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.


  1. So there’s citizens from Russia, the EU, UK and US. This either gives Putin an excuse to send Military Engineers to recover the wreckage and in doing so they can supply the rebels with more weapons and train them using them. But this is coincidence, what if MH370 was shot down by the Russians to take the world’s media of his back and face the Aircraft. Again it has happened when there is concern in Ukraine and Russia and MH17 goes down, logical or am I very crazy.

    • You seem to be. The EU is not a country and therefore does not have its own citizens. Citizens are of its member countries.

  2. Shame on
    Why remove my comment?!

    Just like The forgotten story of Iran Air Flight 655.
    US navy murder 290 iranian passengers.

        • There’s no SLA for comments. It may be moderated days later. Or may never appear if they are not acceptable.

          • Dave, ever thought of creating a paid entry account with auto comment acceptance

            Anyone who breaches rules loses the account and fifty bucks

    • Yes, Iran Air Flight 655 was a huge mistake. You know what the difference is? The United States quickly took all blame and announced it was a huge mistake.

      You think you will get that from Putin having supplied the rebel terrorist with these advanced SAM’s? Not in a million years, even if the evidence is incontrovertible. Criminals don’t admit their crimes.

      • Mistake?!
        U.S captain award a nice medal of honor for his murdering, mistake? Quickly?! Really? You can’t change the history.

      • U.S Captain award a nice medal of honor for his murdering!
        Mistake?! Proud for murdering and burning persian passengers!

        (Please don’t remove my comments!)

        • 100% agreement from Australia… Captain Rogers should have been given a life sentence. Outright murderer

          I’ve always wondered why Iran has never sent a team to get vengeance against him for it.

          Just like we should. SAS Team should be flying in and either shooting dead or capturing the POS insurgent who leads the area, then blow that BUKen thing to hell

          • You know the Ukranians are saying it was a training “accident” on their part now? You did hear the original audio was faked by splicing bits of conversations together and had a creation date of one day prior to the crash? Did you realise that both the Aussie and US Govts went with the audio “evidence” when everyone must have known it was BS. The conversation didn’t even make sense. The admissions have come with very little media coverage, unlike the original threats from the top level. MH17 was re-directed onto the battle field, something it had avoided for weeks. Shadowed by two fighters, and most likely shot down with an air to air missile. Only BUKs in the area were Ukraine BUKs. Russians have presented their case, no accusations, just satellite images and radar images. Its all on the web, and the US response has been that they have “social media postings” to “prove” their case. Not much mention of the fake audio now except to say that at least it was real Russian voices, even if it was spliced and faked. Preparing the audio 1 day in advance (at least the English subtitle version) does look like foreknowledge. The version released by the Ukraine govt with no sub titles had an even earlier creation date. The yanks and the Ukranians knew all along. Certainly all the press had to know the audio evidence was faked. The conversation was laughable. A military officer saying “They must be spies” in response to being told an airliner has been shot down? Really?

          • And you’re being obsuficating, and misleading. He didn’t get an MOH, though he did get the Legion of Merit for his time at sea including the period of the Iran flight, his AWS received commendations based on the action

            EVERY investigation including his COs showed Rogers to be a cowboy and outside his assigned duty, even disobeying orders to get his ship in action

            Bottom line he is as responsible for Murder and a war crime (VP Bush brushed off the incident as being a vessel at war) as much as these Rebels…

            • Rogers got a standard award for his position and time at sea, it wasn’t anything special. I’m not saying the Iranian incident wasn’t a tragic loss and mistake. That is obvious.

              At least we acknowledged the US did it, you will get nothing such from Russia and it’s rebels even if the evidence is incontrovertible. Plus the scenarios were different, in one you had a ship being aggressed on by Iranian PT boats, and an airliner that just happened to take off from an airfield that had enemy F14’S.

              They even tried to contact the plane on multiple guard frequencies which they should have been monitoring. Yes, Rogers was a cowboy but with bad information from his staff he acted aggressively to the perceived attack.. They fell into scenario fullfilment, but it wasn’t a cut and dry situation.

              Now compare that to Russian supplied rebels just randomly shooting SAM’S at aircraft in Eastern Ukraine and there is no comparison. Even the rebels twitter about shooting down an Antonov then quickly retracted it when they realized it was a civilian airliner.

              Putin has blood all over his hands in this no way around it. Just like the Soviets did shooting down the Korean airliner with Positive visual ID on an airliner. Putin is a tyrant and I hope this incident really hits the Russian economy hard until the people can get that Soviet minded leader out of there.

              • Agree with your recount but Putin will pay as much as Andropov did over KAL007, and as much as Reagan -Bush did over Iran Air (Bush -‘I’ll never, no matter the situation, apologise for the United States… ‘ Sounds very Putin like)

                Rodgers shouldn’t have received the LoM, standard or not, for refusing orders he should have been subject to a court martial or discharged

              • You forget an important aspect: the USS Vincennes was deliberately violating Iranian territorial waters attacking Iranian vessels, when it shot down IA655 in Iranian airspace.
                The “guard frequencies” were 7 times the military, and 3 times civilian emergency ones. Obviously a civilian aircraft wouldn’t have the gear for the military frequencies.
                The USS Vincennes helicopter had already unprovokedly opened fire at Iranian vessels a few weeks ago, american cowboy stile.
                As for the acknowledgement of guilt, the US didn’t admit any responsibility, or legal liability, and made a $131.8M settlement (typical for US justice, where corporations assume no guilt, but pay for it).

