It was just a matter of time before a civil plane was shot down in Ukraine’s SAM-infested airspace

In spite of the amount of aircraft shot down by the rebels, civil airliners flew through the SAM-infested airspace of Eastern Ukraine with the risk of being mistakenly hit. As happened to the Malaysian Boeing 777.

It’s not a secret separatists own several anti-aircraft systems that they manage to use quite effectively. This week alone, they have shot down two military aircraft (an An-26 cargo plane near Luhansk on Jul. 14 and a Su-25 attack jet near Amvrosievka on Jul. 16) and, most probably, a civilian plane: MH17, earlier today.

USA Today infographic

Indeed, the Boeing 777 with 295 people on board, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was mistakenly shot down by the pro-Russia militia, who aimed at the Malaysia Airlines flight believing it was an AN-26 or another Ukrainian aircraft, as confirmed by some posts, then deleted on social media.

An-26 by accident

Even though there are reports that Russians personnel is supporting Ukrainian separatists on the field, it is quite likely the militia have become more proficient with such weapons by simply using them rather frequently against Ukrainian Air Force aircraft.

Obviously, every weapon system requires training. Unless you don’t have time for training: in this case you may use launchers and make mistakes, as downing a civilian plane instead of a surveillance one.

Confident no missile could be aimed at civil flights at cruising level, Ukrainian authorities had closed the airspace between the ground and 32,000 feet prior to the Malaysia Airlines incident. Therefore, airliners were routed through Kiev’s dangerous airspace in spite of the threat posed by uncontrolled SAM launchers.

When a missile hit MH17 1,000 above the ceiling of the restricted airspace, proving no aircraft is immune to deadly surface-to-air-missiles, Ukrainian airspace was partially closed.

Too late.

With so many anti-aircraft systems on the loose, it was just a matter of time a civil plane was threatened or, much worse, downed.

As happened to MH17.


Image credit:;  USA Today, Reuters


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.



        The point is : anyone can write such thing and name himself STRELKOV,or Leanardo de Vinci ,or Julius Ceasar so what?It is no evidence
        Also, conversation by “rebel commanders” published by CNN
        anyone who speaks Russian (it is one of 2 major languages in Ukraine) can make it.It is again – not a proof of anything except of CNN`s biased reporting

        • I am curious as to how the conversation was recorded. Seems like both sides would know communications were be monitored or maybe not? The burden now seems to be on the Russian separatist and they seem to be loosing the PR campaign.

      • Didn’t Strelkov remove the twitter messages once they discovered it was a not an AN-26 that was shot down? The conversations that were recorded between the commander and the field units.. was this a radio or cell phone transmission? Does anyone know?

        • I think you and me can make the same recording,only if you speak some Russian – we can send our masterwork to Ukrainian state security as additional proof,and everyone is going to believe it!
          Isn`t it at least SUSPICIOUS that – having great interest in Russia being condemned and rebels crushed,as they are incapable of doing it – MAYBE Ukrainian state security agency LIED and made itself this both internet post and recording?I do not trust them at all.

          • You sound worse than Putin…. That ok you keep blindly believing him, the richest man in Russia and Europe. Sure he gives a crap about Russians, just how much money he can keep stealing

            • Tim, question here was:
              – is it SURE that it was Strelkov`s post or not?
              – is it a valid proof, twitter post, for such serious crime as it is downing of civilian airplane?
              I am completely neutral on it,by logical thinking twitter post is not a proof, only if someone could provide EXACT IMTP address from which this post is written and connect it legally to Strelkov,I would believe it.
              Yet,as Flyn_Bryan says,it is HARDLY possible that they would discuss the entire incident knowing that transmission would be monitored by the Ukrainians.
              And about richest man in the world,isn`t it Bil Gates?
              By the way,as I lived in Russia, I am quite satisfied with Putin`s rule and I find many allegations simple propaganda.Of course, it could be better ,but in any other country there are also shortcomings.

              • -It’s his comments on VIDEO when the plane was destroyed I quote, not twitter

                -comms are not uniform in the area and between irregulars, mobile use is heavy. This transcript was from a phone convo which is easily intercepted, the level of clueless comments confirm to me their legitimacy.

                -bill gates has not been the richest man in years, your lack of relevant info shows, as does your bias

                -Russians are satisfied by Putin because Russians, while brave, are weak in many ways and needs a dictator to operate, like Iraq. Democracy will never happen because Russians wouldn’t know what to do with it

                -as an Australian I couldn’t care less about your neutrality, our children lay in fields

                At the end of the day, this conflict came from Russian desire for renewed imperialism and that’s enough for me… I’ll only be happy when Strelkov is hanging from a tree on his way to hell

          • I find it interesting they would discuss the entire incident knowing the transmission would be monitored by the Ukrainians.

