Here’s why Malaysia Airlines MH17 overflew Ukraine on its way to Malaysia

Jul 18 2014 - 12 Comments

In order to save time, fuel airliners to fly from departure airport to destination as close as possible to a Great Circle.

A great circle is the shortest path interconnecting two points on a sphere.

Since Earth is almost spherical, routes followed by aircraft follow great circles between departure and destination because they are shorter, thus make flights shorter and cheaper for airlines.

Obviously, it’s impossible to fly along the Great Circle until destination: aircraft departing from an airfield have to follow SIDs (Standard Instrumental Departure) routes, have to comply with airspace restrictions, avoid dangerous airspaces (or fly above them, as in the case of the MH17 shot down over Ukraine) or bad weather etc.

Nevertheless, routes are planned in such a way they are as close as possible to a Great Circle and the ideal GC route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crosses Ukraine.


Image credit: Great Circle Mapper

All European airlines followed (more or less) the same route and crossed the same airspace during long haul flights to Asia. Indeed, Singapore Airlines SQ351 (B777) and Air India AI113 (B787) were in the vicinity of Malaysia Airlines MH17 when it was hit by a missile (or more than one) most probably fired by an SA-11 Gadfly system.

Ukrainian authorities had banned aircraft from flying below FL320 (32,000 ft) but MH17, at FL330 was still within the reach of some of the most deadly weaponry in the hands of pro-Russia separatists that have been using SAM (Surface to Air Missile) systems quite effectively against Ukrainian Air Force aircraft.

The airspace over eastern Ukraine was closed to civilian flights after the incident.

Since no other restriction was in place, Malaysia Airlines flight dispatcher could plan the usual route to from AMS to KUL. Unfortunately that route brought the Boeing 777 in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Top image credit: Wiki


  • Timmeehh

    Flying this route would have avoided Ukraine and only added 7 mi to the flight.

    What a waste.

  • P.Act

    They were innocent people and I hope the Russian Terrorists will pay a painful price for that.

  • R.Lopaka

    “In order to save time, fuel airliners to fly from departure airport to destination as close as possible to a Great Circle”…….unless their’s a GOOD reason NOT TO. At least at US airlines. Reasons like weather, volcanos, turbulence & WAR ZONES. US Capts have 100% route discretion.

  • ossie

    The shortest path would be way away from the one of the fateful day. 30km N or S would have been more than enough to make the difference between life, and death. This wasn’t the “usual route to from AMS to KUL”.
    The question remains: why was MH17 directed exactly above the conflict zone, and why was it given the lowest possible FL above the closed airspace, despite the request for a higher altitude?
    Would you care to elaborate on the “vicinity” statement? A map would be very helpful.
    Also, the type of SAM claimed to be in the hands of self-defence forces is in massive amounts in the area on the side of government forces.
    There is no evidence to date of usage of other SAMs besides MANPADs by the self-defence forces.

    • Tim

      Please contribute facts not fiction. This area is the established direct route between sub Asia and Europe and MH17 was not vectored into the area, it was part of an established flight path. Pro Russiaian forces have proudly proclaimed their capture of this type of launcher nearly three weeks ago

      Frankly this is no time for blind insular politically biased commentary, you show your ignorance well

      • ossie

        Would you care do define more precisely the “established flight path”? The direct route is about 200km to the north.
        Oh yes, tweets, the most credible source of (dis)information. Get a TELAR, just push the fire button, and the damn enemy plane falls out of the sky…
        Then why would the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Vitaly Yarema declare that “militias in the self-proclaimed Donetsk, and Luhansk people’s republics do not have Ukrainian air defense missile systems Buk and S-300 at their disposal”?
        What did you say about facts, and ignorance?

      • Pepe Le Cox

        If the “Pro Russiaian forces have proudly proclaimed their capture of this type of launcher nearly three weeks ago”, why the Kiev government didn’t close the air corridor over the conflict area? they are the responsibles for any flight crossing their territory! who is the first guilty here? this was an avoidable tragedy

  • What a tragedy

  • Why!

    Why not fly the mirror route, a great circle from AMS to KUL overflying Africa?

  • Romeo Bravo

    yes it does but overflying Libya, Sudan and Erythrea doesn’t sound like a good idea either.

    • Mchl

      Ummm… no. For any two points on a sphere there is only one great circle that contains both of them. Once again: look at the globe… or maybe take an orange, mark two points on the surface, then see if you can cut it into two equal halves in more than one way.

  • Guest

    Ukrainian authorities had information about 9M310 launcher which was grabbed by “pro-russian separatists” in June 2014 (not July!).This authorities were able to ban all civilian flights at all flight levels over area of conflict since moment when “separatist” grabbed armament of Ukrainian air-defense military unit ( Jun 29, 2014).Ukrainian aviation authorities could issue NOTAM and close airspace over territory,captured by “separatists” for civilian flights. Instead of this procurator-general of Ukraine Vitali Yarema declared that grabbed launcher was broken. And nobody will know why Ukrainian authorities had been waiting for eighteen days.