LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — In the wake of the Malaysia Airlines crash that claimed the lives of 298 passengers Thursday in Ukraine, local aviation and terrorism experts are discussing how investigators will determine who’s responsible.
Aviation expert Ross Aimer said a missile strike would not cause a Boeing 777-200ER jetliner to disintegrate in midair and would likely leave large pieces of the plane — and important clues — intact. Those pieces will be key to helping investigators determine what happened.
“It will not completely shatter the aircraft into little pieces,” said Aimer, a retired United Airlines captain and a spokesman for Aero Consulting Experts.
The surface-to-air missile used in this attack targets heat, such as the engine and exhaust area of the plane.
“So, they would hit the engine, perhaps take out part of the wing, in which case the airplane will fall off the sky,” Aimer said.
The flight was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, where another Malaysia Airlines flight in March took off, never to be seen again. That missing aircraft, also a Boeing 777, is presumed to have crashed into the Indian Ocean.
“The good thing is that this happened over land; we know where the aircraft is. That’s a major difference between this one and the last Malaysia crash. We should be able to get the black boxes quickly and determine exactly what happened to this airplane,” Aimer said.
The border region between Russia and the Ukraine has been heavily traveled despite being embroiled in months of violence.
The FAA and authorities in several countries have given pilots warning not to fly over that part of the world.
“As a pilot who has flown these routes, these areas, I’m thinking to myself, ‘When you know there’s a hotspot around the world, why are you flying over it?’ ” Aimer said.
The incident is raising concerns about sophisticated weaponry in the hands of terrorists.
There have been other planes shot down in the region, which for the most part have been connected to the military and shot down with shoulder-fired missiles. This plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet, which many experts say surpasses the capabilities of rebel missiles.
Brian Jenkins, one of the nation’s leading experts on terrorism and transportation security, expects the U.S. to play an active role in determining who’s responsible.
“We will mobilize all of our intelligence capabilities to support the investigation, and that will include everything from satellite to communications intercepts to forensic examination of the wreckage on the ground,” Jenkins said.
Ukrainian officials are blaming rebels armed with Russian-made Buk antiaircraft missiles for the crash.
“If it were determined with certainty that this was shot down by the rebels with an air-defense system provided to them by the Russians, then that would be seen as a major escalation in the crisis in Ukraine, and certainly lead to a review of the relationship between the United States and Russia,” according to the former member of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.
The rebels are pointing their finger at the Ukrainian military.
Jenkins can think of two possible theories to support that claim: “Either an accidental shoot-down or what can be claimed, it was a deliberate provocation in order to frame the rebels and the Russians, and thereby draw in greater Western support to the Ukrainian government. Those claims will be made.”
He said the downing of Flight 17 will likely have a minor impact on air travelers, particularly those who now will be routed around the war zone in Ukraine.
Antiaircraft missiles in the hands of state-supported rebels, Jenkins said, are an emerging threat to passengers traveling through unfriendly skies.