MH17: The missile, black box, route explained

The crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 has generated a barrage questions – with very few answers. On a routine flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the plane flew over the troubled region of eastern Ukraine where fighting continues between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military. The Boeing 777 was allegedly shot down by an advanced missile, despite flying at an altitude considered safe. We take a closer look at the details.

Advanced missile

While no concrete conclusion has been drawn, many voices, including the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, have said flight MH17 was shot down by a missile. The blame game has begun with fingers pointing towards pro-Russian separatists, who have denied the allegations.

Plane crash: More on the weaponry
Plane crash: More on the weaponry

If the jet was shot, experts said it is likely to be at the hands of an advanced radar-guided surface-to-air missile. The Boeing 777 was travelling at an altitude of 33,000 feet, above the altitude that the Ukrainian aviation authority deemed safe on that route. But only such a powerful rocket would be able to hit this target.

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Usually rebel militia and terrorists have access to less-complicated missiles that are launched from a shoulder-mounted weapon and that cannot travel as high as the plane was flying.

"It is relatively unusual. The pictures that we are used to seeing of insurgent groups, rebel groups, are of using lower sophisticated weapons…which are relatively easy to operate…against a target at relatively short range," Edward Hunt, senior defense consultant at IHS Jane's, told CNBC in a TV interview.

"These kind of systems that would have been used against an aircraft at 30,000 feet are more complicated and not usually found outside state and national armed forces."

Questions over whether this was a deliberate attack or an accident still remain. Hunt said that weapons like this often have computer system to recognize a civil aircraft, but in this instance the check was not made or was not able to be made.

Black box

One of the first things investigators think about after an aircraft incident is the black box – a recording device in the plane – that can give an idea of what happened on board. But it has its limitations.

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It needs to be physically located and not damaged. In the case of flight MH17, the rocket would have cut off power supply to the black box leaving only a few seconds of useful information on it.

Difficult to tamper with black box on flight MH17: Pro
Difficult to tamper with black box on flight MH17: Pro

"They will not be able to tell you what's happening in terms of a missile attack…and if the power supply is interrupted then… (it) will cease functioning totally and we won't be able to…recall anything about what happened to the aircraft," Martin Adler, flight safety specialist at the British Airline Pilots Association, told CNBC in a TV interview.

"But overall, the black boxes and the recordings themselves are actually reasonably secure. It would be very very difficult for anybody to tamper with the actual recording itself."

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On Thursday, pro-Russian separatists claimed they were in possession of the first black box from the flight, while on Friday, a Reuters cameraman said that rescue workers had secured the second one.

Dangerous flight path

Much has been made of the altitude that flight MH17 was flying at, but questions have also been asked of the dangerous route that was being taken.

Flight altitude was Ukraine's decision: Eurocontrol
Flight altitude was Ukraine's decision: Eurocontrol

The Kuala Lumpur-bound plane was flying over eastern Ukraine where violence between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukraine government forces. But speaking at a press conference on Friday, the Malaysian transport minister Liow Tiong Lai denied that Malaysian Airlines was taking a shorter route to save fuel and costs.

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Some international airlines have avoided this route for some months already. The route was approved by Ukraine's civil aviation authority.

"Apart from the airspace which is actually closed or restricted in some way, each airline and the pilot in command have the responsibility and the authority to choose the route that they will fly providing that route is available for use," Brian Flynn, a spokesperson at Eurocontrol, the air-traffic co-ordination control centre for Europe, told CNBC in a TV interview.

- By CNBC's Arjun Kharpal