                • There is no such thing as “military” guard frequencies, although UHF is used a lot by the military. Guard frequencies apply to all aircraft. The Vincennes broadcast its warnings by voice radio, using the emergency UHF and VHF channels that aircraft crews would hear if they followed standard practice of monitoring those frequencies.

                  Those frequencies are 121.5 and 243.0. As a military pilot we constantly monitor both. Civilian aircraft are ALWAYS suppose to monitor at least 121.5. I can’t help it if the Iranian pilots weren’t paying attention to their radios or had them improperly configured.

                  As for the Vincennes helicopter “opening fire first”, complete nonsense. The helicopter did no such thing and wasn’t even configured with air to surface weapons.

                  At 2:10 a.m. EDT, three Iranian Boghammar gunboats fired on a helicopter that had flown off the Vincennes on a reconnaissance mission. The helicopter flew back to the cruiser unscathed. The Vincennes and a smaller warship, the frigate USS Elmer Montgomery, a half-hour later closed on the gunboats and put them under fire with 5-inch guns, sinking two and damaging the third.

                  Two minutes after the Airbus took off, the far-reaching radars of the Vincennes Aegis cruiser saw the plane was coming its way. The skipper of the ship, operating under liberalized rules of engagement that call for U.S. captains in the Persian Gulf to fire before being fired upon to avoid another Stark disaster, warned the approaching aircraft to change course.

                  The Vincennes and most airliners are equipped with identification of friend or foe (IFF) electronic boxes that query each other across the sky to establish identities. The Vincennes’ IFF questioned the Airbus IFF via telemetry, but received no response. A response would come in radio pulses that would be deciphered and displayed as an identifying number on the ship’s combat information center consoles.

                  “The suspect aircraft was outside the prescribed commercial air corridor,” Defense Department officials said later that the Airbus was four miles west of commercial air corridor. “More importantly,” Crowe continued, “the aircraft headed directly for Vincennes on a constant bearing at high speed, approximately 450 knots.”

                  The US acknowledged it had shot down the Iranian plane. It won’t admit “guilt” as the Iranian’s were extremely negligent in the operation of their aircraft over a war zone and failed basic safety protocols.

                  The Iranian shootdown and the MH17 shootdown COULD NOT BE ANY MORE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.

                  The Soviet shootdown of Korean Airlines is WAY more similar in ineptitude of the MH17 shootdown.

                  • 243.0MHz is used _only_ by the military, on which 7 of the 10 contact attempts were made.
                    The helicopter firing incident did happen on June 2nd, a few weeks _before_ the fateful day, depicting the trigger-happy spirit on the Vincennes’ crew.
                    Military IFF Mode II would get no answer from a civilian aircraft transponder. IA655 was squawking Mode III 6760 during it’s flight, and complied to all regulations.
                    The acknowledgement came later, the second day as pressure was mounting, at first the Pentagon was still claiming to have shot down a F14.
                    They denied for years the violation of Iran’s territorial waters, and the settlement came almost a decade later after Iran brought the matter to the International Court of Justice in 1989.

                  • Mr. James Robinson: Thanks for your service to our country. Thank you very much for your detailed comments and clarity on this issue. You contrasted very well the MH17 and Korean Air shootdown with the Iran Air Flight 655. I can see “failures” on the different players involved. I have a question for you and appreciate your response. But first preface my question, by saying I do believe in American exceptionalism, there is a role for commanders like Captain Rogers aggressiveness. My question, what would happen if the President of the U.S. apologizes for Iran Air Flight 655 and to the civilians that died? Thanks

      • Flight 655 was an outright war crime and captain rogers should have been tried as such, instead he gets a medal… Beyond criminal

      • Easy mistake. They said sorry. Surely thats enough? Unless you are Libya in which case the TWA jet cost them $2bn in settlements. When you have the biggest stick in the playground – you make the rules not abide by them. Simples.

      • It had exceeded its expected maximum deviation sixfold, that’s about how. What about Russian commercial flight shot down by the Ukrainian military on 4 October 2001?

  3. David, I would be interested in how a SAM system – like the Buk – identifies aircraft. Do they only see a dot on a radar screen (therefor not knowing whether it is friend or foe), or do they have mor sophisticated methods?

    • The SA-11 version of the BUK is relatively modern (designed in the 70s, deployed in the 80s) so I’d be shocked if it doesn’t have an IFF capability. Now whether the guys running the thing know how to use the IFF capability, that’s a lot less certain…

      • Its curious why rebels would request or accept such a system. Shoulder mounted systems – yes, get a visual – fire! But state style weapons? Seems illogical. The Su25 is a low level ground attack aircraft.

        On the other hand, the Ukrainians getting foreign powers involved on their side would be a fantastic strategic advantage and thus would be incentive in declaring the airspace *safe* in the hope of snaring a hapless victim.

        • …yeah, because masked and heavily armed folks running around the countryside have made so many logical decisions so far….

  4. when the Ukies shot down a Russian civilian airliner in 2001, I could see shrapnel holes on the fuselage even on TV pictures.
    This time there are no such holes… which to me indicates it wasn’t shot down or not with a Buk thing which, rather than hit them, explodes nearby and sprays targets with thousands of shrapnel bits.
    My guess at this time — it’s an old 16-year-old 777 falling apart in mid-air — essentially the same fate at its predecessor 777 MH370 of four months back.

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