ukrainian government set up a separate structure under United Nations rules to investigate the aviation aspects of the case, a U.S. government official who’s been briefed on the group’s progress said yesterday.

Malaysia’s Transport Minister, Liow Tiong Lai, said his country is also on the investigations team and has sent 133 officials and experts to Kiev.

The aviation team hasn’t been allowed to go to the crash scene, which is being patrolled by hundreds of armed men from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the U.S. official said.

For now, the group will study airspace restrictions in eastern Ukraine at the time of the incident and the history of the flight, said this person, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the situation.

Teen Gunmen

While the Ukraine conflict has created unusual challenges, accident investigators have dealt with armed rebels and looted crash sites before, John Purvis, the former chief accident investigator for Boeing, said in an interview.

After the Dec. 29, 1994, crash of a 737-400 in eastern Turkey that killed 57 people, investigators from Boeing were hindered because the area was involved in a insurrection by anti-government rebels, he said.

“The military got in control of the site, but you couldn’t come in by road,” he said. “You had to fly in because the rebels controlled the surrounding ground areas.”

The government forces sent to protect them weren’t very reassuring, Purvis’ subordinates at the scene told him.

“The place was patrolled by 14-year-olds with rifles,” he said.

Black Boxes

Investigators eventually got the two crash-proof recorders, known as black boxes, that they usually rely on after aviation accidents to piece together what happened. They determined the Turkish Airlines pilots were confused and hit the side of a mountain in a snowstorm, he said.

There were conflicting reports yesterday on the whereabouts of the Malaysian airliner’s black boxes.

An aide for the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic’s self-proclaimed prime minister, Alexander Borodai, said yesterday that some “technical parts” that may be the recorders are in Donetsk and will be turned over to international organizations. That hasn’t been confirmed by any of those organizations.

Press representatives for the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations agency that separatists earlier said would get the recorders, didn’t return six phone calls and e-mail messages for comment. A number of world leaders and the Moscow-based Interstate Aviation Committee have said the ICAO should lead the probe.

Little Use

The aviation team in Kiev is working out such details as where the recorders will be downloaded if obtained, the U.S. official said. Both the U.S. and the Netherlands, which lost 193 citizens among the 298 people on board the flight to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, have recorder-analysis laboratories.

Even if the black boxes get into experts’ hands, there’s probably little of use investigators can learn from them beyond what happened in the “milliseconds” around when the missile hit the plane, said Paul Hayes, a safety expert for London-based Ascend Worldwide Ltd., which provides aviation data to insurers.

In previous accidents in which aircraft blew up in flight, such as the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 in the Atlantic Ocean off New York after vapors in a fuel tank exploded, the devices have had limited value because they stopped recording at the moment of the explosion. The flight recorders can help establish the precise time that the missile struck the plane and rule out any mechanical or pilot failures.

FBI Presence

The FBI dispatched two agents with training in forensics and crime scenes to assist in collecting evidence from the Ukraine crash scene, a U.S. law enforcement official said yesterday. The experts are waiting 800 kilometers (500 miles) away in Kiev for security conditions to improve, the official said.

“The people who did this can hardly be counted upon to ensure a safety environment for investigators,” Teal’s Aboulafia said. “They didn’t care about 300 passengers on a jet, so they’re not going to care about helping an eight- to 12- person investigating team.”

Crash investigators are used to coming up with creative ways to do their work if they can get to a site.

Looted Parts

After a 767-300 flown by Lauda Air went down in the jungles of Thailand on May 26, 1991, the location was so remote that it took days for the government to gain control of the site, said Purvis, the former Boeing investigator.

While the crash team suspected a faulty system on one of the engines triggered the accident, which killed all 223 aboard, they lacked hard evidence.

A valve on the engine that investigators thought may help unravel what happened couldn’t be located in the wreckage, so Boeing offered a reward.

A short time later, Purvis received a fax from a lawyer representing a person who had the valve, he said. It was colored gold and the person may have thought it was valuable, he said. It was eventually returned after the company paid a modest sum, he said.

--With assistance from Shamim Adam in Kuala Lumpur and Del Quentin Wilber in Washington.