  1. How is it that the so called rebels have surface to air defense systems–SAMs? That requires vehicles, control radar, etc. How could such a system operate in the Ukraine without their AF or army taking it out?
    Sounds like the rebels and Russia have screwed up.
    Not good ‘PR’ for their cause.

    • The pro-russians do not have any awareness of the airspace, save for looking up and spotting contrails. They turn on their radar briefly, for targeting, then move it. This is why it was hard to take out the Serbian installations, in the late 1990s.

      • Hello from Serbia – indeed it was so, this whole strategy was developed in details during old Yugoslavia (obviously it would work better on original 6-republics ground),
        Nevertheless, using just Serbia-Montenegro (2 out of 6 republics) installations, our army kept control of skies to the end.
        Even at the end of 88 days bombing of Serbia by 24 world`s most developed countries enemy warplanes could not fly lower then 5000m.
        Unfortunately, despite heroic efforts from Yugoslav army, during peace time 1995-1999 Serbia`s corrupted political leaders refused to invest in army,so we defended in 1999 with aged weapons bought in 1970 – 1988.

        • “Even at the end of 88 days bombing of Serbia by 24 world`s most
          developed countries enemy warplanes could not fly lower then 5000m.”


          NATO flew tens of thousands of sorties, and *two* planes were shot down. I think you might be slightly confused about who “kept control of the skies”.

          • Well,at least this is a statement by Wesley Clark who was commander of operation.It is indeed courageous to attack together 24 countries a small country.But our air defences and air force were not destroyed even after 88 days of bombing,and only 13 tanks were destroyed on the ground.
            if it would not be so,NATO would immediately occupy all of Serbia and proclaime Kosovo independent.
            Instead, NATO agreed that Kosovo remains in Serbia, did not enter Serbian ground,and only after diplomatic efforts proclaimed (not universally accepted) Kosovo independence.
            Now, if NATO could win the war,why they did not?
            PS painful F- 117 yes :-) Sorry we did not see it as it was “invisible”

            • Why would you think NATO wanted to invade and occupy Serbia? Was that ever a stated goal? Was there ever any buildup of ground forces in any way, shape, or form? No.

              You are living in a confused propaganda fantasy if you think NATO didn’t “win”. You *are* aware that the Slavs ran away, aren’t you?

        • “Our army kept control of skies to the end.”
          He he he, that’s a good one !

          So, all that bombed targets in Serbia were probably just an illusion.
          And they did fly under 5000m.

          I expected much more resistance from the “brave” Yugoslav army which hid in holes like rats instead of fighting.

          They are only courageous in killing civilians… When there is not any resistance.

          • Here are the facts:
            24 countries attacked with more then 1000 airplane, cruise-missiles etc
            Albanian KLA was fighting on the ground
            KLA completely destroyed, after 88 days of bombing air defences stil active (so if Yugoslavia did not have complete controle of the sky, so did not NATO as long as at least one SAM is active and can shot down its airpalne)
            Yugoslavia signed a truce, evacuated its army (which lost only 13 tanks in 88 days) and its military airplanes (stil had 50% left)
            Kosovo remained a part of Serbia in Yugoslavia
            Nato was integrated in UN peacekeeping force
            serbia was NEVER occupied

            Considering the statistics, (as 24 world`s most developed countries against Yugoslavia after 8 years of international sanctions on buying weapons) it is a huge victory of Yugoslavia,as NATo expected Yugoslavia to surrender in 3 days and let NATO occupy Serbia.
            To this day Serbia is free from NATO troops thanks to heroic defense of Yugoslav army.
            “courageous in killing civilians” is an insult bellow the belt,which has no meaning at all.

        • I’m merely pointing out battlefield tactics: if your radar does not emit, it cannot be targeted. For this reason, the Serbian army kept its radars off until it received info on incoming planes from ground spotters, via telephone or radio. It would then very briefly switch on the installations along the estimated flight path to attempt tracking, before turning them off and relocating them.

          It was a highly inefficient way of shooting down planes, but good at hiding precious equipment. The Serbs had little awareness of their airspace and zero control over it.

    • Sounds like the Russia-haters have screwed up, not asking such questions or even having proof, but still pointing fingers. Why let evidence or facts get in your way?

      • What are you talking about? It’s well established that the “rebels” have multiple Buk missile systems. They’ve posted pictures of them themselves. There’s even a video of a Buk cruising down the road back to Russia in the hours after the attack.

  2. This could escalate quickly. Prof.Stephen Cohen mentioned in an interview today how Putin is under
    tremendous pressure from all sections of the Russian media to intervene.

    If NATO does something stupid and provocative in response this will not turn out well. For any of us.

Comments are closed.